When I was a young child, I was poor. I mean, poor-poor. Welfare-poor.
Thus, when the study “More Work for Mother: Chemical Body Burdens as a Maternal Responsibility” crossed my desk this week, I knew it was the most important study I had seen all year. Not because it told me anything new, but because it began to quantify something so essential it is at the heart of human health. Okay, I know, those are big, grand words, but bear with me…
The study says that most women know that environmental toxins enter their bodies —lead, pesticides, flame retardants—and their children’s bodies and have the potential to cause harm, especially to their growing children and to their own fertility. And, most mothers do what they can to mediate those effects. Poor mothers, however, are unable to do much.
The authors use the term “precautionary consumption” to explain how parents try “to mediate their children’s exposure to chemicals found in food, consumer products, and the home.” Mothers, then, become the first line of defence—and often, the only line of defence—against the toxins we are are routiney exposed to from air, water, food, and consumer products. Perhaps, the most troubling conclusions of the study are that these women felt that this was their responsibility and thus women “without financial resources, time, and family stability are pushed to the margins of normative motherhood.” In other words, women who are unable to become the green police are all of the sudden “bad mothers.”
My story of growing up poor
Part of why I find this study so moving is because of my own life experience. I grew up poor in America. The kind of poor that meant we received Welfare, ate boxes of food that the government gave us, and lived in subsidized housing in ghettos where everyone around us was also poor. Being poor back in those days had some distinct advantages to being poor now. Food and homes were actually less contaminated with environmental poisons for one—we are actively producing thousands of new chemicals every year that can end up in consumer products in a matter of weeks with limited safety testing. The other difference is, at least in my experience, issues with gang violence were less and child-on-child gun violence was rare. When I was young, we actually played outside on the streets, I was the only white kid I ever knew who learned how to skip double-dutch. This may seem beside the point, but it isn’t. My research suggests that outdoor play time can be a curative for much of what ails children these days, but many poor families simply are not safe going outside anymore. (It’s a no-win, they aren’t safe inside and they aren’t safe outside.)
In my experience, being poor in North America is like signing up for some big social experiment where you know the outcome. You are fed the worst foods, forced into compliance around every sort of vaccination and “in your best interest” medical scheme (in my case that included allergy shots, tooth sealants, and loads of “academic” testing), and assigned to schools based on the colour of your skin (in our case we were bussed almost an hour a day to a “whiter” urban school—remember, I was one of the only white kids in my neighbourhood). We know the outcome of being poor in North America: you die up to 10 years earlier, you are more likely to get cancer, diabetes, asthma. There are lots of other side-effects that are harder to quantify, but also plague the poor in my experience, things like addiction, depression, suicide, and divorce.
My mother was able to mitigate some of the issues with our early childhood experiences: she planted a garden in the abandoned lot next to our house (the one and only garden anywhere in our neighbourhood), she didn’t let us eat sugary foods (which was impossible to totally avoid when on food stamps) or let us drink soda, and she made us go outside and play. Most importantly, my mom also put herself through university and got a degree which led to a job which led to us entering the working class.
Even from there, it wasn’t all happy endings: my siblings have spent far more time in poverty than in the working class, we have all suffered from health issues that I attribute to the challenges of our early life, and my siblings especially have struggled with the other plagues of poverty. And, then, somehow we are all supposed to help our children not fall into the same traps. Not only does it not feel like there is any help left for the most vulnerable, it sometimes seems that our society is actively engaged in telling us that things just aren’t that bad, despite research and experience to the opposite. If in rehab, admitting the problem is the first step, we as a society seem far from taking our first steps.
When are we going to stop blaming mom?
A Harvard study found that kids whose typical daily exposures were among the highest were twice as likely to have ADHD. There is research linking pesticide exposures in children to a slew of health effects, including lower IQs, birth defects, neurological disorders, hormonal system disruptions, brain cancer, and leukemia. On the positive note, children who eat primarily organic produce have one-sixth the levels of pesticide by-products in their urine compared with children who eat conventional produce, according to a study by the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine.
We may know that red, waxy, conventional apple is suspicious with its possible residue from one or more of the 42 pesticides used, but our kids are hungry now. Parents are left to do their own research, go the extra distance to the farmers’ market, and pay the extra money for the same items grown organically. It is worth it to afford our children the extra protection, but it begs the question: Why isn’t it worth it to our governments, elected officials, and corporations to do the same?
Parenting today is hard, hard work as anyone parenting today knows. Indeed, according to many indicators it has never been so hard with a rise in attachment disorders, mental health issues in children, media use, sexualization of children, environmental toxins, and a new genre of (chronic) childhood diseases such as diabetes, asthma, ADHD, and autism. The MWM study suggests that parents feel responsible for protecting their children. Indeed, they seem to often internalize a culture of blame—as if it is a mom’s fault that the world has become so complicated. The media flames thjs shame with talks of mommy-wars, helicopter parenting, and extended breastfeeding. Is it any wonder, however, that parents are battered and confused? The more educated we get the more we realize the dangers to our children and our future. Parents want to protect their children: why, then, all the blame? Looking at the long list of chronic diseases that now plague childhood, it is hard not to see these as what they are: indicators of a people off track.
Parents are not the problem, but we may be part of the solution.
1. It would seem the first step to getting back on track, would be for us to admit there really is a problem. And, no that problem is not mom. Our children are under attack and mom’s feel that stress.
2. While we wait for the world to catch-up, we can begin to heal ourselves, by making sure we aren’t blaming ourselves, or wasting any energy for feeling guilty about the ways we have “messed up.” I learned quickly that if I was going to do research on all of these issues, that I had to get over how I used the wrong bottles, exposed them to mercury from eating too many of the wrong foods before I got pregnant, celebrated my pregnancy at the nail salon exposing us both to all sorts of VOCs. The list goes on and on. Yet, once I realized I could forgive myself, I was able to do more, change more, learn more, even care more.
3. The next thing we can do is come together as groups of parents and support each other. Share our success stories. Share our fears. And gently provide inspiration forward.
4. And, it is okay to turn that anger outward. Neuroscientists tell us that shame does not motivate positive change, but anger can—if parents get angry enough maybe our governments, corporations, and other leaders will start listening.
By Manda Aufochs Gillespie, The Green Mama. (I know these photos aren’t great, but they are part of the family archive and they make me nostalgic, so I have shared them.) If you want to get the backstory about why I wrote this blog, readings that inspired me, and more, sign up for my weekly webletter. (It’s safe, it’s awesome, and I don’t SPAM your inbox.)