Motherhood seems like a basically ecological undertaking. People who spend time feeding and nurturing the young can be expected to take an interest in keeping the food pure, the parks pleasant, and the air breathable. The very act of giving birth is itself all about recycling – moving the DNA of the forebears forward into the next generation. So it makes sense that many moms embrace the green movement, cutting waste and emissions to work toward sustainable ways of living.

But for some moms, however much they might wish that it were otherwise, going deep green feels next to impossible. Because they’re busy! I’m not talking about the ones who hustle through their days cooking, cleaning and composting – though I know some ladies who do just that. Those ladies (and a few gents) have the weekly soup simmering on the back burner and the specialité du jour on the table when the family sits down. But that’s a different kind of busy.

I’m talking about the moms with the 9 to 5, and the kids in the backseat at 6 wailing for a meal NOW! Those are the moms who bring home the Styrofoam so much more often than they (aka I) want to. And the plastic, and the metallic peel-off tops. Whose children’s bodies incorporate too many French Fries and hormone-heavy hamburgers. How many working parents’ families are sustained by the unsustainable? And is there a way out (besides quitting the job and living on roots and berries in the countryside)?

You know there is! And it’s not rocket science. It’s easy in concept – though it may be harder in actuality to break the bond with convenience (which is, after all, a kind of addiction).

In the packaging realm, the answer is simple: bring your own bin. If you can reuse a paper shopping bag, or carry your own cup to Starbucks, you can bring your own Tupperware to the burger shop. Yes it’s plastic, but you already have it. This behavior does require some planning – you have to have the bin clean and ready in the car when you get there, and you can’t go to the drive through—you have to park, walk in and hand your container to them when you order. So try it. If they won’t take your bin, you have to walk out. Find another shop where they’re not so hidebound. Given enough bin-waving customers, they’ll all adjust. In the meantime, it might help to think of it as an adventure on behalf of the planet. And your children’s sense of the importance of life’s details.

The harder part is relying less on the fast food to begin with, which either means buying more high-end take out (not an option for many, especially in recessionary times) or cooking it yourself. Which of course involves more than chopping and stewing – the shopping and the planning can double the time investment. Getting us all to the place where we make time to do this, and where we think it’s worthwhile, will involve a big cultural shift–to a Frenchified world where both employers and workers see food and family time as important. Of course this shift is well underway in the world of local farmers’ markets, cooking show fanaticism, and the slow food revolution.

This is not yet the world of the working moms I know however–and quite a few of the part-time or stay-home moms chose that route precisely because they wanted somebody to have time to do the cooking. This makes home cooking a luxury for the well off, and it means that for many the two sides of the “women’s work” spectrum — home arts and climbing the ladder in the paid work world, to a point where business policy might be reshaped — are directly opposed. Because time is limited.

But do they have to be opposed? I remember my own working mom poring over piles of cookbooks every Saturday planning the weekly menu and shop. Some weeks we’d get lots of spaghetti — but we also got a good variety of basic healthy vegetables and simple meat dishes, lots of casseroles in winter, and the occasional soufflé (not hard, once you’ve tried it a few times). Part of making it work is prioritizing cooking. And when there’s really no time for that, the other part is the bin in the car.

Working mom shopping co-ops could help — or websites with one week’s recipes with prefab shopping lists beside them (okay, I’m fantasizing here, and they’d all be good recipes with ingredients everyone in my family likes). Next step, getting the kids involved in the cooking –or in just making sure the bin is washed and ready to go in the morning. And there’s always the Crock Pot . . .

Related story: How Green Is Your Takeaway Container?


One thought on “Reader’s Question: Can Working Parents Go Green?

  • December 20, 2009 at 10:30 am

    Well said. This is just one of those instances where it pays to be inquisitive. I’ve discovered that my local spice shop will fill my glass containers directly for me so I don’t have to go home with plastic bags. The farmers at my local farmer’s market are happy to have plastic produce bags handed back to them immediately for reuse rather than taken away. Whole Foods doesn’t care what you put bulk supplies in so long as they’re properly labeled. And I always bring a plastic container when I dine out to take away the leftovers. When in doubt, do what your great-grandmother did!

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