When Mother Knows Best

A few months ago, I posted a message on my Facebook wall about the toxic chemicals I found in the baby wash of a well-known international brand that claims to be mild and gentle enough even for a newborn. The baby wash contained, among many other suspect ingredients, sodium laureth sulfate (a skin irritant), quaternium-15 (liquid form of formaldehyde and a cancer-causing agent), and “fragrance” (most likely containing glycol ethers and phthalates that cause reproductive disorders). Within minutes, I received alarming responses from friends who were also mothers asking me for more information about other chemicals to avoid and safe alternative products.

Interestingly, research has shown that in terms of demographics, females demonstrate more environmental concern than males. Perhaps it is because women can relate with gendered notions of the environment. We say “Mother Earth,” “Mother Nature” and “virgin forests.” Radical ecofeminists would say that women’s reproductive system seems to correspond to the cycles in nature and therefore makes them organically closer to nature. When I was younger, I thought that all women had their menstrual cycles at the same time because whenever someone says, “I have my period today,” another woman was bound to say, “Oh, me too!” A menstrual cycle not only has approximately the same length as a lunar cycle, but fertility periods also seem to follow the waxing and the waning of the moon. Early in my pregnancy, I attended an orientation given by a natural birth center here in Tokyo and the midwives shared their observation that the tides seem to affect when women give birth.

Developmental psychologists have observed that young girls learn at a very early age to be nurturing and relational even in their play. Women are guided by what psychologist Carol Gilligan calls the ethic of care. Because women are more relational, they tend to see a world of interconnections. As I elaborated in my previous article, this ability to “think in wholes” helps people acknowledge their interdependence with nature and see the link between environmental conditions and harm to humans.  From a social psychological perspective, women tend to be more environmentally conscious due to the nature of their work, especially in the rural areas. They are usually the ones who gather firewood from the forests and collect water from rivers and so they are the first to notice environmental changes (e.g. in degrading environments, women have to walk farther to collect water).

Personally, I think that women become most environmentally aware when they become mothers. There is something about growing a human being inside your body, giving birth, and becoming completely responsible for the tiniest and most vulnerable members of the human race that makes mothers think beyond themselves. Motherhood somehow shifts women’s consciousness, and this is not simply about wanting the best for your own child. Physiologically, pregnant women and mothers become more weepy (when they read about or watch the suffering of others) because of changes in hormone levels.  But I also believe that it is also because they recognize that the person in pain is someone else’s baby. The Buddha wisely instructs us to “Love the whole world the way a mother loves her only child.”

When I became pregnant with Ruby, my environmental consciousness intensified. I soon learned however that having a baby meant “time to buy new stuff” – the latest stroller, the most adorable baby outfits, the baby-proof crib, and many many other “absolutely essential” items. Everyone had an idea of what I needed, but the worst were the pregnancy and parenting magazines that seem to be shopping catalogues more than anything else. The green options for baby care (e.g., washable diapers, homemade baby food) seem so expensive and work-intensive. My friends in the Philippines were worried that I won’t have a yaya (nanny) to help around the house as many Filipino families do. “How will you manage?,” they asked. I didn’t know how to answer as I was so overwhelmed with the upcoming changes myself.

I love the advice that my sister-in-law Fran, who has four children herself and whom we fondly refer to as Earth Woman, gave me when I was preparing to welcome my baby.  She wrote, “…you realize that as long as they are warm, dry, and safe, not much else is important. And babies could care less how that end is achieved.” It does not matter whether their clothes and things were bought from a high-end department store or whether they were second hand (or, as I read somewhere, “pre-loved” or “previously loved”).

My baby Ruby is now eight months old and looking back, I could count with my fingers the “absolutely essential” items that one must have to take proper care of a baby. Here are my top three green baby care tips. This list is obviously not exhaustive but they have definitely been experience tested.

The breast milk for babies. I am a shameless public breastfeeder. Here are some of the most memorable places I have breastfed: the US Embassy waiting room, Yoshinoya’s counter while eating a bowl of gyudon, Narita Airport’s departure area, the subway, while strolling amongst other shoppers at Ikea, the grassy lawn of Shinjuku Gyoen, at an art gallery, and out in the snow in sub zero temperatures. Truth be told, I never thought I would be the kind of mother who would be bold enough to breastfeed in public but after having a baby, I see my breasts as nature intended: a source of nourishment for my baby. A lot has been written on why breast is best, but for my husband, breastfeeding’s number one selling point is that Ruby’s pooh doesn’t stink, whereas the pooh of a baby on formula is a biohazard. For me, breastfeeding is just so convenient. The milk is at the perfect temperature whether it’s winter or summer. It’s also the greenest option because there’s no need to purchase baby bottles, nipples, bottle cleaners, bottle rack, sterilizer, formula milk, purified water, thermos, etc. Best of all, it’s free.

Changing the world one washable nappy at a time. My husband loves the washable nappies that I got. They’re colorful, easy to use, and best of all, there isn’t a ka-ching! (that is, the sound of a cash register) every time Ruby needs to be changed. Babies go through an unbelievable amount of nappies before they are toilet-trained. Washable nappies may seem more expensive at the onset but I got my ROI (return of investment) in a month’s time and Ruby’s still using them until now. Environmentally, it takes 3.5 times less energy to manufacture a washable nappy than a disposable one, and the latter takes 200-500 years to decompose. It turns out washable diapers aren’t really all that difficult to use when you get organized.

Hand-me-downs, pass-’em-ons, and creative reusing. A baby goes through things much too quickly. Ruby had a cute onesie that she just wore for about three weeks before she grew too big for it. I also soon learned that babies easily get bored with the toys they see everyday. Mottainai. What a waste! Japan’s pay-as-you-throw system is a great way to get people to think of better ways to dispose of things they don’t need or want. If you’re patient and resourceful enough, there are many people giving away free stuff that are in great condition (or selling them at token prices) because they’re moving away or their kids have outgrown them. Ruby inherited many of the things she uses today from other kids. It pays to be creative. Sometimes, the most unlikely things can fascinate the Little One for hours on end such as wooden spoons and salad bowls. Ruby didn’t have a proper crib since she was born. She slept between me and my husband. When my husband took her to his office, she slept in a banana box under his desk. When she grew bigger, she sat and played in a plastic food crate. As for a baby bath, we used a regular plastic bucket and learned that it’s more baby proof than any of the baby baths available as it’s impossible for her to slip and drown. Our baby has some pretty interesting pictures that will definitely be conversation pieces when she’s older.

First appeared in Eco+Waza’s now defunct webzine.

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