Although the sun peacefully beams its morning rays on my kitchen floor, I cannot yet feel the calm hope of the burgeoning day. I have just keyed another email to our preschool director, gently reminding the school to be vigilant of my daughters’ food allergies. Despite me bringing in “okay” snacks, which I willingly did on my own dime on top of a tuition that supposedly includes snacks, yet another classroom volunteer tried to give them something to which they are allergic, without even thinking to check with us parents.
I am tired. I feel alone and weary of fighting the ongoing battle of telling people not to feed my kids unknown foods, as it can physically hurt them. I don’t want to be the one always telling the teacher, “Hey, that’s not okay, don’t do that,” but I have no choice. As a mom, it is a duty to protect my children, despite my nature lending to non-confrontation.
It is inevitable that parents advocating for their children often get the side-eye and hear whispers insinuating they are helicopter moms. Instead of learning empathy for those who, for example, can’t eat peanuts without going into anaphylaxis, children learn entitlement when they hear parents complain and grumble about folks with allergies being dramatic and making up stuff.
Food shaming in any form is hurtful.
If there is one things humans love, it is to bond over food. We love our merry feasts and celebrations punctuated with deliciousness.
This can be a very lonely world for those who don’t eat “normally,” whether it’s because of allergies, diabetes, gluten intolerance, religious beliefs or ideological differences. The young ones don’t understand why they can’t eat/drink certain foods, and they may cry/melt down time after time after you take the foods away– or worse, they may eat/drink them and suffer health consequences. And, frequently, when you don’t eat like others, you get left out.
What does this mean for our children? In my daughters’ case, it means some of childhood’s most treasured experiences become battlegrounds.
All throughout history, in all cultures, people celebrate with eating feasts or sweets. In America, it can be Thanksgiving, Valentine’s, Easter, Christmas, Passover, birthdays, anniversaries, etc.
Families vary wildly in their level of acceptance and understanding. For us, birthday parties are the hardest, as most hosts are unaware of their guests’ allergies until someone tells them, and then many don’t accommodate. Which is fine — I completely respect that it is a private function they are giving generously for their own child. But it means difficult conversations for us. We’ve tried to teach the girls that most birthday cake has many processed ingredients (from corn) they cannot eat. They still protest and shed tears, but we are slowly getting there. It is tempting to keep them home to avoid the meltdowns, but for the sake of socialization we employ constant vigilance while enduring endless protests.
Teams are jam-packed with moms of the best intentions, taking turns bringing weekly snacks, many trying to feed the whole team something portable on a tight budget. However, cheap and portable often equals stuff some people can’t eat. After the game, while others celebrate with a frenzy of Gatorade and Cheetos, our children are unable to partake of the same, marked as outsiders with their apples and water bottles. Adults push food into their hands anyway, as apparently it is not a common practice to ask a parent if the child can eat whatever snack is given.
Recently, a fellow dugout mom had to take her son home because the snack was peanuts, and though he did not consume any, he still broke out in hives. Needless to say, they missed the celebration of a game well done because they had to rush for their EpiPen. Fortunately for them, it worked.
Pizza party for the class? The little girl with the dairy allergies looks on sadly from the sidelines of the party. Birthday cake brought in by a parent? The child with gluten intolerance is left out. Hot dogs at the end-of-school picnic? The Jewish boy keeping kosher watches solemnly, empty-handed and conspicuous. Cheerios as snack? The family avoiding GMOs cannot be sure if it has them or not with no label, and brings in Joey-Os, hoping the teacher remembers. Suckers for kids during the Valentine’s party? The girl with Lyme disease from her mother’s tick bite cannot tolerate it. (Some physicians recommend that Lyme disease patients avoid processed sugar, among other things.)
We had to pull our kids (allergic to corn) out of Sunday School because of virtually all the snacks containing high fructose corn syrup. Though we repeatedly told the workers about it and brought in our own snacks on our own dime, some well-intentioned volunteer would give them store-bought cookies time and again — and our girls would suffer for it. We can’t stay afterward for the the fellowship, because they are too young to fully comprehend they can’t eat half the stuff offered, and sweet old ladies keep offering it to them. They say, in front of our kids, “A little won’t hurt you.” Sometimes they try and reason that, since their own children’s bodies didn’t react, that should be true of the whole population. They undermine our parenting authority in front of our kids while simultaneously telling them medical falsehoods that could harm them, all with genuine smiles and best of intentions.
Our girls are missing out on on much of their Christian fellowship and spiritual education with their church peers. The Bible says, “Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.” (1 Corinthians 8:13). Yet, I know of no church that applies this to food allergies, instead making brothers and sisters fall into sickness.
We hate to deny our girls this opportunity, but they can’t seem to get the snacks under control. We can’t risk their physical bodies for it.
What’s a mom to do?
I can’t imagine these scenarios changing until healthy food is more affordable than the cheap junk. In a society that’s so obese, you think we’d push for it, for what’s best for all of our children. While we are grateful for the well wishes of those that seek to include us in celebration, we are marked as outsiders when we cannot participate. We are considered dramatic and trouble-makers when we speak up.
In the meantime, all we can do is teach our children how to eat appropriately; alert schools to allergies/food preferences; assure our hosts that our bringing alternatives does not reflect on their cooking prowess while thanking them for their kindness in inviting us; and smile while we answer the ever-present questions on our diets.
If your child deals with food allergies, has your experience been similar to this mama’s? Share your story in the comments.