Sharna was born and raised in Melbourne, Australia and still calls it home along with her husband, children (age 4 and 5) and dog- all of them vegan! I was digitally introduced to Sharna by her Hong Kong based father Wayne who I interviewed earlier this year as part of a series of interviews with editors of vegan magazines. I was happy to connect with Sharna as, early on in the development of my concept for this interview series with vegan parents, I was focusing on mothers and fathers whose professional roles also reflected vegan values. In my early emails with Sharna she mentioned that “…Even though I don’t work in the vegan community, so to speak, when you raise your children vegan, against societal pressures, you are absolutely and hugely influential of the community around you. My children have proved many unsure doctors, maternal health nurses, family and friends wrong.” I knew immediately what Sharna was saying was critical and a central part of living life as a vegan parent and everyday advocate. My entire series was affected by that one exchange- I decided on the spot to expand my focus to include “influencers”and public figures as well as parents whose everyday lives as vegans are a form of essential advocacy as well.
Annika: Would you consider the area where you live very vegan friendly?
Sharna: Yes, definitely! Veganism is on the rise in Melbourne and you can get vegan food easily when you’re out and about. As the vegan movement grows in Melbourne there’s less and less shock from people when you say “I’m vegan”. There is a growing understanding of the lifestyle.
Annika: What kind of work do you do?
Sharna: I am the office manager of a not-for-profit organisation and work primarily from home, which I love! I am also the primary carer of my kids, so spend a lot of time doing the school, kinder, and kids’ hobbies runs. In my spare time I like to experiment in the kitchen cooking delicious vegan food!
Annika: You went vegetarian at a very young age. Was your family vegetarian? Did your friends and school mates understand your vegetarianism?
Sharna: When I was a kid my family and I volunteered at an inner city farm, Ceres, feeding the animals and putting them in their pens at night. I enjoyed doing this and loved the animals on the farm very much.
One week the piglets were gone, and I was told they had been taken away to “become my breakfast”. I was horrified. Later that same day my mother took me to the meat market at the Queen Victorian Market – I saw a pig’s head on display in a cabinet. That night I said to my dad that I didn’t want to eat animals, and he said, “There are people in the world who don’t eat meat. They’re called vegetarians.”
I said, “Oh, I’m one of them!”. It was a happy revelation to learn that some people didn’t eat animals! Soon after I went vegetarian my dad followed.
I didn’t have any vegetarian friends, didn’t know any other vegetarians (apart from my dad) and no one really understood it. Nevertheless I felt strong in my convictions and never faltered.
Annika: The first time you went vegan was at age 16 and you mention that you didn’t understand it and had negativity about it from your family as well. I think a lot of teens may be turning to veganism and be in similar situations. What specifically did you not understand at that age and how did your family respond?
Sharna: I was 16 when I found out what veganism was, and again, this was a revelation to me! I didn’t know what it was, hadn’t heard the word before. I chanced upon an article in a music magazine about veganism. I went vegan that very day, much to the surprise of my aunty and uncle who I was visiting at the time!
I had a lot of negativity from my family around this decision, and faced a complete lack of understanding of veganism… including from myself! I really had no insights into what and how to eat to be healthy. I only understood the ethics of not eating animal products. I didn’t know any other vegans which made me feel isolated. I was strong on my position for two years, but at 18, still not knowing any other vegans, and having not made efforts to get involved in the community, I sadly went back to being ovo-lacto vegetarian.
Happily things have changed since then. Today in Australia, even if you’re going vegan in an unsupportive family, the vegan community has grown and vegan alternatives are readily available, making socialising less stressful.
Annika: Your father is now the editor of a Hong Kong based vegan magazine! Do most of your family members now understand veganism and your reasons for being so?
Sharna: Yes, they do, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t still some tension around large family gatherings and food. I still get the “it’s so difficult” line and attitude from some family members, but I’ve learnt over the years that those who have the biggest problem with veganism have the strongest internal conflict, and are most likely to turn vegan.
I always offer to cook for family events and bring delicious food to share.
Annika: You went vegan for life at 21 when you met your husband. Is he vegan? What was the turning point for going vegan again at this age and with a commitment for life?
Sharna: When I started dating my husband at 21 I was vegetarian and he was vegan (still is!). I think he was probably the first vegan I had ever met. I still had a strong internal conflict about eating dairy and eggs, and him being vegan brought those feelings to the forefront. We would go out for coffee and he would order soy milk while I would order cows’ milk. He never said anything to me, but I would always say, “Stop judging me for the milk in my coffee!”… that’s how strong my conflict was. I went vegan within two weeks of getting together with my husband, but I did it quietly. I didn’t “come out” as vegan again for a couple of months and I’ve never looked back.
Annika: Did motherhood have any influence on your vegan outlook?
Sharna: Absolutely! When you’re breastfeeding the infant you were pregnant with for 9 months it’s hard not to make a comparison to dairy cows who also carry their young for 9 months. Separating a mother and baby is a devastating injustice.
Annika: Can you share any special changes you made (i.e. with diet & nutrition) when you were pregnant?
Sharna: I didn’t make any special changes. I did, however, get complete blood-works done before conceiving, to make sure everything was as it should be. The only supplement I took was b12. I also had a tablespoon of blackstrap molasses daily for the iron, as well as daily green smoothies. My iron was never low during my pregnancies, nor were any other vitamins and minerals.
Annika: How old are your children & are they vegan?
Sharna: My children are 4 & 5 and both have been vegan since conception. They have always been larger than average on the growth chart, are bright and bubbly and have never had a deficiency (yes, we’ve checked!).
Annika: What are some of their favorite foods?
Sharna: My kids absolutely LOVE food! They love fruits and veggies, sushi, dumplings, tofu… really they love most food.
Annika: Veganism is a growing movement and there are more and more mothers choosing to be vegan. However, it is still a very non vegan world and I feel it is important to discuss very frankly strategies for coping in terms of communicating our lifestyles to people, dealing with criticism and helping our children to understand. What are your thoughts on this as well as advice for mothers in families, communities or societies that are not receptive to veganism.
Sharna: Yes, it can be challenging for sure. I’m a seasoned vegan mother and still at times find some situations difficult. Socially, when I meet a new kinder or school mum I don’t drop the “V bomb” before they get to know me. Once I’ve “normalized” myself in their eyes, there will be an opportunity at some point for me to tell them we’re a vegan family. I find this approach helps harbour understanding and acceptance from people who wouldn’t otherwise be prepared to talk about veganism. I also always go out of my way to make things easy for the non-vegans in my world – for example, at school I talk at length with the teacher before the start of the year about why we’re vegan and how we live our lives. I then work closely with them to help switch out non-vegan activities for vegan ones. An example of this is at Easter, I always bring non-dairy easter eggs for egg hunts, a wooden egg for my daughter to decorate instead of a real egg etc. This makes Evie feel included.
It’s also super important that you educate your child on why your family is vegan and other families are not. This is a tricky thing to do as you want them to understand what you do, but you don’t want them to be judgmental of those who aren’t vegan. We find reading, “That’s Why We Don’t Eat Animals” and “Vegan is Love” are really helpful tools.
Annika: Is your child’s pediatrician very vegan friendly?
Sharna: Yes. He totally understands and accepts veganism, he sees our kids are healthy and strong and has never given me any non-vegan advice.
Annika: Have you had experiences with doctors or nurses who were skeptical about your or your children’s veganism and its effect on your health?
Sharna: When Evie was first born I had a lot of difficulty with the maternal health nurses and their fear mongering about excluding animal products from her diet. At the same time I could see in their eyes that they saw Evie to be a big healthy, normal baby. A year later all the maternal health nurses in Victoria had to do a course on vegan and vegetarian families, and they were accepting after that. I should say that I have often felt like an educator with maternal health nurses.
Annika: How do you navigate situations like your children attending peer’s birthday parties where there may be predominantly non vegan food?
Sharna: This used to cause me a great deal of stress and anxiety! I would think, “will my child feel excluded, what will she eat, will kids pick on her” etc. But I never worry about it now. I always talk to the host a couple of weeks in advance and say, “I’m not sure if you know, but Evie is vegan. I’m happy to bring vegan party food for Evie if that helps, or I can give you some recipes. What will the other children be eating?”. I try my best to replicate what the other kids are eating so that my kids don’t feel excluded (and they never do). However, my daughter finds cake time challenging. I always bring vegan cupcakes for her to eat at cake time, but she tends to scoff her cake and run off to play. When I asked her why she does this she said, “All the other kids have really pretty cake, and I want it”. I said to her that she could eat it if she liked, but it would mean she wasn’t vegan any more. This mortified her and she said, “No way. I’m going to be vegan for life!!!”. I do make a concerted effort to make prettier cakes now though!
Annika: What are some of your favorite foods?
Sharna: FRUIT! Fruit and potatoes, you can’t go wrong!
Annika: Favorite restaurants?
Sharna: Shakhari, Veggie Hut and Ren Dao Vegetarian.
Annika: Favorite meals to make for your family?
Sharna: We eat a lot of veggie and tofu stir-fry as it’s quick and easy to prepare and tasty. Vegan Mac and cheese (made with cashew nuts) is also a favourite in our house.
Thank You Sharna!