The other day, C was reading this article about bringing children up as vegetarians. He read much of it out, getting annoyed about the mother who was forcing her children to be vegetarian and the father who was too weak to stand up for his omnivorous principles to insist on a different way. As he was reading snippets of it out he was clearly expecting me to be equally offended, but I was sitting there thinking ‘Do you actually know who you are talking to?’.
I am a third-generation vegetarian. My grandparents became vegetarian after the war, initially because it was easier during times of rationing, but continuing for ethical reasons. My mother and all three of her sisters were brought up vegetarian (and atheist) in days when no-one understood what it meant. And all of them brought their children up to be vegetarian, one of them going further and becoming vegan and bringing her son up as a vegan.
I always assumed that my children would be fourth-generation vegetarians. Never did I picture myself as a mum to someone bolting down ham sandwiches and roast chicken. Never did I picture myself (after the trials of shared accommodation) having meat in my house. My father and all my uncles gave up meat at home (none of them gave it up entirely and would sneak a bacon butty when out at the pub), so of course anyone I married would do the same.
So how has it come to pass that my fridge often contains meat and fish? Why are there cans of tuna in the cupboard and packets of chorizo sitting next to the olive oil? Because, as has to happen occasionally in any relationship, there had to be a compromise. And I lost this one. The first time C came to visit me in my studio flat in the wilds of Barton, Oxford, he brought pizza. Pizza with pepperoni on it. To my ‘You can’t bring that in here. I won’t have meat in my house,’ he responded, ‘It’s just pizza! It’s not going to contaminate you,’ and when I tried to insist, he offered to go home. Love-sick twenty-something that I was, I demurred and let him have his pizza and cook it in my oven.
And there was my first mistake. As with dealing with toddlers and teenagers, if you show any sign of weakness, you become open to manipulation… sorry, I mean being the compromiser instead of the compromisee. My previous partner had been the one to show the weakness and I’d had four years of blissful meat-free living, only having to be in its presence in restaurants. Suddenly, I met someone who could hold his own and who could see that I would give in so as to be with him.
Despite spending years living with him and his omnivorous ways, for some reason I still assumed that our children would be brought up vegetarian. When we got engaged, there were things we had to discuss. Things like where we would get married, and how we would bring our children up. At this point I discovered that he was fairly determined that any children would not be brought up vegetarian and that, despite being completely unreligious, he wanted to get married in a church. These were two things that seemed to me like deal-breakers. When I told my mother and aunt one day, they were shocked. ‘What are you going to do?’ they asked. And the answer was that we would find some kind of compromise. Because I didn’t want to not marry him.
We got married in a registry office and R is being brought up as an omnivore. And I have gradually become more and more happy with this decision, to the point where I will stand up for it when talking to other vegetarians who question my principles. The theory is that R will have tasted meat and fish and will therefore have experienced it by the time she is old enough to decide for herself whether she wants to eat it or not. She will also have tasted and experience plenty of delicious vegetarian food and will know about nutrition and so on. For the moment, all she knows is that Mummy doesn’t eat meat or fish. Occasionally we’ll say ‘Mummy doesn’t eat meat because she’s vegetarian.’ But it won’t be until she’s a bit older and able to properly understand the relationship between the beef on the table and the cute cow in the field, that she it will be explained to her why Mummy doesn’t eat meat.
Whereas the mother in the article is keeping her children vegetarian until they can understand the implications of eating meat and decide for themselves that they actually want to eat meat, we are waiting for her to be old enough to understand the same implications, but to decide if she wants to give it up.
I never had a choice. I was always told that I could eat meat at school or at friends’ houses if I wanted to, but could not eat it at home (only the cats were allowed to eat meat in our house). While I did try some fish fingers and some fish once, I had never had the opportunity to gradually develop a taste for meat and fish, so it always tasted disgusting. Most fish makes me feel sick, as does roast chicken and other stronger smelling meats. I never had the opportunity to decide that, yes, I enjoyed the taste, but I wanted to give it up because I thought it was ethically wrong. I tried going vegan for ethical reasons and lasted four months. It’s quite possible that I would have done the same with vegetarianism if I hadn’t been one from birth.
I am very happy to have been brought up meat-free and am proud to be a third-generation vegetarian. But I have come to realise that bringing up a fourth-generation vegetarian isn’t necessarily that important. There are other ways to do things and by flooding R with delicious vegetarian food (much of made by C, who has compromised a lot himself and happily cooks and eats vegetarian food these days), if she does decide to follow in my footsteps, she’ll know that she can do so and still have a healthy and extremely satisfying diet.
What have you had to compromise on, or is your other half the main compromisee?