I remember when I was newly pregnant with my first child. It was Christmas 2007 and I had just announced that I was four months pregnant at a Christmas party in my neighbourhood. Everyone was delighted, naturally, and I was basking in a sea of congratulations and well-wishes. Until (dun dun dun)… Out of the blue, a woman I hardly knew asked me if I was going to start eating meat now that I was pregnant. I hardly remember anything beyond the shock of having been asked such an unexpected question. It was the first time I realised that being a mother was going to be fraught with anxiety, worrying about whether my children are OK and blaming myself for anything that went wrong with them.
I’d done plenty of research, as you do when embarking on an undertaking as huge as nurturing a foetus and giving birth to a baby. I’d already lived as a vegetarian for 15 years before I became pregnant so whether to remain vegetarian while pregnant was not of the slightest concern. General nutrition, health and wellbeing during pregnancy are obviously important and there are certain nutrients that may be required at a slightly increased rate, for example calcium, folate and iron. However, eating meat was never something I considered.
After the baby was born we enrolled with Plunket and had regular visits from a Plunket nurse, a wonderful free service provided to all babies in New Zealand. The nurse weighed and measured the baby and monitored his health during the first months of his life. When he reached about four months, the nurse and I had a discussion about when to start the baby on solid food – and what that food should be.
If I hadn’t have had a certain strength of character, if I hadn’t been a vegetarian for so long, if I hadn’t thoroughly researched the nutritional needs of a baby, I might have let my Plunket nurse pressure me into feeding the baby meat. She was pretty insistent that it wouldn’t be good for my baby to “deprive” him of meat. Fortunately, I had recently found a local GP who was very competent, very reassuring and was also a vegetarian. I’ll never forget his words when I told him the Plunket nurse was worried about me raising my child as a vegetarian. “Tell your Plunket Nurse,” he said, “that vegetarianism is the way of the future. And she’s going to get left behind”. There was some truth to this, as by the time I had my second child, in 2010, Plunket was distributing pamphlets which included vegetarian options for babies!
Various surveys have shown one of the most common reasons for people fearing vegetarianism is they think their health will suffer if they don’t eat meat. Out of all the myths, this one has to be the easiest to disprove. Millions of vegetarians in the world are living proof that people are perfectly capable of living without meat.
Having children can be scary. We naturally worry about them, want to do what’s best for them and often feel insecure about our ability to parent. Proper nutrition is important for growing children, as it is for everyone. My advice for anyone worrying about bringing up their children without meat is to do plenty of your own research and don’t let ignorant people (and I mean that in the nicest possible way) scaremonger you into making unnecessary changes to the lifestyle you have chosen for your family.