The buzz of food allergies is swarming with misconceptions and myths, but one fact that can't be denied is that their prevalence is vastly increasing. Becoming a parent throws all sorts of curve-balls your way that you never see coming, and severe food allergies are obstacles that more and more parents are navigating these days.
Here are four things we need folks to know as we (and our littles) are adjusting to this unsteady territory:
1) We're in a constant state of heightened alertness.
Yes. All parents must always be on alert. But this awareness goes beyond listening for the pitter-patter of our child's feet or being comforted by the sound of their nearby voice.
If we're in the middle of a conversation and we seem distant, we really are sorry. We're listening, we swear. But one of our eyes is scanning the floor for stray M&M's that may be dropped by other children, and the other eye is following the boy with the sippy-cup of milk to make sure he doesn't suddenly get the desire to share when our kid reaches for it.
We've memorized everything that everyone in the surrounding area has just eaten, so that when Aunt Sally—who just downed a bag of Reese's peanut butter cups—tries to kiss our toddler goodbye, we can begin strategic evasive maneuvers.
We're constantly teetering that line between caution and paranoia. We don't like hanging out there; it's a scary place to be; and comes across as a little obsessive to those who aren't living in it. But with severe food allergies, a seemingly normal situation can turn deadly in the blink of an eye, and we're always afraid to let ourselves get too comfortable.
2) We come packing.
A cooler, that is.
If you invite us over for dinner, you may be a little surprised to see us approaching your front door with an Igloo in-hand. Please don't be insulted. Our kid would likely much rather eat whatever delicious meal you're providing. But packing a separate meal for them is our way of sparing you torturous questions like "can I please have a rundown of every ingredient you use in your beef stew?"; "is there any dairy in that casserole, and by dairy I also mean butter?" (because you wouldn't believe the number of people who don't know butter is dairy); and "can I please see the package for that frozen squash you're cooking?" (because yes, I've found "may contain traces of milk" on the ingredients list of frozen vegetables.
Though you may be extremely understanding and happy to oblige, we still fear we'll sound ungrateful or be a burden. So it's just easier to come prepared.
3) We're beyond grateful to those who "get it".
On the flip side, to the friends and family who take the time to learn our child's allergies, and even plan for or prepare food that they can eat when we're together—you are literal heroes in our world.
When you say "I set aside some pasta before adding the cheese", or, "hey, we made the stir-fry without the peanut sauce so it's safe," and then hand us the recipe to read so we can be reassured, we might throw our arms around you in relief. When you take extra time out of your day to bake an egg-free or gluten free dessert so our kiddos can enjoy a special treat along with the rest of us, our hearts literally get all warm and fuzzy.
It's not always easy to cook a well-balanced meal that our kiddos won't feel like they're missing out on, and so when someone considers their safety and puts a smile on their face while taking the guess work out for us, we could just cry tears of gratitude.
4) This. Stuff. Is. Serious.
Food allergies are often the subject of jokes in sitcoms and other fictional narratives. And listen, I get it. In a playful context, for an educated adult, a little joke is harmless. But for other children who don't fully understand anaphylaxis, we really have to be careful about not blurring the lines of fiction and reality when it comes to this issue.
A lot of these harmless jokes told in the wrong places have led to this overall outlook that an "allergy" is nerdy and that being "afraid of a food" is funny. For any parent who's ever had to use an epi-pen on their child who was about to stop breathing (and I have), the reality is about as humorous as a heart-attack.
According to FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), "more than 40 percent of children with food allergies have experienced a severe allergic reaction such as anaphylaxis." Also, about one in three children report being bullied for having a food allergy.
As parents, we teach our children to be kind and inclusive to kids with disabilities and chronic illnesses. Encouraging them, additionally, to be a friend to children with food allergies and not tease them or taunt them could literally save lives.
You can learn more about how to help your child be a PAL and Protect A Life here:
Research is ongoing to understand more about why severe food allergies are drastically increasing, and also to perfect immunotherapy treatments to help eliminate or lessen their severity. But until more answers are found, navigating the food-allergy terrain can often feel like tip-toeing through a minefield.
One thing we all have in common as mothers is the overwhelming feeling of love and protection we have for our babies. As a community, with a little conversation and awareness, we can help keep them safe.