A lot of parents feel their lives are neatly divided into two categories: “before kids” and “after kids.” For parents of kids with allergies, there is another division: “blissful ignorance” and “food as a lethal weapon.” We discovered my son’s peanut allergy when he was 21 months old and I had nothing in my purse to tide him over until lunch other than a peanut butter granola bar, which his 4-year-old sister was able consume to no ill effect. We had avoided feeding his older sister any peanut products before she turned three, as was the recommendation at the time from pediatricians. But like most parents, we had let our guards down with our second kid. Not only had we found most of our worrying, safeguarding behavior (and over-reliance on hand sanitizer) futile, but we simply didn’t have the bandwidth to focus with the same intensity on more than one child.
So when I knew lunch was going to be another hour away and there were no other options at this indoor bouncy house place where we were spending the morning, I unwrapped the granola bar and let Little C take a nibble. He loved it, of course (it’s PEANUT BUTTER! What’s not to love??) and reached out for more. I gingerly obliged.
Until I noticed him rubbing his eyes... with little chubby hands that were breaking out in tiny red dots... as his face started swell.
Instinctively, I stuck a boob in his mouth. Breastfeeding was a crutch I leaned on heavily when my kids got fussy. Maybe he was just coming down with a cold, and was getting fussy. The puffiness around his eyes was alarming.
We rushed him to Urgent Care, which did not take our insurance. They informed us another center was about 10 minutes away and possibly took United. All this while my son’s face ballooned and the redness spread up his arms. Did we even have 10 minutes before he stopped breathing? We stayed, we paid, and he got a super-shot of epinephrine, along with a big slurp of Benadryl.
And he was OK. But nothing about our lives has been the same since. Testing confirmed he has a life-threatening peanut allergy and he goes nowhere without his Epi-Pen.
At five years old, he knows he can’t have peanuts and he asks if new food he encounters has peanuts. We are a peanut-free home and his sister, my husband and I all abstain from consuming peanut products, even outside the home. I couldn’t bear the thought of a trace of a peanut butter cup (OH GOD I MISS PEANUT BUTTER CUPS!!!) lingering on my clothes, and his life being so unnecessarily threatened.
I feel the world is more savvy now when it comes to food allergies than it was when I was a kid. Don’t we all know someone whose kid has a food allergy? And yet, families like ours are still made to feel “other” when it comes to food safety. I’m not saying everyone should go nut- or soy- or dairy- or gluten- or all of the above-free. But please accept the threat of certain foods to certain kids as real.
Close friends and family know not to serve us peanut products. But as my son makes new friends and I find myself accompanying him to birthday parties of practical strangers, I’m surprised by how often I hear some of these annoying things after I share the vital stats of my son’s peanut allergy:
Does it? While my kid may never know the joy of Trader Joe’s mini dark chocolate peanut butter cups, he also won’t know what he’s missing. There are so many wonderful things he can eat and learn to cook for himself. Eliminating certain items from your diet doesn’t suck, although having to help my kid navigate an allergen-filled world definitely does.
I don’t know if he can have what you’re serving. Can you tell me exactly what’s in it? And if you don’t know all the ingredients, please don’t then go on to say...
Unless you know exactly what’s in it, you can’t be sure. So, no thanks.
In an effort to protect children with food allergies, some schools segregate them from the rest of the student population at lunch time. But what sense does it make to stick the kids allergic to gluten, who bring peanut butter on spelt bread, with the kids allergic to peanut butter, who bring almond butter on wheat? Seriously? We can do better. If we can’t group common allergies together, how about we just let the kids sit with their friends and ban certain foods? Too much trouble for non-allergy families to deal with? Just because our generation didn’t have to vet so many foods for safety doesn’t mean that we're incapable of it. It's not actually hard. We’re raising kids in a different environment, one that needs to evolve to suit their needs. Until we find a way to diminish severe allergies, can we just ban the big culprits from school lunch programs and Little League snack options?
Look, we don’t throw the word “allergic” around casually. It’s a hassle to clear our cupboards of seemingly harmless foodstuffs that could lay our children to waste. Being “sensitive” doesn’t bring on anaphylaxis, where the throat closes and the organs start to shut down, in a matter of minutes. This is a life-or-death situation. Please don’t dismiss my concern as a symptom of helicopter parenting.
This is not actually a terrible question in theory: You're probably trying, out of place of real respect and concern, trying to ascertain where the line of danger lies. But why would you push your luck? Can you just be a good person and not deliberately bring a food my kid is allergic to when we’ve planned to hang out? I love flowers, but I don’t need them, and I certainly wouldn’t keep them around if someone with a life-threatening plant allergy was coming over.
We’re not asking for big changes. While peanut butter is seemingly ubiquitous, there are so many terrific nut-free substitutes that would safeguard all children from the threat of anaphylaxis. We’ll do all the work educating you and providing lists of alternatives; can you please agree to employ them in group settings such as school, camp and birthday parties.
I’m fine with your choices, as long as they don’t affect me or my son. I can’t stop parents from bringing potentially deadly food to, say, the playground, but I can definitely stop them from bringing it into our home. Food should be enjoyed, but how much is that enjoyment truly impinged upon when you’re asked to eat it when simply when we’re not around?
Images: Ali Inae/Unsplash; Giphy(8)