Parenthood Made Me Drop A Huge Part Of My Identity. Here's Why That's OK

It was Amazon Prime that brought me to a very dark realization: I am an environmental terrorist.

Or at least that’s what it felt like.

I had ordered a two-pack of sippy cups a few nights prior, and like online shopping magic, that smile on the cardboard box greeted me at my doorstep. I had become very familiar with that cheerful logo since my second daughter was born. Let’s just say sniffing my milk-streaked nursing top to see if a stain was butternut squash or baby poop was not a one-time thing, so a Target run was just not happening as I adjusted to life under the tyranny joy of two kids. Instead, I clicked “buy” on one thing or another nearly every day, which created a stream of deliveries so steady that I came to know our UPS guy by name. (Hi, Dave!)

I opened this one to find a few plastic Elmo cups surrounded by enough air-filled plastic film to choke several dozen sea turtles. I took a photo of the excessive packaging and sent it, outraged, to Amazon. But my indignation was just so much bubble wrap around a deeper feeling of shame. I had just brought another baby into the world—a world I was spoiling every day.

I used to be an eco-overachiever: I composted—in a yard can, in a worm bin when my apartment had no outdoor access, even on the patio behind the Harlem brownstone my husband and I rented. I brought Tupperware to restaurants to cart home my leftovers. Friends knew me as the crunchy, quirky one who would turn an orphaned sock into a cleaning rag rather than throw out something that could be repurposed.

Whereas I used to agonize over saving water and electricity, these days I’m more concerned about other resources—namely, time and MY energy.

All that changed when my first daughter, Edie, was born three years ago. I had hoped to use cloth diapers but instead populated landfills with the generic Costco ones. I tried to feed her organic cherries and green beans from the farmer’s market, but she ate just as much Gerber as anything. I struggled under the prime directive of, you know, not letting her die; I figured I could cut a few eco corners in the interest of that greater good.

I grew up in a time when the other three Rs—reduce, reuse, recycle—were just as important as the original ones—reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. (Yeah, I always thought that was a cheat, too.) In elementary school we learned about chlorofluorocarbons, endangered species, and the ozone layer. I hung out at my hometown’s college football games collecting empty bottles and cans to recycle.

When I got older, my awareness matured, too. I studied climate change in graduate school (and got very depressed). My husband and I wanted kids but agreed on zero population growth: We’d definitely stop at two. But zero population growth does not equal zero impact, no matter how many reusable squeezie pouches you fill.

With the exhaustion of caring for one baby, who grew into a preschooler and then an older sister to a new baby, I find my capability to do just about anything dwindle. Whereas I used to agonize over saving water and electricity, these days I’m more concerned about other resources—namely, time and my energy. So I use paper towels to wipe up the Dexter-like splatters of spaghetti sauce on the wall, I let the shower water run down the drain instead of saving it in buckets to flush the toilet, and I roll in a non-hybrid crossover (at least until we upgrade to a minivan—unironically).

As my identity shifted from simply Woman to Mother, it also adapted from environmentally conscious champion to please-give-us-extra-ketchup-packets-with-that-takeout.

I don’t have the time to shop local, I reason. How can I remember my reusable bags when I was up with the baby six times last night? I wonder. Making my own household cleaners isn’t that crucial, I justify. But at the heart of it, what’s more important than protecting the future of my children’s planet?

I did eventually switch to cloth diapers, but I still find myself left out of the green crowd, especially in uber-eco Portland—where moms squeeze carseats into Leafs and take their kids to homeopathic pediatricians. I watch those vegan leather-wearing, attachment parenting-espousing moms at the park pushing their kids on the swings and letting their children paint themselves in mud. (“Research shows that playing in dirt boosts their immunity,” I imagine them saying as their friends nod knowingly.) But I do not use essential oils on myself or my girls. I order overly packaged ingredients from those dinner delivery services. I did not buy the $400 non-VOC organic cotton mattress for my kids. (Membership to the cool green mom club: DENIED.) So as my identity shifted from simply woman to mother, it also adapted from environmentally conscious champion to please give us extra ketchup packets with that takeout.

Sometimes I imagine those park moms giving me the side-eye. Is it because I passed my girls Goldfish (not organic cheddar bunnies), and in a Ziplock bag no less? Is it because I’m drinking a Starbucks venti from a disposable cup? Or maybe I’m reading too much into it and it’s because my preschooler just knocked over their hemp overalls-wearing toddlers. (Sorry!)

Or maybe it’s because I’m judging myself.

The internet is awash in articles on mommy guilt. I try not to beat myself up when I forget to take a picture of my daughter’s first day of preschool or when I yell because my baby just smeared poop on the wall. I’ve struggled, though, to be more forgiving of my eco transgressions.

You know what the future needs even less than more coal power plants? Two more anxious, self-flagellating young women who are so wound up figuring out how to recycle a Pringle’s can that they forget to appreciate the beautiful world we live in.

Perhaps it’s time to raise the white flag on my green expectations. I will never be the perfect planet-friendly mom. But I can be the mom who tries. The mom who cares. The mom who is gentle with herself when she orders Safeway delivery instead of hitting the farmer’s market. Again.

Because my girls are watching. They see when I recycle cans and pick up a plastic bag caught in a bush. But they also see when I mutter “Ugh, mom of the year” when serving store-bought fish sticks for lunch. And you know what the future needs even less than more coal power plants? Two more anxious, self-flagellating young women who are so wound up figuring out how to recycle a Pringle’s can that they forget to appreciate the beautiful world we live in.

It turns out there’s one good thing about my continued sleep deprivation and ever-growing list of to dos: I am now very, very good at tuning out the noise. That helps when I’m sending a work email with a one-year-old hanging on my leggings and when I’m bombarded with ads for cloth snack baggies and wooden rattles. Buying more stuff, even if it’s sustainably produced, is not the answer to the specter of climate change.

So just like I focus to prep dinner while make-believing I’m my daughter’s Prince Charming, I hone in on what I can actually control with climate change. I can’t stem the rising sea, but I can make sure my girls help me sort the recycling. I can’t clean up the mega whirlpool of plastic in the Pacific Ocean, but my girls and I can pick up garbage when we walk the dog. I can’t stop historic droughts, but I can explain why we take shallow baths, let mellow yellow in the toilet, and turn off the tap when brushing teeth.

I no longer have the energy—physical or mental—to read every news article about melting ice caps. But just maybe that’s OK, since I’m still directing my efforts to improving our future the best way I know how: raising my daughters to care about the environment. In the grand scheme of things, bringing up emotionally mature, empathetic, kind, strong-willed leaders will do more for the good of the planet’s future than my rinsing, drying, and recycling cling wrap.

When my girls get a little older, I’ll have a bit more time—to take up composting again, say, or even lobby my town to start a green bin program. In the meantime, I’ll protect my own resources just as I dreamed of protecting cheetahs and pandas. And when I do get a spare afternoon, sorry: I won’t spend it turning our millions of solo socks into dust rags. I’ll grab my girls and head outside. Together, we’ll poke sticks in mud puddles, search the trees for drowsy owls, and chuck rocks into the river. In short, we’ll make the most of today on this beautiful planet Earth.

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