Like so many others before me, I came into ethical eating accidentally, by way of self-interest. See, I wanted to do this cleanse. It’s a story I’m certain you’ve heard before, and I’m sure you know how it ends. “Girl dips toes into veg diet, and in doing so removes the obstacles that are triggering cognitive dissonance. Girl can see clearly for the first time how being an omnivore is truly at odds with her ideals, and realizes that violent eating does not a pacifist person make. Girl never looks back.”
As I explored this bright new plant-based world, I excitedly set about on a path of self-education: I played in the kitchen, I re-thought my wardrobe, and I became a connoisseur of vegan media. Websites, podcasts, magazines, books, and anything else that I could get my eager mitts on, I gobbled it all up. In the process I learned about everything from nutritional yeast and Herbivore hoodies to The China Study, all the way to the great abolition vs. welfare debate. And of course, at the heart of it all, I learned about the horrors of animal agriculture.
This incredible intake of information is a pretty standard aspect of transition, which makes sense when you consider the magnitude of ideological shift. I loved the learning, but eventually, the ever-present sadness of animal suffering began to wear on me. So I packed up the exposés and I focused on the upside. I was working my outreach, I was blogging, and I continued on my merry way of life. And a merry life it was! In the spring of 2010, in the golden hours of early dawn, my first little baby boy was born.
If you’ve ever been around infants, you know that they come with a lot of down time. And it was during one of those quiet spells, with my nursling happily dozing in my arms that I stumbled upon an undercover video taken from inside a dairy operation. It had been such a long time since I’d watched anything like that, and maybe because I was sleep deprived and not thinking clearly, I figured that I was due for a refresher.
I was witness to all manner of sickening reality unfolding over the next few minutes. The filth and the feces, the torture at the milk machines, the beatings and blood, and eventually, the slaughter line. But what I remember most is something that still haunts me: A beautiful heifer, a brand new mother still slick with sweat from her labor, was screaming as she paced and bucked and fought for the calf that two men were dragging away from her. I remember feeling the weight of her agony crashing over me. My chest clenched tight, and I looked down at my own sweet baby snuggled against me. And I wept for her.
The intersection of animal exploitation and female oppression was first explored by Carol J. Adams more than 20 years ago, and has been well studied ever since. I knew of the theory, but to me, it had always been just that—another theory. Another piece of the animal-rights puzzle that fit nicely into my intellectual arsenal.
Seeing that mother suffering turned an abstract theory into crystalline actuality—a primal connection at my core. As a mother. And I realized that these exploits of agriculture, this use and abuse of the reproductive cycle, is not just a crime against females. It is, in fact, the systematic sabotage of mothering.
Some years ago I read that brooding hens, sitting atop their clutch, will lovingly cluck and coo to their eggs beneath them. And those little developing chicks, too delicate yet for this world, will chirp right back from safe inside their shells. I remember being pregnant myself, laying my hands on my swelling belly, and lovingly clucking and cooing my own sweet nothings to my son inside. I could feel him there, stirring when he heard me, kicking his delight at the sound of my whispers.
Mothers all want health and happiness for our babes. That hope is universal; it’s written into the DNA that connects us, within and between species. And so as mothers we are responsible to one another. To stand with mothers—all mothers—in honoring that precious, primitive, magnificent act of mothering.
Becoming a mother is in many ways akin to becoming vegan. It’s an unfamiliar path and there’s unexpected adjustments, there’s so much to read and so much to learn and everyone has their two cents to add. Most of all, there’s this exquisite blossom of love at the center of it. Veganism is founded on compassion, and compassion is the guiding light of motherhood. To me, they are just two shades of the same color, and I feel so grateful to have found the both of them.
Sayward Rebhal is a mother, a shaker, a mover, and a maker, author of Vegan Pregnancy Survival Guide, and blogger at bonzaiaphrodite.com.
Chat with Sayward, Mayim Bialik, and Jesse Miner about the joys of vegan parenting at our next Twitter Chat, coming April 18.