When my son was 21 months old, we took a trip to visit my husband’s family in Buffalo, a 7-hour car ride from our New York City home. We really tried to make this visit count, planning activities, meals, and spending as much time with our relatives as possible. But on one rainy day, when we decided to hit an indoor bouncy playhouse with our kids and their cousins, my toddler almost died. Not from a bad fall off a bouncy slide, but from a snack I gave him. It was a mistake that almost cost my son his life, and after I caught my breath from the ordeal, it made me realize some very important things.
I always hear, “It shouldn’t take a tragedy for you to realize [fill in the blank of whatever horrible thing about yourself you need to fix].” Honestly, though, it’s kind of true. My son is my second child, and my parenting approach has been more relaxed than it was with his older sister. I’ve lived through one toddler, and I’ve learned as a result. The problem was, my kids are two very different people, and I shouldn’t have assumed I could parent them in the same way.
While we kept peanut products away from our daughter until she was over 3 years old, on this trip I had a peanut butter granola bar in my bag. It was from a variety pack, and those were the ones left in the box. My daughter, 4 at the time of this particular trip, wasn’t allergic, and though I didn’t intend to give our son, not quite 2 years old, any peanut products yet, I wasn’t really worried about him being allergic either. No one in our family had a peanut allergy, so my default thinking was that my son wouldn’t have one either.
I was wrong. Dead wrong.
Around mid-morning, he was hungry, and we were about an hour away from having lunch. Breastfeeding him wasn’t going to sate his appetite sufficiently, so I rummaged through the diaper bag for a snack. All I had were the peanut butter granola bars, grabbed in haste as I hustled to get everyone out the door to make the most of our morning. I knew full-well that my son hadn’t ever had a peanut product before in his life, but at this moment I just wanted to be able to feed him.
He started nibbling, enjoying the new flavor. He was about halfway finished with the bar when I saw some red dots starting to appear on his hands. He began rubbing his eyes, but continued munching on the bar. Minutes later, his eyes started swelling up. He clawed at his throat but he wasn’t crying. He looked, well, bad.
I quickly shoved a boob in his mouth, hoping breast milk would start to work its magic while I signaled my husband to come over. “We have to get him to urgent care. I think he’s having an allergic reaction to something.” Something. In reality, I knew exactly what he was having the reaction to.
We coordinated quickly with our in-laws for them to hold on to our daughter while we rushed my son to the urgent care center about 10 minutes away. He was seen quickly, given a mega dose of Benadryl, and kept for observation for over an hour; me sweating and pacing the whole time. My son whined and cried, hungry from missing lunch, and tired from having his nap time delayed. When the swelling subsided, the physician discharged him, ordering us to follow up with our pediatrician when we returned home later that week. Sure enough, when he was tested, we learned our son was deadly allergic to peanuts and requires an Epi Pen wherever he goes.
While my son has no memory of this event, I can replay it in vivid detail. It is etched into my memory, yes, but it hasn’t traumatized me. In fact, it was almost a learning experience. Because of that near-fatal mistake I made, I have learned some very important lessons:
I Need To Ask For Help
I definitely made it known to my husband, and in-laws, when I realized my son’s face was blowing up and he needed medical attention. I should have asked for help way before that point, though. I should have asked someone to be in charge of the diaper bag, or to just occupy the toddler so I didn’t have to take a rushed shower for once.
I can’t do it all when it comes to parenting (or anything, really), and I need to lean more on the people on my life so I have more time to pay attention and not let things, like peanut butter, slip through the cracks.
It’s Ok To Be Late If It Means Being Safe
Why did I even have that peanut butter granola bar in my bag? Probably because we were rushing to leave the house and I just grabbed what was immediately available. Although I had been careful not to give my older child any peanut products until she was 3 years old, as was recommended by our pediatrician at the time, I was more relaxed about this policy with my son and since my older kid had no food allergies. If I had just taken a few more minutes, or asked someone to help me, I could have rounded up a snack for my toddler to bring with us to the bouncy house place that I absolutely knew was not going to cause any issues.
No Two Kids Of Mine Will Ever Be The Same
Just because my daughter didn't have a single food allergy, didn’t mean my son wouldn’t, too. Although I swear I ate the same exact things while pregnant and nursing both of them, they turned out just to have different chemical make-ups.
One child exhibits no food sensitivities, the other is deathly allergic to peanuts. My kids need the same basic needs from me — unconditional love, nourishment, shelter, and attention — but their specific needs are definitely unique to each of them.
I Can Afford To Put Make Children’s Health A Priority
The urgent care said they didn’t take our insurance, and that there was another center about 10 minutes away that accepted it. I didn’t know if we had 10 minutes. My son’s face was swelling up and he was covered in angry red hives. We decided we'd pay the uninsured rate for the urgent care visit (hundreds of dollars) and deal with our insurance later to try to get at least part of it reimbursed. That didn’t happen, though it did count towards our deductible. In the grand scheme of things it didn’t matter to us, financially. My husband and I had good, mid-career positions in the TV advertising industry and we could afford to pay for this emergency.
But it made me think about all the families who don’t have that financial security. Those parents, when faced with the risk of their child possibly not making it through this horrific allergic reaction, might need to take that chance because they simply can’t afford the out-of-pocket treatment cost. There are families who are faced with these impossible dilemmas, choosing between their children’s health and the cost to put food on the table or gas in the car or next month’s rent. I am one of the lucky ones.
I Should Trust My Instincts
In grabbing those peanut butter granola bars to take with us in case our kids got hungry, I felt something inside me twinge. This was uncharted territory, as my son had never had one of those bars before. My daughter had, so I knew they were safe for her to eat, but I should have listened to that little alert and taken it into account, as opposed to brushing it off as unnecessary worry.
Sometimes it gets so hard to hear that inner voice when I have so much around me I need to be paying attention to, including but certainly not limited to: a 1 year old, a 4 year old, the three other adults in the house, since we were staying with my in-laws at the time, and time constraints. Now I know that if something feels remotely “off,” I need to do a gut-check, and not dismiss it.
Laying Blame Is Pointless
I totally blamed myself for my son blowing up with a severe allergic reaction when I fed him that granola bar. Of course it was my fault, right? I mean, I was the one who put it in my bag and who decided to give it to him.
My guilt serves no other purpose, though, other than just making myself feel bad. Maybe it acts as a bit of a deterrent so I can avoid making the same mistake, but after witnessing how my son suffered in the wake of ingesting half a granola bar, I was never going to let anything like that happen again. Not if I could avoid it My husband never called out that it was I who fed my son poison, and never made me feel like the event was my fault, so I shouldn’t do that either.
Being Scared Is Something I Need To Deal With
When faced with the worst possible scenario I could have imagined for my child, I was scared to death. I had never been gripped by that level of terror before, even when I was sexually assaulted in college or cornered by a hulking drunk dude on a near-empty subway car at 2 a.m. when I was coming home by myself from working late.
Still, part of the deal of parenting, I’ve learned, is managing the wide range of emotions that are inherent in raising vulnerable little human beings.
I Can’t Protect My Kids From Every Bad Thing
Sh*t happens, and sometimes it’s really, really bad. Even if you consider yourself the most vigilant parent, baby-proofing wherever you go, kids are going to find a way to get hurt. I can’t put them in a bubble, and I really think that pain needs to be part of life, otherwise my kids won’t know how to recover from a negative situation. As awful as I felt for my daughter when she was a victim of some mean girl behavior in third grade, she weathered that storm and ultimately learned how to be an even better friend, to those who deserve her companionship.
I’m not saying I’m thankful for my son’s near-death experience, but knowing that I can’t protect my kids from all the evil in the world does make me just the teeniest bit less anxious.
I Am Never Done Learning How To Be A Parent
As my kids grow up my parenting skills evolve. I am not the same mom now as I was nine years ago when my daughter was born. I am better at filtering the chaos of children and honing in on what needs my attention.
I’m not done learning, though. My kids, at 9 and 6, will have different needs from me as they grow into tweens, teens, young adults. I need to keep up. I have not “solved” motherhood, I only know what I’ve experienced and I’m just going to keep building on that.
It starts with no peanut butter granola bars, and we go from there.