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Does becoming a mother make women ‘greener’?

Stop press! Actress Julia Roberts has been spotted in a Prius and is reportedly into reusable coffee cups and solar panels. According to media reports, it was the birth of her twins, rather than her Oscar-winning…

New mothers make a lot of decisions to improve their babies' welfare. Megan Myers

Stop press! Actress Julia Roberts has been spotted in a Prius and is reportedly into reusable coffee cups and solar panels.

According to media reports, it was the birth of her twins, rather than her Oscar-winning turn as environmentalist Erin Brockovich, that inspired her green transformation.

Motherhood and the environment

This tidbit of celebrity gossip illustrates the popular idea that mothers are generally “greener” than the broader population.

Our recent research explored this idea. It aimed to identify where having children appears to make a difference in women’s reported environmentally relevant household behaviour. It also explored what these behaviours mean to new mothers.

It adds to the small but growing body of evidence that gender and parenthood can affect environmental values, attitudes, concerns and behaviours.

Researchers have also described the “motherhood effect”, where the social role of women as nurturers and carers of children leads them to greater concern about environmental problems.

While women are more likely to report environmental concerns and behaviours, this doesn’t extend to higher levels of activism. “Eco-mums” appear to be more Julia Roberts than Erin Brockovich.

In contrast, recent Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show that when a couple adds children to the household group, its energy and petrol use increases. This paints a picture of conflicting emotions as new mothers reconcile the impacts of their increased consumption and their heightened environmental concern.

Add to this the guilt felt over nappy choices and the contribution to the planet’s growing population. It’s little wonder the term “eco-mom” has been called an oxymoron.

simplyla/Flickr

Exploring motherhood and sustainable living

One challenge for environmental behaviour change is that many of our resource using behaviours are habitual. They’re regular, automatic and cued by the surroundings they’re performed in. This makes them resistant to change.

Becoming a mother is all about change: changing priorities, attitudes, social groups, habits and lifestyles. One emerging theory suggests events that disrupt habits, like having a baby, create teachable moments: opportunities to learn better habits.

Our research used a mixed-methods approach. We began with an analysis of existing data from two surveys, provided by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage and Sustainability Victoria. We compared women with and without children.

The results of our analysis were mixed, but suggest women with children are more likely to perform some of the pro-environmental behaviours that could be linked with their child’s wellbeing or are easy to do.

For example, women with children were more likely to say they’ve disposed of chemicals through special collections. Those with young children were most likely to use cold water for clothes washing.

Mothers’ perspectives

Based on the quantitative findings, we conducted in-depth interviews with eight new mothers living in Melbourne to see how they describe and account for their own changes in behaviour since having children.

Oliver Degabriele

As expected, nappies dominated mothers’ talk around environmental issues. However, the conversations all revealed dramatically increased energy use, and changes in cleaning behaviours and transport habits.

New mothers talked about these behaviours in connection with their baby’s wellbeing, rather than in connection with the environment. It appears “green” is in the eye of the beholder.

While academics, environmentalists and government authorities might view energy use in relation to climate change, our research suggests new mothers don’t. Instead, they see energy use as necessary for keeping their baby warm and comfortable.

Similarly, preferences for greener cleaners were motivated by concerns over exposure to “chemicals”, with benefits to the broader environment viewed as a bonus. Walking was preferred over driving for short trips because it’s good exercise and more convenient.

Mothers were somewhat concerned about the amount of money they spend on energy, particularly where maternity leave resulted in a loss of income. They wanted to reduce their energy use, and therefore bills, though not at the expense of their child’s comfort.

Mothers also talked about the pressures of the multiple demands of motherhood, time and financial constraints, tiredness and negative emotions, like guilt and anxiety.

Overall, our research suggests the pro-environmental behaviours that are adopted by new mothers are really pro-health or money-saving behaviours from their point of view.

An important side note is that mothers’ talk revealed a high use of social media and the internet to seek social connection, information and advice. With mothers increasingly empowered to seek their own advice, this has implications for the spread of information and misinformation.

Michael Hummel

Is motherhood an eco-opportunity?

Our research illustrates that the transition to motherhood is indeed a time of change — for better or worse — in environmental behaviour. This may be an opportunity for encouraging sustainable behaviour.

Behaviour change initiatives for new mothers can benefit both the environment and families by focusing on pro-environmental behaviours that are also health promoting or that ensure low-cost thermal comfort, and framing behaviours in these terms. Their designs should also account for the changing ways new mothers gain information and advice.

The underlying message for promoting sustainability is the importance of understanding your audience. By tailoring the target actions and messages to their needs, interests and meanings — not necessarily your own — you’re more likely to achieve what you’re aiming for.

After all, to paraphrase John F Kennedy, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet… and we all cherish our children’s future.

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  1. Jena Zelezny

    research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

    I found this article to be full of presumptuous and sexist non-sense. It beats the foolish statement that one is not a 'real woman' until one has given birth.

    The culturally constituted title 'mother' (rather than parent or primary carer) merely reinforces the neuro-sexists point of view.

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    1. Tanya Ha

      Master of Environment candidate at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Jena Zelezny

      Thank you for your feedback Jena.

      There is a body of literature that identifies both gender and parental status as influences on environmental beliefs, attitudes and behaviours. Research already shows some differences between men and women (yes, some are culturally and socially constructed, and there are other factors). Gender comparisons are often controversial, which is why we were careful to provide links to some of this literature (do have a look the links if you haven't and are interested…

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    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Jena Zelezny

      I think you may be right, but near the end of the article it talks about understanding these transitions in order to taloir your message to that particular group.

      I don't think it was making the claim that mothers are more environmentally sensitive but it seemed to me more an attempt to understand how motherhood affects environmental views, and you could ask that question of any transition period in life - ie. how does retirement affect environmental concerns

      they could of done how does parenthood affect environmental concerns rather than just motherhood but I'm guessing there are some practical reasons why this might not of been possible sue to budget / time, etc

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    3. Chris Booker

      Research scientist

      In reply to Jena Zelezny

      Yes, I found the same, the old 'single/childless people are selfish and don't know anything' angle, but apparently when you have children you're magically transformed into a wise person who cares for community and environment (or at least for women, men are strangely absent from this article).

      To give the author some credit, at least that tone cleared up in the latter parts of the article, but the introductory paragraphs definitely left me with that impression. It's one of the things about articles…

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    4. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Jena Zelezny

      Jena, actually the conventional milestone of womanhood is menstruation, not childbirth.

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    5. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Chris Booker

      Chris, indeed, Greens voters are more likely to be female late 30s/40s, single, and childless.

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    6. Jena Zelezny

      research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Your use of the words "conventional", "milestone" and "woman" are telling.

      Convention = foundational fiction.

      milestone = a biological development (like walking/talking)

      "woman" = a category determined by cultural signifiers

      Unless you are familiar with the discourse Andy, you would do well to refrain from comment.

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  2. Mark McGuire

    climate consensus rebel

    The Conversation channels climate science, Women's Weekly style.
    "Stop press! Actress Julia Roberts has been spotted in a Prius and is reportedly into reusable coffee cups and solar panels. According to media reports, it was the birth of her twins, rather than her Oscar-winning turn as environmentalist ..."

    Is that all it takes to be green? How good must one feel after achieving those milestones! And the children. Who will think of the children's children if Julia doesn't. I must aspire to be like Julia.

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    1. Jane Rawson

      Editor, Energy & Environment at The Conversation

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      Mark, you might want to read the rest of the article.

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    2. Jena Zelezny

      research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Mark McGuire

      I agree Mark. The 'research' findings were based on two existing surveys and a group of eight (yes! eight) Melbourne females who had recently given birth.

      The existing data was interpreted to fit the research question and the answers that were needed to support the premise, furthermore eight new interviews does not in my view constitute a large enough group upon which to draw conclusions.

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    3. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Jane Rawson

      Jane, let a thousand flowers bloom, and all that, but sometimes the kindest response to an article is "It Blows". This one does so Big Time.

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  3. Chris Harries

    logged in via Facebook

    One of the most fascinating, but largely unreported, aspects of the climate debate has been how people respond to messages about the fate of their grandchildren under the global warming pathway that our civilistion appears to be locked into.

    Fascinating for myself because I arrived at a conclusion many years ago that humans, being a mammalian species, will do almost anything to protect their offspring... even sacrifice their own lives in their defence.

    Well, turns out that idea is only partly…

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    1. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Chris Harries

      Chris, I have a small sample of grandparental responses. They basically involve buying investment property in higher latitudes.

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  4. Alice Kelly
    Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

    sole parent

    I'm wondering why new mothers were chosen for your particular survey. I would imagine that as children grow, what carers (mothers) think about changes. It may be relevant to see what these changes are at particular stages of development for both, 0-5, 6-10, 11-15, 16-20. The ages 11-15 triggered in me a more activist stance on the environment.
    I was overpowered by tiny vampire at their age 0-1, no brain at all.

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    1. Tanya Ha

      Master of Environment candidate at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Alice Kelly

      Thanks for sharing your perspective, Alice.

      One of the great challenges of pro-environmental campaigns is addressing behaviours that are habitual. Habits are hard to break. We chose 'new' mothers (women with one or more children aged under two years) as we were interesting in the transition to motherhood - it disrupts existing habits and forces the women to renegotiate new habits (often while sleep deprived, managing a reduced household income and so on). It is also the life stage when children…

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    2. Alice Kelly
      Alice Kelly is a Friend of The Conversation.

      sole parent

      In reply to Tanya Ha

      I understand now, possibly climate change and environmental issues can be classified in two ways, immediate actions as a response, and the bigger long-term picture concerning life (long-term), which comes later, in my case with a little anger, when I had the time to think.

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  5. Paul Prociv

    ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

    It seems to me that most of our individual behaviour is driven by biology, manifesting through emotions, but rationalised away by our intellect. In my, admittedly limited, personal experience, young women who were rabid “greenies” but then went on to become mums, justified their decision on the basis of its special contribution to humankind. I don’t know how much enviro-guilt might have lurked beneath the surface, but it wasn’t too obvious, so maybe hormones do affect our attitudes to conservation, albeit in unpredictable ways.

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    1. Jena Zelezny

      research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Paul Prociv

      "It seems to me that most of our individual behaviour is driven by biology, manifesting through emotions, but rationalised away by our intellect."

      Not so Paul. Behaviour is mostly driven by mimesis and a re-iteration of that which exists before we are even born.

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    2. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Jena Zelezny

      Jena, you don't even know what those words mean. For homework, please read Aristotle's "Poetics", Auerbach's "Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature", and Harold Bloom's "Anxiety of Influence".

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    3. Jena Zelezny

      research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Andy I already have a doctorate in English and Theatre studies. I can assure you that I not only know what the words mean, I have assimilated a great deal of knowledge about the development and production of gendered bodies through study of the writers whose work forms the basis of the discourse - those writers are, curiously, not included amongst those you have mentioned.

      Andy, your attempts to patronise may have credence in your imagination but they are of no consequence to me.

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  6. Michael Shand

    Software Tester

    Great Article, thanks for posting.

    My experience is that as soon as people have children, their world view shrinks to the size of that child and they have little time or effort left to think about others or the environment except where it relates to the child.

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    1. Tanya Ha

      Master of Environment candidate at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Thanks, Michael. You might find this interesting because the details of the article (particularly the qualitative results) reflects some of what you've said. 'Life Events as Windows of Opportunity for Changing Towards Sustainable Consumption Patterns?': http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10603-011-9181-6. This much larger study looks at both the transition to parenthood (men and women) and relocation as transition and habit-interrupting events. And in answer to your earlier post, yes, limiting the study to women was for practical reasons.

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    2. Michael Shand

      Software Tester

      In reply to Tanya Ha

      Thanks for the response and the link, I thought it was a great article

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  7. Regan

    logged in via Twitter

    I appreciate this article is based on a Masters project that will necessarily have a fairly constrained scope. However it seems to be based on the assumption that motherhood will necessarily make a person more "green" for environmental reasons (rather than reasons that are more directly related to child welfare, which is what the results seem to indicate). It could be argued, in a world of 7 billion plus people, that having a child is an inherently "anti-green" act. There are people who actively choose not to procreate for environmental reasons.

    Of course this doesn't undermine the validity of the research - most people do become parents and it makes sense to see how sustainability messages can be communicated to this population. I just find the apparent "earth mother" framing of the study somewhat troubling.

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    1. Tanya Ha

      Master of Environment candidate at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Tanya Ha

      "the assumption that motherhood will necessarily make a person more "green" for environmental reasons" - I've seen this idea repeatedly in media, etc. My intention was to test it.

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    2. Regan

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Tanya Ha

      Thanks for the reply. And your study shows it's an assumption worth testing. The framing of the article just pressed my buttons a bit :)

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    3. Regan

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Tanya Ha

      Thanks for this. Given this data, I find it very interesting how many "green-living" people have three or more children. I wonder how they square that circle with themselves. Of course it's their choice but I see there's an inherent contradiction there.

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    4. Jena Zelezny

      research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Tanya Ha

      I'd like to know how you chose your group of eight, and whether the choices made could have effected your determination of the findings.

      I expect that there would be a vast difference between a new parent living in Dept. Housing without a partner, and a new parent living in Brighton, South Yarra or East Richmond. Further, there is to be expected a difference between new parents who have recently arrived from Sudan or Somalia and those who have had a more privileged developmental environment…

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    5. Andy Cameron

      Care giver

      In reply to Regan

      "However it seems to be based on the assumption that motherhood will necessarily make a person more "green" for environmental reasons (rather than reasons that are more directly related to child welfare, which is what the results seem to indicate)"
      To be fair to the author you are drawing a distinction between "environmental" and child welfare" reasons; a distinction, which does not exist.

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    6. Chris Harries

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Regan

      How many green-living people fly around the world in planes. How many green-living people have a carnivorous diet. How many green-living people choose to live out of town and commute long distances to work. Or who do unnecessary renovations to houses. And so on, and so on.

      I don't think we ought to be totally cynical about these things and definitely there's no pace for smugness, or we get caught our ourselves. It seems people catch on to sustainability through one avenue or another and this becomes their passion and their buy-in to gradually shifting to overall lifestyle transition.

      Having (too many) kids is often touted as the most important one, whereas the vegetarian lobby argues that eating meat is is the most inherent contradiction.

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    7. Jena Zelezny

      research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Andy Cameron

      Andy, it is not a distinction I care to acknowledge and the evidence I have depends upon direct and immediate (current) experience of living in Department of Housing estates. There is a high population of Somalians and Sudanese mixed with anglo-australians, italo-australians, grego-australians et al.

      The awareness on this estate of 'green' issues is horrifyingly low - perhaps non-existent. I assert that the authors are incredibly naive to eliminate the factor of poverty in any study that purports to be environmental psychology. The effects of poverty on one's interest in politics, the environment, fellow humans is profound.

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  8. Geoff Beggs

    logged in via Facebook

    Great article - good to see testing of evidence rather than the usual bland assertions. It would be interesting to see someone test whether becoming a grandparent makes you greener (it did for me - yes, sample of one, I know, I know).

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  9. Comment removed by moderator.

  10. Rene Oldenburger

    Haven't got one

    Used to live in an estate which was aptly referred to by those living around the estate as "snob burn". Right next to the estate was the primary school, kids being dropped of by the parents, especially those from snob burn, here usually driving the petrol guzzling 4 wheel drives and other "oh look, we got a big car and mine is bigger than yours"

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  11. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    Another study on parenting that leaves out the father, or considers the father irrelevant.

    Must be contagious in a feminist type society.

    Going green doesn’t seem all that common around here. Driving the children to school in a new car certainly does.

    Most of the population are imports, who don’t realise their new suburb was once farming land, and before that it was melaleuca swampland or eucalypt forest, or in some cases, native rainforest.

    With the birth-rate in Australia below replacement levels, there may be some collective instinct to avoid overpopulation, but such instincts are overridden by the immigration rate, which is imposed.

    There probably will be a kickback effect from that sometime in the future.

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    1. Jena Zelezny

      research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Just one point Dale. An article that focuses on the female does not necessarily make it a feminist statement.

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Jena Zelezny

      I thought feminist inferred “female only”, which basically what the article does, as it leaves out fathers.

      Where I live is a higher income area due to mining, and I can assure you there is no cutting back on consumption when a household income rises.

      Everything from bright new 4 wheel drives, to shopping malls filled with clothes shops, to beautician clinics and hairdressers all along the streets.

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    3. Jena Zelezny

      research for second PhD in Humanities and Social Sciences (Performance Studies/Theatre & Drama/Dramatic Literature/Visual Arts) at La Trobe University

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Well no Dale. Feminist as a descriptor does not mean "female only". There are many forms of feminism, the bases of which is always concerned with improving the status of the female - economic status, equally opportunity, anti-discrimination are a few of the tenets - but focus on the female in this article in particular does not make it a feminist statement or study.

      Yeah, I can see your point about the relation between income and consumption BUT who can afford a Prius, solar energy panels (on the house/property that they own), recycling, organic vegetables and holidays in the country. Public housing in 2013 has limited use of solar energy for their new buildings (for heating water only). The resident of such housing does not have a choice or input into decision making. The government usually does whatever is cheapest.

      This study/research is limited by its parameters.

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    4. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Jena Zelezny

      Well, for a start the study only considers 50% of the adult population, which is feminism.

      The concept that feminism is for gender equality is just a myth (to put it politely).

      It is true that much damage to Australia’s environment actually occurred when Australia had a smaller population, (such as during wide scale land clearing in earlier times).

      But I tend to think there is now a direct correlation between population numbers and environment damage and resource depletion.

      I think the authors would be best to study where and how most environmental destruction is occurring in Australia.

      Carrying out feminist type studies that leave out fathers etc might earn them brownie points in a university, but will do little for the environment.

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