Crib Sheet: Green Parents and Earth Mothers

Glosswitch reads parenting manuals so you don't have to.

 

If you’re out to destroy the world but haven’t yet stockpiled the weaponry, the next best thing you can do is reproduce. This is particularly effective if you live in a country such as the UK – even if these days we manufacture little else, we’re still good at producing CO2. And yes, you may be thinking “I’d blame it all on rich people with their multiple cars and jet planes and whatnot”. Or “people in the US and China are worse”. Or “I do my recycling, I bet George ‘disabled bay’ Osborne doesn’t”. If so, I’m reluctant to contradict you because I have a habit of thinking that, too.

Being urged to worry more about the environment tends to make me think “stuff it, we’ve all got to die sometime and perhaps then poor old Earth’ll get something cool like the dinosaurs again”. It’s not just me who does that, right? But that, as we all know, isn’t good enough. What about the next generation of consumers? The next generation with its mountains of disposable nappies and plastic junk from ToysRUs? Shouldn’t they at least be left with a bit of world to destroy all by themselves? Frankly, it seems mean to deny them one last trample over the non-consumers, those who happened to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time because hey, life’s just like that. 

I bought a copy of The Green Parent magazine for two reasons: One, I quite fancied making the patchwork pouffe on page 47 and two, I am the kind of idiot who parts with £3.95 in order to be lectured on harmony, sustainability and what to buy next. To be fair, it’s not a thing I’d usually do. I’ve never been particularly drawn to green parenting, not just because it’s a contradiction in terms (if you’re so green don’t be a bloody parent), but because it always seems to come back to one thing: reusable nappies. Yes, I’ve dabbled with a bit of terrycloth myself, and yes, it wasn’t all bad (washing cycles break up the endless expanses of time). But still, that’s a hell of a lot of washing for something so supposedly virtuous (I used a machine, although I guess I could have strapped my infant to my back and headed to the nearest lake with a stone and washboard, which is no doubt what the eco-mummies of Islington do). But even if washing is better than throwing away, big sodding deal. So I didn’t succumb to the lure of Pampers (at least until weaning started). I still added a whole new person and all their literal and metaphorical shit to an overcrowded planet, so a bit of perspective, please.  

I realise it’s easy to take potshots at the eco-parenting scene. After all, Viz have done it for years with Modern Parents Malcolm and Cressida, while Private Eye manage to combine it with casual homophobia in their It’s Grim Up North London strip. The fact that my kids know their way around a McDonald’s menu ought to make me more, not less, subject to criticism. And yet I have real issues with the way being a better person – and a better parent – is sold to us. It’s ironic that while being green ought to – and frequently is – to do with giving a toss about humanity as a whole, it’s so often associated with privilege and self-indulgence. It’s Bono and Sting telling us the earth is dying in-between transatlantic flights. It’s Jessica Alba pushing her new range of organic, free-from-vague-but-evil-chemicals baby products.  And yes, it’s a magazine like The Green Parent, with its adverts for “alternative” boarding schools and babywearing conferences and its recommendation that you purchase an old caravan for the massive back garden you obviously have and deck it out in “granny chic”. It’s not that the consumerism alone is worse than anything you’d find in Mother & Baby or Practical Parenting. I just expect it to be better. After all, if it can’t be better, where does that leave us?

I’m sure, if I had the time and money, I’d be able to unleash my inner earth mother. I’m partial to aromatherapy oils. I wouldn’t mind a holiday in a yurt. Hell, I’ve already given birth without pain relief (not that I’m showing off, except obviously I am, just like the woman on page 22 who “casually” drops in that detail while describing her baby’s lotus birth). The trouble is, there’s an uncomfortable slippage between privilege and virtue, between actual generosity of spirit and empathy as fashion statement. It reminds me of volunteering as a breastfeeding peer supporter. I wasn’t a very good one, but others were, yet the act of supporting other women for nothing in return – such a valuable thing – occasionally seemed to be rated no more highly than arriving for a session wearing the right baby sling (mine wasn’t approved of because it had plastic clips. The more rudimentary and Krypton-Factor complex your sling is, the better a mother  and human being you are). It was as though the more “natural” your privileged existence appeared to be, the less wasteful and selfish it was – but that’s not always true.

If they are to mean anything, green parenting and politics have to be tied to the acknowledgement of enormous global inequality and with this the recognition that if you’re the type of person who spends £3.95 on a lifestyle magazine there’s blood on your hands that can’t be washed off with a home-made scrub (even one that doesn’t contain any of the “harsh chemicals and dozens of questionable ingredients” to be found in shop-bought varieties). It’s valuable that The Green Parent donates an (unspecified) percentage of its profits to charities. I have no beef (or quorn) with articles on touchy-feely parenting or recipes for wild mushroom, ginger and minted Brussels pho show. But I worry that an undue focus on “keeping it real” – the same focus which drives IDS to say he’s been “on the breadline” or Sarah Ferguson/Christina Aguilera/January Jones etc. to claim they speak for “single working mothers” –  masks the chasms between us. Fetishizing and/or claiming affinity with other, less planet-wrecking cultures just because you’re using the same style of swaddling is at best patronizing, at worst dehumanizing. Moreover, preaching the virtues of reducing one’s electricity consumption or using terry nappies presumes a) your electricity hasn’t been cut off anyhow and b) you don’t require a payday loan for the initial outlay which then allows you to make that cost- and world-saving choice. We’re not all in this together and that’s one of the challenges of promoting environmentalism without being on dodgy moral ground the minute you start to speak.

As for me, I can’t un-have my children (nor would I wish to), but I should seriously cut down on their Happy Meal consumption. And the rest? I can’t help feeling if you want to save the world, there are better places to start than with an eco-pouffe but sod it, I’ve got the leftover courdroy and I’m making it. But rest assured I’ll sort the recycling first.  

Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Photo: Getty
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If only I could wangle a job in the John Lewis menswear department I’d get to say, “Suits you, sir”

I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

So now that I have made the news public that I am even deeper in the soup than I was when I started this column, various people – in fact, a far greater number than I had dared hope would – have expressed their support. Most notable, as far as I can tell, was Philip Pullman’s. That was decent of him. But the good wishes of people less in the public eye are just as warming to the heart.

Meanwhile, the question is still nagging away at me: what are you going to do now? This was the question my mother’s sisters would always ask her when a show she was in closed, and my gig might have been running for almost as long as The Mousetrap but hitherto the parallels with entertainment had eluded me.

“That’s show business,” she said to me, and for some reason that, too, is a useful comment. (I once saw a picture of a fairly well-known writer for page and screen dressed up, for a fancy-dress party, as a hot dog. The caption ran: “What? And give up show business?”)

Anyway, the funds dwindle, although I am busy enough to find that time does not weigh too heavily on my hands. The problem is that this work has either already been paid for or else is some way off being paid for, if ever, and there is little fat in the bank account. So I am intrigued when word reaches me, via the Estranged Wife, that another family member, who perhaps would prefer not to be identified, suggests that I retrain as a member of the shopfloor staff in the menswear department of John Lewis.

At first I thought something had gone wrong with my hearing. But the E W continued. The person who had made the suggestion had gone on to say that I was fairly dapper, could talk posh, and had the bearing, when it suited me, of a gentleman.

I have now thought rather a lot about this idea and I must admit that it has enormous appeal. I can just see myself. “Not the checked jacket, sir. It does not become sir. May I suggest the heather-mixture with the faint red stripe?”

In the hallowed portals of Jean Louis (to be said in a French accent), as I have learned to call it, my silver locks would add an air of gravitas, instead of being a sign of superannuation, and an invitation to scorn. I would also get an enormous amount of amusement from saying “Walk this way” and “Suits you, sir”.

Then there are the considerable benefits of working for the John Lewis Partnership itself. There is the famed annual bonus; a pension; a discount after three months’ employment; paid holiday leave; et cetera, et cetera, not to mention the camaraderie of my fellow workers. I have worked too long alone, and spend too much time writing in bed, nude, surrounded by empty packets of Frazzles and Dinky Deckers. (For those who are unfamiliar with the latter, a Dinky Decker is a miniature version of a Double Decker, which comes in a bag, cunningly placed by the tills of Sainsbury’s Locals, which is usually priced at a very competitive £1.)

I do some research. I learn from an independent website that a retail sales assistant can expect to make £7.91 an hour on average. This is somewhat less than what is considered the living wage in London, but maybe this is accounted for in the John Lewis flagship store in Oxford Street. It is, though, a full 6p an hour more than the living wage in the rest of the land. Let the good times roll!

At which point a sudden panic assails me: what if employment at that store is only granted to those of long and proven service? God, they might send me out to Brent Cross or somewhere. I don’t think I could stand that. I remember when Brent Cross Shopping Centre opened and thought to myself, even as a child, that this was my idea of hell. (It still is, though my concept of hell has broadened to include Westfield in Shepherd’s Bush.)

But, alas, I fear this tempting change of career is not to be. For one thing, I am probably too old to train now. By the time I will have been taught to everyone’s satisfaction how to operate a till or measure an inside leg, I will be only a few months, if that, from retirement age, and I doubt that even so liberal an employer as John Lewis would be willing to invest in someone so close to the finish line.

Also, I have a nasty feeling that it’s not all heather-mixture suits with (or without) the faint red stripe these days. The public demands other, less tasteful apparel.

So I’m afraid I am going to have to stick to writing.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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