When Maureen Gainer Reilly felt herself going green, she bonded back to an archetypal female role.
"For hundreds of years, through the generations, it has been the women and mothers who have led the way in taking their family in new and different directions," says the 33-year-old mother from Roscoe Village.
Gainer Reilly, a professional organizer, and her sister Nora are part of a close-knit community coalesced around the classes and klatches organized by the Green Mama of Rogers Park. Connecting through their commitment to want less, need less and use less is what keeps this fervent flock of eco-friendly moms on the emerald path.
Manda Aufochs Gillespie is the green guru at the center of this cluster of women who swaddle their babies in cloth diapers, swab their floors with white vinegar and proudly sport hand-me-down duds.
After being outed as an environmentally conscious mom in a Chicago Tribune article about three years ago, Gillespie morphed into the Green Mama. Overwhelmed by the outpouring of interest the newspaper spot inspired, she found her mission to create a community for environmentally conscientious parenting. She hosts a weekly playgroup-seminar called the Green Mama Cafe and launched a Web site, thegreenmama.com.
Most women in the group say parenthood was the catalyst that prompted them to take a closer look at the types and amounts of things they use.
"Having a baby made me put so much of this environmental lifestyle change into action and start seeking out other like-minded people for guidance and discussion," says Maureen Gainer Reilly, the mother of Noreen, 2, and Brendon, 4 months.
Food for thought
Gillespie calls her weekly gatherings "brain food" and for good reason. Changing food-buying habits is where a lot of moms start to make the lifestyle shift. That boils down to buying locally and opting for organics.
Green Mama groupies are vocal fans of Community Supported Agriculture. They pay about $300 up front to contract with a local farmer. Then, beginning in June, they get weekly shipments of fresh, chemical-free grains, meats, berries and apples.
A lot of people think buying local and organic is expensive, but the CSA package actually is less expensive than buying the same items from the supermarket, customers say.
"This saves loads of things—packaging, food, miles," says Nora Gainer, a 39-year-old hospitality marketer who lives with her husband, Ferdia Doherty, and 6-month-old daughter Bébhinn, (pronounced Bay-veen).
The cost comes in skimpier selection.
"When you’re buying local, you’re not getting bananas," Gillespie says.
Cleaning out harsh household chemicals is probably the easiest change everyone can make. Our green mamas toss out all the cleaners they have in the house and go back to the three simple formulas their great-grandmothers relied on: Baking soda, vinegar, lemon juice.
"All these cleaners are such a scam, where these basics are so cheap," Gainer Reilly says. "If people have been using these simple substances for 100 years, they probably do work."
There are exceptions. For laundry, Gainer Reilly uses Charlie’s soap, a vegetable-based biodegradable product. At $16, the box seemed pricey, but it has lasted six months, she says. Gillespie turns to Dr. Bonner’s Sal Suds, a biodegradable made with spruce needle oils, to mop her floors because it smells so good.
Gillespie warns against trying to be too sterile. She found herself whipping the hand sanitizer out of her purse to protect her little girl from unclean cooties. Then she looked it up online, at Skin Deep Cosmetic Safety Database.
Hand sanitizers are up to 99 percent alcohol, she found. A few children have actually died from alcohol poisoning due to overly sanitary moms, her digging divulged. The cosmetic safety Web site also alerted the Green Mama to phthalates in fragrances within many baby skin products. Now she reverts back to olive oil to keep skin healthy.
"If you wouldn’t put it in your body, don’t put it on your body," is her mantra.
Perhaps the most positive step parents of infants can take to ease the cost to the environment and their bank accounts is using cloth diapers.
Parents can bank about $2,000 in a college fund by passing up the Pampers, Gillespie figures. Environmental awareness is spawning campaigns promoting reusable alternatives such as cloth or hybrid diapers to downsize the 3.4 million tons of used diapers and raw feces piling up in landfills each year.
Today’s reusable diapers are not your grandma’s demons of pins and rubber pants. Here is an example where progress trumps times past.
"These are the Cadillac of cloth diapers," Gillespie says.
Soft, plush and absorbent without chemicals, most modern fitted cloth diapers don’t require diaper pins. And, don’t think plastic pants when you hear the term "diaper cover." This is nothing like the crunchy plastic pants of yesterday. The new generation of pull-ons is made from lightweight, waterproof nylon fabric that lets heat escape while keeping moisture inside.
Nora Gainer uses Fuzzi Bunz brand diapers that she buys at Be By Baby, a store specializing in natural baby products in Roscoe Village.
"In these financial times, I thank God we are cloth-diapering because no matter how bad things get, she will always be a happy dry child as all we need is a little soap and some water," she says.
Gillespie went a step further to diminish her diaper exposure. Although she first laughed at the concept herself, she professes to have unexpected success at infant potty training, known among eco-mommies as "elimination communication."
She simply sat her baby on a toilet at regular intervals, coming in tune with the child’s schedules and body language. At 6 months, her daughter was eliminating on the toilet 90 percent of the time, Gillespie says. She was completely potty trained before she was 2.
Re-do your duds
Do you still think it’s gauche to wrap up that fancy baby party dress your daughter wore once for someone else’s baby shower or birthday party? It’s a new day, Ma. That’s not tacky. It’s trendy.
Nora Gainer boasts that all her baby clothes and furniture right down to the bouncy chairs are hand-me-downs.
"Sometimes people feel awkward giving handed-down clothes as gifts, so make it clear on party invitations or in person that this is not only acceptable, but preferable," Gillespie says.
About a fifth of clothing purchases never leave the closet until they are thrown away, where they account for about 4 percent of landfill space, according to the Green Mama’s numbers. Manufacturing synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process eating up loads of crude oil and pouring pollutants into the air and water. Dyes that color our clothes lead to heavy metals coursing in our sewers and rivers, while killing color with bleach generates the toxin dioxin.
And there’s a social upshot of a deep wardrobe. About a third of our garments come from countries that keep their textile workers in slave-like situations.
If you do buy new, Gillespie advises, look for organic, fairly traded clothing. It’s not a tricky as you’d imagine; even Target has a line of organic clothes. Environmentally hip shoppers can seek out alternative materials like bamboo, hemp and, OK, even corn and recycled pet fleece by Patagonia.
When you get tired of your outfits, or the kids get too big for their britches, re-gift them, re-sell them or drop them off at the thrift store.
These eco-fems find that what’s good for their planet also proves to be good for their family.
"It turns out that what saves money also saves resources and what is better for the environment can also make parenting easier, if you have the right mindset," Nora Gainer says.
The key, they all agree, is to take it step by step, making one change at a time so that going green doesn’t disrupt the family’s entire lifestyle and become a burden. It should be fun and easy.
What’s the biggest benefit of her green lifestyle?
"Peace of mind," Nora Gainer says.
What: An interactive group for parents of young children, intended to foster community and provide support for families pursuing green lifestyles. Toddler Time, for children age 1-3, is a playgroup with members of the nature museum’s early childhood staff.
When: Tuesdays, 10:30-11:30 a.m. through May 5
Where: Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon Drive, Chicago
Cost: $30/museum member or $50/nonmember or $5/single-session. Also $5 per child for Toddler Time.
To register: Visit www.naturemuseum.org or call (773) 755-5111 ext. 6
April 7: Going green/saving green. Tips on how to save money and resources at home.
April 14: Green and organized. Does your home look like a 2-year-old decorated it? Tips for getting yourself and your home green and organized. Special guest: professional organizer Maureen Gainer Reilly.
April 21: Green birthday parties. How to celebrate more but consume less with birthday parties. (Including tips on how to avoid toxic toys.)
April 28: Eat your sunscreen! Advice on finding safer wipes, soaps, creams and sunscreen. Tips on what to buy and what to make and how nutrition can help.
May 5: Farewell potluck. Feeding families better: how to raise organic kids on a budget and a recipe exchange. Special guest: green chef Ellen King.