“I am a mean bergen,” my daughter says, with a mischievous grin, “and each bite I eat is a troll. Will you make them scream and plead for their lives as I eat them?”
My 4-year-old is enjoying a dinner of stir-fried broccoli, carrots, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, snow peas, mukimame, cashews, vegan protein strips, brown rice and teriyaki sauce.
Some families play airplane or choo choo train to get their kids to eat. I am #blessed with the least picky kid ever, but she does love to play with her food.
My daughter is vegan, as are my husband and I, and she’s play-acting the movie Trolls, where bergens are human-like monsters who think they have to eat cute little troll doll characters in order to be happy.
She instructs me:
“DJ Suki would be like, ‘I just want to spin some tunes — OH NO!’
And Guy Diamond always sings, so he should sing ‘Heeeeeeelp!’ as I eat him.”
The movie has a happy ending. One bergen realizes that trolls have feelings; she speaks up to the other bergens, and she convinces them all not to eat trolls anymore.
Mostly my kid wants us parents to be the bergens. Then she tells us she’s not going to let us eat her friends, and she tries different tactics to convince us to go vegan — err, I mean, to not eat trolls. But sometimes, when she wants to explore her darker side, she’s the bergen.
Some of our friends literally eat their pets
“Some of the sheep are about to give birth,” a mom friend told me last week. Her kid (the human kind) and my kid adore each other. They play superheroes at the library playgroup I run, and they color pictures to gift to each other. We’ve been meaning to get them together for a playdate.
“Aw, babies! How exciting!
“We can let you know when they’re born, if you’d like to come see them.”
“Thank you. We would love to see baby lambs. That sounds adorable!”
“Oh, but, you’re vegetarian, right?”
“Oh… well… I mean… well… we won’t be eating the lambs while you’re there.”
Is my family weird or is the world weird?
“Everything’s relative” is probably the thing I say most to my kid (second only to “Do you have to go potty?”) And it’s true. Weird is a matter of perspective.
My perspective is a pig at a slaughterhouse is as deserving of love as the dog who’s currently asleep on my legs. So it’s really hard to fit in my head that almost everyone I know is casually harming sentient beings (or through their consumer choices, paying for animals to be harmed) every single day.
And it’s honestly challenging — and I constantly question if I’m doing it right— to teach my kid to respectfully share meals with people who are eating animals, while also teaching her to be an ally to underdogs everywhere.
I feel like the ally lesson comes off as disingenuous, because we are constantly witness to our friends supporting animal cruelty, and pretty much the only thing we’re doing to stop it is to personally live as vegans.
If someone was hitting their kid in front of us, or kicking their dog, my husband and I would step in. We step in when a kid is tickling or hugging another kid without checking in. In every case except for eating animals, we model for her that you always step in if someone is hurting someone else or touching without consent. We don’t treat it as a matter of personal choice, because the choice is negating someone else’s choice.
And yet, when it comes to eating animals, we don’t step in. And with our silence, we model for her that we tolerate it, that — at least when we’re around our friends — we accept it. Is there a better way?
She knows most of her friends eat dead animals and breast milk from mama cows.
She knows we don’t. And she’s happy being vegan; she doesn’t want to eat animal products.
When I first went vegan, that’s what I dreamed of — I would raise my kid vegan, and when that kid got old enough to understand, they’d choose it for themselves. (Yes, I know she’s still young and could change her mind.) So on one hand, hooray!
But on the other hand, I want to give her a kinder world. And, if I can’t do that, I at least want to give her the tools to challenge not just injustice against humans, but all injustice, against all beings. Figuring out how to do that is overwhelmingly difficult, in this non-vegan world.
Some studies suggest vegans and other vegetarians have higher rates of depression.
Hal Herzog Ph.D.’s Psychology Today article, A Strange Relationship Between Vegetarianism and Depression, summarized 8 peer-reviewed papers that showed vegetarians had more depression. But there were also 3 papers showing no difference or suggesting vegetarians actually had less stress, anxiety or depression.
From my perspective, there’s an immediate mental benefit to eschewing animal products. You can clear your head of cognitive dissonance, can look at all life in a new way, say to every animal you meet, “Don’t worry; I won’t hurt you.” There is a lot of peace in this.
At the same time, you’ve gone vegan, but you’re still living in a non-vegan world. You have this new mindset, and you assume if you explain it the right way, people will understand. But, mostly, they don’t. So now you’re dealing with a new understanding of cruelty, and you also have to somehow handle your friends and family supporting that cruelty (and possibly treating you like you’re crazy and annoying).
As a possible explanation for the studies showing increased depression rates among vegetarians, the Psychology Today article quotes Lori Marino, executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy: “vegetarians and vegans are more aware of the cruelties of the world and this is more depressing than living in a state of ignorant bliss.”
Psychologist Clare Mann published a book in 2018 about just this: Vystopia: the anguish of being vegan in a non-vegan world. She invented the word vystopia, a play on dystopia, for this feeling all vegans instantly recognize:
1. Existential crisis experienced by vegans, arising out of an awareness of the trance-like collusion with a dystopian world.
2. Awareness of the greed, ubiquitous animal exploitation, and speciesism in a modern dystopia.
It’s not the veganism that’s depressing; it’s the non-vegan world. Being vegan in a vegan world would be amazing (and not just because there would be vegan doughnuts on every corner).
Should I take my kid to meet the newborn lambs?
She’d love it. But then she’d ask about them, about when we’d get to see them again. When asked to list her best friends, she mostly names every cat and dog she’s ever met.
If I tell her the truth, tell her that her friend ate them, what is she supposed to do with that information?
This is why she pretends to be a bergen, why she names her snow peas and her grains of rice before she eats them. She’s gotta deal somehow.
When my vegan kid gets together with other vegan kids
The pure joy of being understood:
A gaggle of vegan toddlers:
“Are you vegan?”
“Yes. Are you vegan?”
“Yes. Are you vegan?”
“Yes. Mama, they’re vegan like me!”
And then they just play. She loves to play with all her friends, but there’s an added level here. It’s what I felt when I was a kid and I hung out with my Jewish friends:
I don’t have to hide around you. I can just be me.