Before we found out our younger child had severe, life-threatening food allergies, we kept the kids’ emergency information on a crumpled piece of paper, shoved in a drawer between the vegetable peeler and the wine opener.
But when our daughter was eight months old, we went to the allergist, hoping to figure out why she was chronically congested and why nothing we tried could touch her eczema. Going into the appointment, I was hopeful. Leaving the appointment, I was deflated. We learned our baby was allergic to eggs, peanuts, tree nuts, dairy, and wheat. We had strict instructions to keep the EpiPen with her at all times, to avoid letting someone who had so much as eaten a peanut kiss her, and to schedule a follow-up appointment.
In the weeks following the diagnosis, I cried overwhelmed tears whenever I thought about it. Could I protect my baby from the danger of a rogue cashew? Would I be able to trust anyone else to keep her safe? Would she miss the chance to be a normal kid? Fear consumed me.
It has been a year since we got the diagnosis and I still worry. I plan ahead for everything when food is involved. But just as friends and family assured me it would, living with allergies has become our new normal. If any of the below feel normal to you, welcome to the world of parenting an allergic kid, where a random piece of food at the playground is just as scary as a rattlesnake sighting.
- You don’t think twice about telling anyone, whether it’s a babysitter, a friend, or an overly friendly grandma-type in line at the bank, “Don’t feed my kid.” You’d hang a “Do Not Feed Me” sign around her neck, like they have at the zoo if it were socially acceptable.
- When the gluten-free, casein-free, dairy-free, soy-free chicken nuggets are on sale, you buy 10 packages.
- Your kids’ baby doll is prone to bouts of “anaphylactic.”
- You read food labels compulsively. You know all the 18-syllable words that dairy, wheat, nuts, and eggs hide in.
- You think nothing of digging through the trash to retrieve food packaging at a friend’s house in order to see the ingredient list.
- Your toddler brags to babysitters that she knows how to work the EpiPen. And though you’ve never verified whether or not this is actually true, she’s seen you show enough sitters how to do it that you’re pretty sure it is.
- When you arrive at any park/library/indoor play area/friend’s living room, you scan the floor for potential allergens. You do it again whenever a new child arrives. You do it again even if no one new has arrived, just to be on the safe side. You know people probably assume you’re a helicopter parent. You are too busy looking for rogue peanuts to care, though.
- When you are invited to a social gathering, you consider a number of factors including: the time of the event, your relationship with the host, how long you plan to stay, whether or not young children will be eating (and dropping) allergens, and the host’s personal experience with allergies. You use this matrix to determine whether 1) you will attend, 2) you will interrogate the host about the menu in advance, 3) you will casually inquire about the menu when you arrive, or 4) just bring your own safe meal–although you know you will bring your own food in the end, regardless.
- Your three year old bakes “birthday cakes” (piles of blocks heaped atop the lid of a shoebox) that she boasts are “dairy-free, gluten-free, and vegan.”
- You are used to putting the fear of God in everyone who watches your kid, and you prefer it that way. Well, not everyone. You wish your mom would be more scared.
- You have the local gluten-free, dairy-free bakery’s number stored in your contacts, and you have memorized their hours. You keep a few of their cupcakes in the freezer so you can bring your kid a safe treat to any birthday party or social gathering at a moment’s notice, and you don’t gorge on them until after the kids go to bed. Well, sometimes you do, but you always replace them ASAP.
- Your baby’s first taste of ice cream is not actually ice cream, but vegan, gluten-free lemon basil gelato, and it’s not because you’re crunchy hippies (even though that is exactly what you are, by most people’s standards)
- Your sister blows up your phone with photos, not of your nephew, but of ingredient lists on the foods she’s considering buying when you visit, to make sure they’re safe. You are beside yourself with gratitude. You feel extra bad for being mean to her when you were kids.
- The best birthday party you ever went to was the one where the host reached out to you in advance to find out exactly what your baby was allergic to and went out of her way to make special, allergen-free pancakes for her.
- When you fly, your diaper bag is stuffed with multiple days’ worth of safe snacks because although air travel with a toddler is unpredictable, you can depend on one thing: none of the free, processed, delicious snacks they give out on the plane are safe for your child.
- You keep your kids’ emergency information up-to-date in a special plastic folder that is always stored in the same place. You’ve stuck a neon yellow piece of duct tape across the front, where you’ve listed all the allergies and your address because 911 doesn’t know where you’re calling from when you use a cell phone. In said folder, five pieces of paper are devoted to the child with allergies. The child without allergies gets one measly page.
- You can’t wait for your allergic child to start talking–not because you want to hear all the sweet, funny things she will say (although you do), but because you will sleep better when she can say, “I have food allergies.”
But, who are you kidding? You’re a mom. Better sleep is a fantasy.