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Can you combine a career, environmentalism, and parenting?

Updated: Feb 10, 2021

As regular readers and members of Ecowomen know, our organizational focus is formed from a Venn diagram of overlapping issue areas: women, careers, and the environment; thus, we post and blog about things covering various combinations of those three. Today, I want to talk about whether and how these aspects of our lives sometimes stop overlapping and start colliding.

We all know that work and parenting can be tough, and careers in the environmental space bring their own sets of challenges, but what happens when you add parenting to the mix? Are there ways in which one or another of these areas suffers?

(We are hoping to get some great stories from everyone in the comments!)

In some ways, having kids seems at first like a magical means for making mini-environmentalists, given that you have so much control over their enculturation and environment. Theoretically… In the early days… Ok never. Can someone explain to me why my fifteen year old son who has grown up in a house that religiously recycles, throws soda bottles in the trash? (Of course I mean Mexican CocaCola containers because we are hipsters – not Soda Stream bottles because we are not that hipster.)

For many parents, the first environmental challenge is the diaper issue, over which opinions differ, strongly (discuss in the comments!) Complicating matters, there are disposables that now come with ‘green’ claims, and arguments both pro and con in favor of cloth with respect to water consumption. The University of Minnesota Extension published a primer in 2013 that examined the issue and has this to say:

“Different studies have come up with entirely different conclusions on the relative “life-cycle” impact of various products, depending on assumptions, definitions, and perspectives of researchers. There is no clear answer as to which type of diaper is best for the environment over the total life cycle of the product. In the end, you are the only one who can weigh the importance of the various factors to you–and indeed, the importance of environmental consequences at all.”

It would probably help if there were at least a clear difference on cost, but again, there is not, with UM writing, “[i]t might seem at first glance that disposable diapers cost more than cloth ones. However, it really depends on whether you factor in the cost of your time.”

Factoring your time is probably key to the whole conundrum, this being something that women have not always been socialized to consider for domestic tasks. One of my regular soapboxes is about the ‘right to dry’ movement, which often makes spurious claims about how energy from the sun is ‘free!’ Except, of course, for the invisible labor it took to hang the clothes on the line in the first place, and how that labor is going to be 99% female. If you factor in the cost of your labor, using just about any rate you want, you will quickly discover that the cost of line drying may far exceed the cost of running the dryer, which is why people do it. Moreover, to return to my earlier point, if you are line drying your cloth diapers and factoring in your normal hourly rate, you may have a hard time justifying the environmental benefits, when juxtaposed to your time. I know I did.

Another area where people often feel particularly strongly is in feeding babies and children an all-organic diet. While there are more and more prepared organic products these days, the process of making your own baby food does not have to be complex, right? Just blend it up! Yet almost everyone I know gave up after a few tries. Again, the labor/time/benefit equation seems loaded against the environmental decision.

For working mothers, such decisions are often especially fraught. Food is nurturance, and you want your children to have the best options, but with full time work and commutes, there may not be as much time left for shopping, meal planning, cooking, and clean-up. At the same time, we recognized that food is an expression of one’s values, and it is hard to communicate a commitment to the environment if every night is takeout. (Just think about all those wasteful containers! Sigh.)

As a ‘behavior’ person I am often asked about consumer decision-making and residential household conduct, but because these issues intersect strongly with the invisible, emotional labor that women contribute, I personally lean in favor of tackling larger, systemic problems, and organizational/workplace behavior. This helps distribute the ‘cognitive burden’ of making pro-environmental decisions more evenly across the genders.

Here at Ecowomen, we are interested in serving as a place for supportive, constructive, discussion around such complex and thorny issues, and how they affect women at all points along their career trajectory. In order to do this, however, we need YOU to give us your opinion! Tell us in the comments which way you went on some of these parenting conundrums, and how did it work out for you? What are some that we overlooked?

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