'I looked like I had it all. Then a plastic straw broke me.'

In the first year of my daughter’s life, I was also reborn. 

Before Vivian’s birth, I was the stereotypical Type-A personality with a five-year plan, a regimented morning routine and a daily schedule that was so tightly packed my assistant had to schedule in toilet breaks. 

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Yes, this really happened: in my former life as a high-flying corporate engineer, my personal assistant had to schedule in five minute toilet breaks between back-to-back meetings to give me time to go to the toilet, eat, drink and do all the other essential things a human being requires. 

But all this fell to pieces when my daughter was born. Babies don’t have a schedule, and they certainly don’t give a rat’s ass about your morning routine. Five-year plans? Pfft, you can’t even make a five-minute plan. This, you can imagine, was a shock to the system for a person like me.

On the outside, I was pretending I was still managing. I thought if I planned it all thoroughly and asked for help when I needed it, then everything would be fine. I was wrong. The pressure I had placed on myself to ‘have it all’, and look good while doing so, had turned my life into a pressure cooker waiting to explode.

This led to the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ incident. I was sitting down at my favourite cafe after a ten-hour day of work in a hospital. After almost a decade as an engineering manager, I had returned to study medicine, and was in the middle of a surgical rotation as a trainee doctor. 

I hadn’t eaten all day and all I wanted was a green smoothie. Being 'the zero waste girl', I said to the waiter, "No straw please, I am trying to reduce my waste". He nodded and smiled. "Of course, we need more people like you."

I was an eco-warrior, the best-selling author, the happy mother, the diligent medical student. If you looked at the perfectly tiled pictures on my Instagram page, you’d think I really did have it all.

Image: Supplied. 


The smoothie arrived... and in it was a plastic straw. I immediately burst into tears. It was literally the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I was inconsolable. You’d have thought that straw meant the demise of all sea life, that that straw was cause of all the methane in our atmosphere, but really, what that straw represented was overwhelm. I was completely and utterly overwhelmed – by being a full-time medical student, by being a new mother, and by trying to live a perfect, zero waste life.

My tears represented the oppressive feeling in my chest that I wasn’t doing enough, that I wasn’t the best medical student, that I wasn’t the best mum, that I wasn’t being the most eco-conscious citizen. I felt like a fraud.

As parents we are constantly juggling the needs of others, children, work, chores, money. The state of the planet is the last thing on our minds. To make matters worse, plastic pollution, climate change, ecosystem collapse and the extinction of the bees (the bees!) is splashed across the media as if it is an inevitable apocalypse. 

What can we mere humans do if we are doomed to fail anyway? The COVID-19 crisis has illustrated even more clearly to me we are all juggling different priorities, and sustainable living has to be simple and seamless.

As I write this now, my hair is unwashed, the dinner isn’t ready, the baby is crying and I haven’t prepared for the exam I have tomorrow. I am tired. 

Image: Supplied. 


This tiredness is more than just a general fatigue, it is a bone-tiredness that comes from sleepless nights and the guilt of not doing enough. Not enough for your child, not enough at work, not enough for the environment. Enough.

Since becoming a parent, I’ve experienced ‘parental guilt’ on a regular basis. Unsurprisingly, this guilt has also expanded into other areas of my life, including a newly formed eco-guilt. For the first time ever, eco-anxiety has entered the psychiatric lexicon to describe the anxiety that we feel about the future of planet. Eco-anxiety is a real thing, and it is not unfounded. 

We should be anxious about climate change, plastic pollution, dying ecosystems and mass extinction, but this anxiety should fuel our fire to want to make a change, no matter how small, rather than overwhelm us. We don’t need another thing to add to the guilt of parenthood, but we do need to appreciate that every small act leads to a bigger change – a change in mindset, a change in lifestyle and, eventually, a change in the wellbeing of our planet.

Listen to This Glorious Mess, Mamamia's twice parenting podcast. In this episode, Leigh speaks to Anita Vandyke about being a zero waste family. Post continues below. 

Reducing plastic pollution and lowering our waste is something we can all achieve in our everyday lives. These everyday actions can empower us to have more control over issues that often feel so out of our control. 

But I know that trying to live a zero waste life while simultaneously raising a family can feel almost impossible at times. That's why I'm here to help with A Zero Waste Family - a gentle, 30 day guide with the tips and tricks I learned during my first year as a mum, while also studying medicine and trying to reduce my waste. 

It's not about adding any guilt.

It’s about showing how, by applying zero waste and minimalist principles, being an eco-parent doesn’t have to be difficult,


This is an edited extract from A Zero Waste Family by Anita Vandyke, published by Penguin Random House Australia on 1 December 2020, $19.99. 

Image Supplied. 

You can purchase A Zero Waste Family here.

Feature image: Supplied.

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