Failed Eco-Mum

Three years ago I was entering the 3rd trimester with my first child. I aspired to be an eco- mum – a parent striving to minimise the environmental impact of my family. One of my oldest friends had given me a huge collection of second-hand reusable nappies that she had used. I had just finished carefully washing them and hung them out to dry in the sun.

I have spent my entire working career as a researcher and campaigner in the sustainability sector. I have spent my adult life trying to minimise the environmental impact I have – not just carbon emissions, but waste. I knew the facts. Around 8 million disposable nappies are thrown away each day. A large proportion end up in landfill and take hundreds of years to degrade. Not only that, their manufacture has a huge environmental footprint.

I was going to do this.

A few months later in early September, the day came when I went into labour. Far from the, drug-free water birth I had imagined, my birth experience was traumatic. After 48 hours of agonising pain that I have never experienced before and hope will never have to experience again (she was back to back) I was one push away from having an emergency c-section. You can’t just breathe through that.

Already my idea of what parenting was going to be like was turned upside down.

Anyone who has watched the 3rd series of the BBC comedy ‘Mum’ will have scoffed at the character Kelly’s comments about her expectation as a mother. She contemplates doing a few courses and getting a puppy. She’s got to do something whilst the baby sleeps. Right? Yet this was me, and as it turns out, most of the mothers I know. For some reason, we had some wildly unreaslistic idea of what it was like to be a parent.

I came home with my daughter an exhausted, emotional wreck. First I had been through the trauma of a birth gone wrong. I then had to suddenly get my head round the fact that I was now responsible for a tiny baby. All those NCT ante-natal classes had not prepared me one bit. It really hadn’t occurred to me how little sleep I would get for that first year. Breastfeeding was not easy. My tiny daughter would not be put down. And even when she did drift off to sleep, and I managed to put her in her Moses basket, I couldn’t sleep. Terrified that she would stop breathing.

So those reusable nappies that I had so carefully washed, dried, and folded remained untouched. I had rationalised that using eco-disposable nappies was the next best thing and once things calmed down a bit, I’d go back to the original plan. But I didn’t.

Finally, 10 months later, when I had found out I was pregnant again, and this time with twins, my husband begged me to pack them up and put them away. If we hadn’t used them for our singleton child, there was no way we were going to use them for twins. We ended up sending the whole lot to another friend who was, like me, 3 years ago, entering the 3rd trimester of her first pregnancy and was determined to go the reusable nappy route.

All of this got me thinking – why is it so hard to be an eco-mum? The sad fact is that being an eco-mum is an exception rather than a rule. And to be clear, this isn’t about shaming those that aren’t or idolising those that are – we are all doing our best.

I want to know, how do those that have been successful in minimising the environmental impact of having a child do it? What compromises do they have to make? Is it true that eco-baby products cost more? Is it just that the upfront costs are more or are products simply more expensive? Why are they more expensive, and what is being done to bring down the costs? Why can’t the main brands and supermarkets manufacture more sustainable products?

Take this example. How is it that Aldi can produce non-eco disposable nappies at 79p for 24 newborn nappies compared to £5.49 for 23 newborn nappies from Moltex (the eco-nappy brand I used)? Is there any research being done to mainstream eco-nappies. And how ‘eco’ are they anyway?

And it’s not just about nappies. It’s about everything that we buy. The plastic plates, cups, bowls, cutlery, bottles, toys. The clothes. The special organic, extra sensitive, paraben free etc. baby shampoo. Basically, all the other ‘stuff’ that we either need or are told we need. There are countless websites and Facebook groups that are set up to re-sell used baby products. What can we reuse, and what should we avoid? And if we can’t reuse them, what is the best thing to do with it.

But there is a bigger issue about socialising environmentalism. I have a hunch (and I will get to the bottom of this I hope) that eco-products are marketed to the middle-classes with incomes as disposable as the nappies they buy. And, often there is also a time cost. As a parent of 3 under 3 my life is about convenience. I will do anything to make life just a little bit easier. Yet, this also seems to mean that my environmental footprint has grown, and with it, my daily guilt of how utterly helpless I am at contradicting my pre-child ideals. As a parent striving to reduce my environmental footprint, being time and cash rich seems to be the only way to do it. And, that, I am not.

Of course there are bigger questions about how environmentalism is framed socially, culturally and within policy (I hope to be able to write about some of the research on this over time). Despite what Instagram would have you believe, we can’t shop our way out of environmental catastrophe and the emphasis of the consumer as the one solely responsible for change is misguided, leaves consumers feeling helpless, unengaged and unmotivated. It also shifts attention and responsibility away from the manufacturers.

With 3 under 3 and horrendous childcare costs in the UK (this of course is another story), I have had to give up my research career – for now at least – and focus on looking after my children. And while of course I will look back on this time and think, how lucky I am to have spent the early years with them all, I also am desperate to do something. So for the foreseeable future, the Magic Bullet blog will focus on my journey as a self-confessed failed eco-mum.

 

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