Did you know this week is Food Allergy Awareness Week? 2 years ago this week, I had no idea about life with food allergies, much less that there was an awareness week, when my husband and I let our then 18 month old twins try their first taste of peanut butter. My son was fine but my daughter immediately developed a bright red rash on her mouth and face. Formal allergy testing confirmed what we had feared: our child was that one in thirteen children with a food allergy.
Every so often, an article makes the rounds, where a parent of a non-allergic child laments restrictions on peanut butter in schools, or the inability to bring homemade cupcakes to a class party because of an allergic child in the class or a school-wide ban on certain items. Before having children I would hear about peanut-free schools and I didn’t understand it. I thought, if a child is allergic, he or she should just not eat that food, right? And why should everyone change for one person? It’s not that I didn’t care, it’s that I just didn’t understand.
Like parenting in general, I think food allergies are one of those areas that, unless you live it every single day, it’s really hard to understand the intricacies of managing it. In the last 2 years, I’ve gone from hearing “allergy” and thinking of the sneezing fits my husband gets when he’s around cats, to thinking of things like anaphylaxis and EpiPens. I’ve learned that EpiPens aren’t something you use and then go about your day; it’s emergency medication to buy time to get to the hospital for steroids and monitoring. I’ve learned that EpiPen prescriptions are very expensive with our insurance and, though I pray I never need to use them, I should never leave home without them.
I’ve learned that managing a food allergy is not as simple as just not eating the allergen. Cross-contact, which is what occurs when an allergen is accidentally transferred from a something containing an allergen to a food that is otherwise safe, is a huge risk for allergic individuals. The risk of cross-contact is why I read every single label on every single item that comes into my house, every single time I buy it, and why I call companies whose labeling doesn’t tell me everything I need to know to feel comfortable feeding it to my child. It’s why I don’t get things from bakeries or restaurants that use peanuts; no food is worth my daughter’s health and safety. And it’s why I now know that a ban on peanut butter in school is not because the allergic child can’t be trusted to not eat other children’s food (every single time I drop off my daughter at school, we discuss how she can only eat food from home and, even at home, she will ask if things are safe for her), it’s because peanut butter is sticky and, the peanut butter on one child’s hand, leftover from lunch, could end up on an allergic child’s skin via the playground or other shared surfaces. This kind of contact may not cause the same severity of reaction as ingestion, but, the insidious thing about peanut allergies in particular is that the severity of past reactions do not predict future reactions, and what for one child could cause hives could cause anaphylaxis for another.
I’ve learned to not take it personally when I receive unsolicited advice as to how I could have avoided this. Yes, I’m glad that breastfeeding your child under a full moon while wearing a yak pelt means your child is allergy free, but this information doesn’t do me much good at this point, and I’m really not sure it would have made a difference one way or the other. I’ve learned to advocate and speak up for my child, and teach her to speak up for herself, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable it may feel in the moment. And, sadly, I have learned that some people in my life, no matter how much information I give them will ever fully believe that this is a very real, and potentially dangerous condition.
When you encounter a parent of a child with food allergies, and, given the dramatic increase in food allergies, I can almost guarantee that you will sooner or later, all that most of us want is a little compassion and understanding. If we refuse the cupcake you promise us is allergen-free, please don’t be offended; we know your heart was in the right place and are thrilled you cared enough to even try, but, unless we know that you didn’t just make peanut butter cookies with those same utensils, or use the same measuring cup for milk without washing it out to use it for a dairy-free substitute, it’s less risky for us to bring our own cupcakes. And if we decline some social invitations, or prefer to host people in our home, it doesn’t mean we don’t like you or want to control everything; it just means that gatherings with food can be intensely stressful with an allergic child and we just may not have the bandwith to handle it, especially if it’s right after a diagnosis or reaction. And, if you see another mama wiping down a table in a restaurant or wiping off the swings at the playground, don’t automatically assume she’s a crazy germaphobe; she may just be trying to make sure there’s no allergen residue so her little one can dine or play as safely as possible.
I choose to believe that most people, intentionally inflammatory bloggers notwithstanding, aren’t coming from a place of hatefulness; they just simply do not understand. My hope is that the food allergy community uses Food Allergy Awareness week to educate others and give them just a tiny bit of understanding into what life is like for us. And, know that that if one day you end up a member of the food allergy community (anyone can develop a food allergy at any time), we would happily do whatever it takes to help keep your child safe.
Food allergies are on the rise–in 2013 the CDC released a report saying food allergies had increased among children by approximately 50%. For this reason Northshore Parent and the entire Local Parent Network are proud to be local sponsors of the FARE Walk for Food Allergy. The walk helps to raise money to support food allergy research in the hopes of eliminating food allergies. This year’s walk will be held in Audubon Park on September 6, 2014. Registration runs from 8:30-9:30AM with the walk to immediately follow. For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 404-990-3556.