For most vegans, in most places on earth, veganism is a challenge: "something that by its nature or character serves as a call to battle, contest, special effort, etc". It's a challenge when you're doing your groceries at the supermarket, when you're visiting (non-vegan) friends, when you're getting lunch at school or college or at work.
When I gave up all animal by-products in 2011 (after almost 20 years of ovo-lacto-vegetarianism), I learned to take the challenge for granted as part of my daily life.
And I ended up taking the challenge with me into hospital when I gave birth.
The birth of my daughter was a dramatic event punctuated by an ambulance ride. Amid rain and flashing lights, we rode to a city about an hour away from our home (and thus, far away from our kitchen, among other necessary comforts).
Our beautiful girl emerged healthy, lovely and awake. I started breastfeeding right away. Breastfeeding, and recovering from delivery, make you hungry as hell.
In the recovery room, a ward nurse visited to ask about my dietary needs. I explained that I would not consume any animal products whatsoever. Could this be accommodated? The nurse wasn't sure. She would talk to the nutritionist to see what was possible.
The nutritionist visited the next day. I didn't eat animal products? Then what did I eat?
No, the nutritionist said, it would be impossible to feed me if I did not eat animal products.
Could they at least provide me with plain vegetables? I asked. She would see what was possible.
France is not known for being open to veganism -- in fact, it's about as open to veganism as the Vatican is to lesbian Buddhist weddings. That is slowly changing thanks to associations like L214 -- but my home country is, apparently, a place where even hospital nutritionists can't imagine a world without beef.
It turns out that when they ask you about dietary needs, they're mainly asking about whether or not you eat halal.
I was forced to stay in hospital for four days due to medical issues. I was ravenous. Every day, my husband took the tram into the nearby city to buy me whatever vegan food he could find.
Dal and rice; avocados; whole-grain bread; and litres and litres of plain soymilk.
There was no desk in the room, only a tiny tray-on-wheels. I ate in quick gulps and tried to keep the crumbs off the baby.
Throughout my stay, the staff on the ward made the challenge of veganism even more of a challenge. I was served milk... beans with butter... The ward nurse continued to bring me dairy yogurt as a snack -- and every single time, I had to tell her I would not eat it and did not want it in the room.
One day, the ward nurse came in while I was breastfeeding and demanded to know (and not in a polite way) why I was vegan. I gave her a nice reply, but... c'mon... I was exhausted and on drugs. What was my religion? she wanted to know. (She was wearing a catholic saint's medallion around her neck.) Many religions have encouraged compassion to animals, I told her. What was my religion? she kept asking. She wouldn't even leave when my newborn daughter started crying for attention -- until I kicked her out of the room, wishing I had never been polite to her at all.
France is, in many ways, a profoundly conformist society. Veganism is a difference that people like this ward nurse may treat as an invitation to harass or interrogate -- as if you turned up to a business meeting wearing a trikini or a clown suit (or a trikini clown suit).
And so the challenge lasted until we could leave the hospital and return to our home, and home-cooked vegan meals.
I have a lot of good things to say about veganism and pregnancy -- that's why I started this blog. But I have nothing good to say about the way I was treated at the hospital, as a vegan, after my daughter's birth.
So why continue to be vegan under such difficult circumstances? Why endure the harassment, the ignorance, the indifference and the inconvenience?
Because veganism is an ethical commitment.
Because ethics mean nothing if you stick to them only when they are convenient.
And, for all the challenges, I would bet good money that I ate a much healthier and more nutritious diet than any other patient in that hospital simply by eating the "convenience food" that my husband picked up at the supermarket.
Breastfeeding and parenting have not reduced my commitment to veganism -- they have reinforced it, by giving me greater compassion towards the animals that are kept on dairy farms and egg farms, deprived of normal relationships with their parents and children, kept apart from those they love.
And my advice for vegan moms who give birth in hospital: pack soymilk.