The first time I went grocery shopping after my youngest son was diagnosed with food allergies, I spent three hours at the store and cried my way through the aisles. I read label after label, scanning for tree nuts, peanuts, and soy, becoming more discouraged as I went.
What is he going to eat?
How am I going to keep him safe?
Is it always going to be this hard?
In time, I realized I was going to have to do more cooking at home, including baked goods, snacks, and bread items. If it came from my kitchen, I could guarantee that he would eat safely and there would be no allergic reactions.
What I couldn’t control was what happened outside my front door. Every time he left home I feared what could happen. Would he make good choices at restaurants? Would he ask the right questions so the chefs understood what he could and could not eat?
The biggest challenge we faced was at his school. Our district has a combined middle/high school and in spite of “rules” against eating in the classroom, most teachers allow it. Lunch periods are short, some kids don’t bring a lunch, and the teachers don’t want the kids to go hungry. I get it, I really do. I want to feel sympathetic to all those situations and be the understanding parent, except I can’t.
Because I’ve had to race to the Emergency Room, both frantic with worry for my child and trying to remain hopeful in the medical doctors.
Will this reaction be worse than the last one?
Will the doctors be able to stop the reaction from progressing too far?
Everything will be okay…right?
Please, don’t let this be the reaction that takes his life.
At my son’s school, I heard about how students would take food he was allergic to and put it right up into his face. My son reported how classmates would eat items with peanuts and/or peanut butter, and then pass out folders – now possibly contaminated with nut oils – he had to hold during chorus class. He grumbled on about how they bullied him over his food allergies and made him feel like an outcast. In spite of his initial protests not to get involved, I became “that mom.” My mother bear instincts kicked in and I was consumed with keeping my child safe. I felt the school was failing him, and other less vocal students like him. If they weren’t going to protect him of their own accord, I was going to make them. I wrote emails and sent letters to the school, demanding that they keep peanut products–the most severe of my child’s allergies–out of the classrooms he spent his time in. I listed all the ways they were endangering my child, and how I was ready to pursue the issue all the way to the school board if I had to. It resulted in backlash from the school, and increased taunting from the kids.
Several of the teachers in the Fine and Performing Arts department posted a sign on the music room door in an attempt to keep the room nut-free. A parent of one of the band students complained to me that her child (and other students), sometimes ate their lunch in the hallway to comply with the nut-free rule, but the fact that they could no longer eat in the classroom caused them to miss out on instruction time. She made comments about how everything was “fine” the way it was before, and implied that other students shouldn’t be suffering from this inconvenience just because MY CHILD ( her emphasis added) had an allergy. She felt it was unfair.
It’s not fair, I agree. It’s not fair that my son can die because of the food he eats, or the food other people eat, because just breathing in peanut dust or having peanut oil near him can cause a severe reaction. It’s not fair that for the rest of his life he has to be diligent about where he goes, what he does, and how he interacts with people just to stay alive.
I wanted to vocalize all of these things to that mother, to make her understand how awful I felt about the whole situation. I wanted to tell her that I understood her frustrations and that I agreed with her. I wanted to tell her how upset I was with the students who were putting my son in potentially life-endangering positions, with the school for not doing more to keep him safe, and with myself for having to disrupt the learning of her child and others. But I couldn’t. Anger and fear were fighting a raging battle within my heart, and with my son’s life at stake, I couldn’t find the words.
Before I was a mother of a child with food allergies, I was not aware of how the choices I made each day when sending a packed lunch or snacks to school with my children could potentially harm another child. As Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better.” The more I learned about food allergies, the more I was able to help my son make better choices for himself, and to help educate his peers about the choices they made when they would be spending time with him and near him. As a young adult, he is now able to advocate for himself, and his friends do not hesitate to ask him questions about what they are planning to eat and if it safe for him to be near, or if a food they ate earlier in the day will cause him to have a reaction.
Through visits with the allergy doctor, discussions with other moms of children with food allergies, and by reading resources from organizations such as Food Allergy Research and Education (FARE) I am able to make better choices when bringing a food item to an event. I make sure it is free of the top 8 allergens, so that it can be enjoyed by a majority of people, as well as including a list of ingredients. I also make a note that lets others know my food is prepared in a home free of several of the common allergens, and list those as well. Being the mom of a child with food allergies has made me more aware of how difficult it is for people who have limited diets to safely eat at social events. In addition to advocating for more awareness of food allergies, I try to set an example for others in how to meet the needs of those with special diets.
When my son was still in high school, it eased my mind when other parents contacted me ahead of time about food they would be serving at functions and asked questions about ingredients they weren’t sure about. I love when family members check in with me before social events about what kinds of food they can serve that my son can safely eat. These simple gestures make a person with food allergies feel loved and included, and help build the community of allies.
Beth Richardson is a writer of creative nonfiction with too many hobbies, who is currently distracted from her work by pursuing a college degree. With her husband and two young adult sons, she lives in southwest New Hampshire where she blogs about organized living, self care, and bullet journaling at justplainbeth.com, and on Instagram.