My son is a funny, compassionate, curious, silly 10-year-old who likes baseball, cheese pizza and LEGOs. Matthew has an obsession with Mine Craft and he can tell you the specific dimensions of the largest dinosaur that roamed the earth 65 billion years ago.
And he has a fatal peanut allergy.
The boy hasn’t eaten a bite of his own birthday cake (nut-free, of course) in four years. He scolds me when I eat ice cream for dinner and he’s the only human being that can possibly sustain himself at a healthy weight solely by consuming strawberry frosted pop-tarts, milk and apples.
Matthew loves dogs, achieves straight-A’s and loves to play tag with friends. And he adores his 21-year-old cousin who currently serves in the Army. If you ask him to describe himself and his life, he will tell you God is first, family is second and all else comes after that.
He won’t tell you he has a fatal nut allergy unless it’s necessary, or that he will die if he consumes peanut products. He won’t bore you with the details of his allergy appointments or whine about the painful needle tests he must endure every few years. Matthew carries two epinephrine pens with him everywhere he goes and he knows how serious his condition is. He has a healthy respect for his allergies, yet he’s not paralyzed in fear over them.
His friends are supportive and tend to look out for him during school lunch and at social gatherings. But he also knows the world is not going to change for him. Since Matthew was diagnosed before the age of one, food allergies have always been a part of his world – but only a small part.
Peanut allergies do not define him. He is so much more than what he can’t have.
Not me. I’m one of those allergy-moms. The fatal condition defines my role as a mother. I am part warrior, part bundle of nerves. I am a chef, advocate, coach, chauffeur, counselor, accountant, maid, bodyguard and teacher who shops for last-minute cupcakes at 1 AM in Walmart in my pajamas just so my kid can have a safe treat at school the next day.
Even time has new meaning since Matthew was born. For him, 10 minutes represents the time he’s allowed to play on the computer after his shower, but before bed; 10 minutes is the time it takes to drive him to school every morning. For me, all I have is 10 minutes to save Matthew’s life if he comes in contact with a peanut.
Most of us didn’t grow up knowing someone with food allergies. So it’s foreign to us as adults when we’re confronted with the daunting challenges of being an allergy parent. We know that being our friends – just knowing us – is no walk in the park either. As you wrap up your supply shopping and figure out how to master being in three places at once, please take a moment to remember this:
We don’t want to be in that nut-free class either – We love the anticipation of learning who our teachers will be for the upcoming year. Our phones light up with text messages and our Facebook news ticker goes hyper with updates and questions. I think we get into this more than our children do, regardless of their age and grade. But we hear your whispers too. The ones that say, “I hope we’re not in that nut-free class,” or the “I will just die if we’re in the no-peanut room this year.” (You won’t die, I promise). Remember in third grade, when you were chosen last for the kickball team during recess? If that wasn’t bad enough, the most popular kid in school grumbled, “We’re going to lose for sure now” when your name was called out. That’s how you make us feel, only 1,700 times worse. For real. We don’t want to be in that nut-free class either. We never wanted to be the one that lost the game for our class, and we don’t like being the parent that says your child can’t consume a food they enjoy.
This is not a lifestyle choice – Eating right is all the rage these days and we admire people who check ingredients, but we don’t spend three hours every week standing in the grocery store aisle reading labels and Googling obscure lists on our iPhones because we’re on some crazy health food kick. We’re studying labels to make sure it’s safe for our children. Reducing calories is a lifestyle choice. Eliminating fat and cutting out red meat is a lifestyle choice. Eating peanut-free foods is about our life.
We love play dates, birthday parties and social get-togethers – We know we’re high-maintenance parents, but please don’t judge – or worse – exclude our children because we sound like the equivalent of someone who should hold three medical degrees. We feel badly that we ask so many questions but our concerns about food safety and our children’s health is not reflective of our fun, outgoing personality.
A little extra goes a long way – We know your kids love peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and nutty snacks. We hate being the foodie Grinch, but children are notoriously messy eaters. Food residue is a big concern. When you encourage your kids to wash their hands and wipe their face thoroughly after they’re done eating, we can ensure our children’s safety when they play together, share toys and school supplies or even high-five each other.
Ask questions – I don’t know of a single parent of a child with any food allergy that doesn’t welcome questions. In fact, I publicize my mobile number and email address and invite texts 24/7. As a result, I’ve received phone calls at 11PM from moms standing in the grocery store aisle trying to pick out classroom treats for the following day. We will answer your questions as best as we can, and if we don’t know the answer, we promise to get it for you. We also appreciate the communication because it allows us to provide our own treat, which gives us peace of mind and makes your job easier.
Living with allergies is a challenge for everyone, especially for the person who must be careful what they eat or touch. We get that. But just as we don’t want our child to carry that weight alone, we don’t want you to either. This is our battle to wage, we just ask for your support and prayers. And when it comes to food, we hope you look after our children and keep them safe very much the same way you would if our children were trying to cross a busy street full of fast moving cars.
We do the same for you.