Literary Mama writing about the many faces of motherhood
Meatless in Seattle


Dear Marjo,

We are vegetarians, and have been for years. Our friends and family are great about accommodating us, and if in doubt, we always offer to bring our own food so we don’t impose on the host. So we’ve struck a good balance within our social circle.

Thanks to our wonderful family and friends, we’ve never had to worry or plan anything special. But I’ve been blindsided by something I never predicted, never mind planned for: kid birthday parties. I feel stupid even writing this, because seriously, how hard can it be to go to a kid’s party? But it really is becoming a problem.

My four-year-old son has been to several birthday parties where the moms are asked to stay and mind their little ones. That’s been easy, because I can always tuck a bag of food in my purse just in case there are no vegetarian options. But now we’re into “drop-off” parties, where the moms are expected to leave. Don’t get me wrong—dropping my son off at someone else’s house for a few hours is great! But asking the hostess to accommodate my son—with her own food or with food we bring—is not going well.

I (sort of) understand the occasional accident. But there were no words for my fury at a recent party when the hostess gave my son a hot dog—on purpose. In her own words, she “wanted to see his face the first time he tasted such deliciousness.” I was so angry I couldn’t speak, and just scooped up my son and left without saying anything. Now I feel like I have to talk with her just to preserve my son’s friendship with her kid. But I’m just so angry. What can I possibly say without going ballistic?


Meatless in Seattle


Dear Meatless,

Wow. I’m so angry on your behalf! What if your son was lactose intolerant? Allergic to nuts? Diabetic? These are all physiological problems, but your family’s lifestyle is no less important (and possibly based on physical issues, too). I can absolutely see why you feel disrespected. Beyond that, if your son has tasted “deliciousness” he may want it again, which sets up a whole other dynamic within your family and at other parties where he may feel uncomfortable saying no for himself.

Some people would point this out as a learning opportunity for your son—a way to teach him to advocate for himself, or resist peer pressure. To which I say blah blah blah. Four-year-olds might be able to say, “I don’t eat meat” or (shiver) “My mom doesn’t let me eat meat.” But it’s unreasonable to expect a four-year-old to say “no” when presented with deliciousness (is that even a word?), or teasing from friends, or pressure from adults. For Pete’s sake, he’s not even in kindergarten yet. “Righteous indignation” is the phrase that comes to mind, and you have every right to feel that way.

I think you’re right to talk with the other mom. Even if she meant no disrespect or harm, she may be in a position to do this again, whether it’s on the playground, at other parties, or during a play date at her house. Before you talk with her, though, you may need to take a deep breath. Raining fire and brimstone on her head might make you feel better, but it probably won’t help you get what you want, which is more respect for your family culture.

I’ve been in a similar position myself, raising my son with our own version of a healthy diet, which included no fast food. Enter Grandma and Grandpa, who were thrilled to be the indulgent grandparents every kid should have. And I loved that about them . . . until they took my son, age 3, to McDonald’s for the first time. They knew that fast food was out of bounds for us, but to them it fell under the indulgence umbrella. And he loved it. The salty French fries! The chicken nuggets! The toy! We had some damage control on our hands, not just with my son, but with his grandparents.

First, I told my son that the only McDonald’s was near his grandparents’ house, 3,000 miles away. It’s embarrassing to admit that l lied to him, but I did, figuring I could fight the real battle later. But it was much more awkward to talk with my parents. Thankfully, a wise friend reminded me that you can’t drive a car by starting in fifth gear. You have to start in first gear and work your way up.

I decided my “car” had three gears. But as it turned out, the first gear was so effective that I never had to shift up. In fact, it worked so well that I now use it whenever I’m angry and need to confront someone. I call it the “surprised and confused” strategy. These two words have no emotion attached to them and give you a way to be direct without being confrontational. Then follow it with a “next time” question to make your expectations clear.

For me, that went something like this: “I love that you indulge (Andy) so much. But I was surprised when you took (Andy) to McDonald’s, and confused because we’re pretty strict about avoiding fast food. Is it okay if we stick to being a little less indulgent about food?”

For you, Meatless, it might be: “I was surprised that you gave (Andy) a hot dog. It just confused me, because we’re pretty public about being vegetarians. Do you think next time you could steer clear of meat, or give me a heads up so I can send him with his own food?”

If the other mom is any kind of decent human being, she’ll get the message. If she doesn’t, then shift to second gear, which uses the words “upset” and “stop.” For you, it might be something like: “It upset me when you offered (Andy) meat. I have to ask you to stop.” As for third gear? Cue the fire and brimstone. I myself have never had to go that far, and I hope you don’t either. But advocating for your son at every level is more important than preserving friendships, and sets a great example for your son when he’s old enough to do it for himself.



Do you have a question about the joys, complexities, or challenges of being a mother? Email askmarjo AT and I’ll do my best to answer it. Please do not bend, fold, mutilate, or otherwise contort this column into anything it's not meant to be: friendly advice from one mom to another. My opinions and thoughts, no matter how heartfelt, are not a substitute for professional counseling or medical care.

Marjorie Osterhout is a writer, editor, and storyteller. Her essays and articles have appeared in anthologies like It’s A Boy (Seal Press) and magazines including Parents, Parenting, and ePregnancy. She also spent a whirlwind three years travel writing for Disney. She is a former managing editor, columns editor, and columnist (“Dear Marjo”) for Literary Mama.

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Great answer, Marjo! As fellow vegetarians, we found ourselves feeding the kids before they went to parties, just in case. However, it is so important to confront the offender, and you're approach is brilliant! Thank you for sharing.
great reply. i'm going to try to remember the "gears" in other situations, especially my family!
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