How I Let Go and Let My Son Go Vegan

It seems like there’s a larger lesson in this.

When sixteen-year-old Sumner arrived home from a summer working KP duty at a camp in the woods, he announced he was vegan. He said it like he meant it, like he was changing species. I had my doubts: could a milk-guzzling bacon-eater change? I figured it’d last a few days, maybe a week. He loved my chocolate chip cookies.

On occasion, I've been known to brag about how I feed my children. Sumner nursed easily—feeding and comfort rolled into a warm, hormonal buzz every couple of hours. After the breasts, it was homemade whole foods. Once, trapped in an airport, I bought six-year-old Sumner and his three-year-old sister Ramona chicken nuggets and fries. They flatly rejected this meal—proof that I did things right. Sheltering them from the world of drive-throughs and sugared yogurt had made them foodies, snobs who knew the good stuff from the heart and soul-killing stuff.

But later, when Sumner and Ramona earned money and walked to the store without supervision, they bought salty orange things in shiny bags and sweet tea in a can. I worried: Would they be hungry for dinner? Would we ever defeat Big Agriculture if they used their buying power like that? Would my children fulfill their life potential if they made choices that I couldn't steer? Cool Ranch Doritos was a rejection of everything I stood for.

Sumner's veganism was a beacon of redemption. Finally he would eat the things I prefer to cook, like vegetables. More legumes for everyone. No need to stock ground beef or cheap Italian sausage anymore. I pictured us noshing on a salad made from red rice pilaf, roasted butternut squash, marinated chickpeas and raw pistachios. We'd glow from the vitamins, laugh together, and wash it down with home-brewed kombucha. Maybe he'd cultivate the vegetable garden I always dreamt of. We'd save so much money by growing our own okra and sweet potatoes. 

In the first days of Sumner's veganism he ate only white things: almond milk, cereal, toast with fake butter and spicy potato chips. When he dug out and pan-fried a frozen veggie-burger, one made of actual vegetables, he was not impressed. He requested faux-meat soy burgers in the future. Wasn't eating a rainbow of vegetables plucked straight from the earth a requirement for a card-carrying vegan? What happened to the redemption I had anticipated? Grace granted through embracing a mother-approved diet was muddied by processed foods. I expected his vegan conversion to be instant. I thought he'd become be a fully actualized health nut in a flash. I needed to repeat to myself: change is slow, change is slow.

I worried. Should I allow him to make such a radical choice if his diet l lacked the nutrients I knew helped a growing boy thrive? He was moving past the age where we could forbid or disallow things. He was a boy who would soon be on his own, masquerading as a man.

I reminded myself I try to trust my children. I believe in listening to them, guiding them through each step toward independence through support without ultimatums and manipulation. So now what?

I tried to bring up my concerns in a non-confrontational way: "Do you want some spinach on that Tofutti bagel?" He declined. I tried, "I recently read that sautéed greens are a great source of iron. You know, for energy." He nodded and said that maybe he'd dip his chips in green salsa later. Finally, I broke down: "Sumner, this is gross. Eat something colorful. Hearts of romaine don't count." He asked me if something was stressing me out.

Our preschool teacher's mantra, "Let kids work things out," rang in my ears. Stand on the sidelines. Allow kids to struggle. Maybe this was an opportunity. It's easy to support your child’s choices when change goes swimmingly or passes swiftly.

For instance, Sumner's fashion choices always work. At two, he chose pink and yellow socks, pulled up to the knee. At ten, it was neon crocs. By thirteen he learned to use an iron, tucking in his collared, crisp shirts into colored slacks and polishing the outfit with suspenders. Now, his wardrobe is made up of one-dollar items from thrift stores, refashioned with a snip of the scissors. His nipples threaten to peek out of his homemade tank tops, but I'm comfortable, almost, when he is comfortable.

On the other hand, when it came to seeing him through break-ups, standing on the sidelines provided mixed results. One girlfriend got the axe abruptly and Sumner flung himself into life without her unimpeded. Another split took over a year, lingering on, influencing his daily ups and downs. When “working it out” is painful and protracted, I can’t help but offer advice and judgement, projecting frustration and exasperation.

Within the first week of veganism, Sumner agreed to make dinner once a week. It was a chance to show off his camp kitchen skills.  The camp kitchen made carnivore, vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free meals three times a day for mindful eaters.

That mindfulness didn’t spill over into his first stab at making dinner. My idea of dinner is a main, a side and a salad. Sumner was going to make mashed potatoes. Just mashed potatoes. He reminded me it'd be easy and filling. I wanted him to round out the meal, but I danced around it, asking him strange questions and making pointed suggestions while claiming it was up to him. Finally he said, “Just tell me what you want.” And I did. He decided that the mashed potatoes would be served with broccoli and a salad. We'd work on protein sources next week.

I hung around while he cooked, not sure what to do with myself at five on a weeknight if I wasn't making dinner. If this trend continued, I would have so much time. Maybe I could write about this.

I offered advice from the wings: "Earth Balance or sautéed garlic would be good in that. You might want to get that broccoli steaming if you want it hot all at the same time."

In the kitchen, the frozen broccoli bag was lying in a puddle on the counter. Sumner used waxy potatoes, Yukon Golds, instead of Russets. They don’t mash well. He miscalculated the taste and texture difference between almond milk and half-and-half and spilled too much garlic powder into the pot. He tried to scrape the excess garlic powder off with a butter knife and add Earth Balance to make up the difference. 

I ventured into the kitchen for a closer look. The potatoes were more like cream of wheat than mashed potatoes. I said nothing and got a glass of water. He gave them one last whip with his masher. "I think they're going to be just fine." We heated up leftovers.

I fretted. What will happen when the stakes are higher? How can I teach him to make a dinner so it's all hot at one time? Will I be able to ensure he respects academic deadlines and has a good credit score? Will he always be kind and polite? Will he remember to take Tylenol when he gets a headache? I want to minimize his suffering from stupid choices. Isn’t it my responsibility to teach him to always make good ones? Who will fix his mistakes, be his safety net, when my leftovers aren't in his fridge?

The next week he tried again. He used a recipe, making an elaborate ratatouille and serving it with warm crusty bread. It was excellent. The week after that it was enchiladas stuffed with an almond-based ricotta made from scratch with just the right amount of garlic powder. There have been fails, like barbecue cabbage sandwiches, but mainly his meals are edible, even appetizing.

He's been a vegan for a year. That’s a long time when you’re seventeen. The rest of us still eat meat, but less now. Sumner eats legumes. He eats plenty of baked potatoes and other white things, but also salads every night with dinner.

He’s cheated, primarily when traveling or when he doesn't want to be rude to his host. Each time he returns to his veganism with new perspective and resolve. He’s working it out—one meal at a time. And I am letting him do so without interference, most days.

The idea that I can make his choices for him is a farce. I must accept that he may screw up, even stumble—and I will be almost powerless to save him. I will listen and support, advise when asked. I look forward to eating together, laughing and talking and not fretting about everything on our plates. I will root for vegetables and work on wholly trusting him from afar. Whole trust trumps whole foods any day.

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