How to Tell Your Kids “Mom’s on The Job”—And Mean It

Within hours of my first column appearing on Medium — it was about the largely unregulated chemical industry replacing BPA with BPS — the concerned parents started writing. “Your piece stressed me out!” said one woman. “I just printed it out to give to my daughter-in-law, for the sake of our two-year-old granddaughter,” wrote another.

Someone else shared a recent study from the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology. The study indicates that even if you make a concerted effort to eat all organic and store your food in glass, there are certain foods like cinnamon, cayenne pepper, and dairy products that may themselves contain high levels of BPA and phthalates (yet another petrochemical and endocrine disruptor that appears in many plastics and cosmetics). According to the study, just producing food “in the absence of regulation” makes contamination a given in today’s world.

My mind went immediately to the (maybe trivial) cinnamon. Dairy, I could understand — it’s often stored in plastic containers (or cartons lined with plastic), and probably gets milked into plastic buckets through plastic tubes, etc., so I wrote that one off. But cinnamon, that warm, lovely spice that my son likes dashed into oatmeal and on top of rice pudding; the one we coat our homemade doughnuts with and stir into muffins and use to make our rainy morning standard, cinnamon toast? How could cinnamon be anything other than what it is?

Before I got too hysterical, I called Sandra Steingraber, a mother of two, activist, biologist, and best-selling author of Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis. Sandra is a leading voice in the crusade to get dangerous chemicals eradicated and has recently been featured in the news for her work fighting fracking in New York State.

She had a lot to say about screening out “the small stuff” and focusing instead on the larger picture. She said that she, like many of us, started to realize that “I cannot make my children safe. My job is to protect my children from harm, but our policy makes it impossible. This is a human rights violation. So, what to do?” Thankfully, she had some answers:

1. You can’t be your own Department of the Interior. “You can’t vet every toy, every birthday goodie bag, every piece of wallpaper, food packaging, or nail polish. And even if you could, our kids don’t live entirely in the house — they go to school, they play soccer on fields sprayed with pesticides, they drink tap water, they bathe in tap water,” she said. (Dermal exposure, she explained, is the most effective way chemicals enter our bodies.) “So, toxicity is not a consumer choice.” OK — primal scream — what’s next?

2. Move upstream. “Stop worrying — big picture — about shower curtains and baby bottles — worry instead about green energy,” she suggested. It’s not individual behavior that has to be changed; it’s the whole structure of how we get our energy. “Almost all of the chemicals I worry about are by-products of fossil fuel extraction,” she said. “Some fraction of that carbon always goes to the chemical industry — it solves a waste disposal issue: Hydrocarbons are turned into plastics, pesticides, and other chemicals. So as long as we bring coal, oil, and gas out of the ground, we will make chemicals.” According to Sandra, if we were focusing on green energy, the chemical industry wouldn’t have the hydrocarbons they use to make phthalates for cosmetics and plastics, or the PVC they slather on shower curtains.

3. Mom’s on the job. In Sandra’s house, when her kids ask about climate change and our increasingly toxic world, she tells them, “Mom’s on the job. I’m not going to quit.” She said that, for her, she wants to “live up to my kids’ thoughts of me as a superhero.” In the face of what she believes is an incredible planetary crisis, she says we all can be superheroes. “It’s time to rise to the occasion. This is our big chance as parents. Our kids like it when we’re heroes.”

4. We don’t have time for you to feel despair or crushed. Most of us have very little time to take showers, I told Sandra, let alone to take on the petroleum, gas, and coal industries. She countered, “I’m not asking you to carry the recycling out to the curb. Or to buy BPA-free bottles. This will not be changed by shopping. I’m asking you to drop everything and get on the bus with me at 3:30 a.m. to come to a rally. I’m asking you to change your life. This requires our urgent attention as parents — we have created an unstable future for our children. So, really, this is a crisis of family life.”

On that sobering note, Sandra was willing to open up a bit about her own family life. She told me that she is often on the road speaking at conferences, going to rallies and meeting with politicians. She misses a lot of time with her kids, which causes her “a lot of sadness and loneliness.” Without her husband, an elementary school art teacher and part-timer at the local food co-op, who manages the day-to-day operations at home, she wouldn’t be able to be out on the front lines; “I have a great marriage,” Sandra says. When she is home, she pulls frequent all-nighters in order to spend more time with her kids — lying down with them at bedtime, helping with homework, or listening to “what’s in their hearts.” Many nights, she comes down from putting them to bed and her husband hands her a cup of hot coffee so she can get back to work.

When I got off the phone with Sandra, I felt a tiny bit less like a Pavlovian dog inspecting every single corner of my life for possible contaminants. I understood her big picture message. The question I had for myself was this: Do I have the time, guts, and energy required to start putting my muscle behind a bigger movement? Can I detach enough from worrying about BPA (given that it’s already been replaced by BPS) in order to try getting to the source? “The proof,” as my mother likes to say, “will be in the pudding” (minus the cinnamon).