There have definitely been times in my life when I’ve been a real asshole. And today, I’d like to apologize for at least one of them.
I never really “got it” when it came to food allergies. All I knew, for the duration of my first 14 years as a parent, was my vague feeling of, “Hey…there sure seem to be a lot more allergies out there than there used to be when I was a kid.” It didn’t make sense to me – I mean, I ate peanut butter and jelly basically every day when I was a child. In retrospect, I was wholly and completely unaware if there was anyone out there in my childhood world who was allergic to peanuts — or why that would possibly affect me, someone who loved peanut butter and wasn’t allergic.
As a parent, my feelings only changed in that I felt lucky that my own kids didn’t have any allergies. Sure, I felt bad for the kids who did, like my niece. And when my niece broke out into hives after sitting on my couch where the babysitter, come to think of it, HAD been eating peanuts the other day, it didn’t occur to me that maybe if you have a close relative or friend who is in your house often who has an allergy, you ought to be a little more careful about what is in your house.
And I am ashamed when I think about the Halloween a few years ago where I got into a fight with my mother as to whether or not we could keep the Reese’s and peanut m&ms my kids had gotten trick or treating in my house, where my niece was a frequent visitor. “So she doesn’t have to eat them,” I said about my niece. “Why shouldn’t my kids get to have their favorite Halloween treats?” I was fighting over candy – something that really should be left to babies, not adults. Certainly not adults who should be compassionate for those they love and the risks they face just by the simple fact of being a little kid who might want to sneak a bite of someone else’s candy, without understanding the consequences.
My casual disregard for allergies, in fact, extended even to my own child. When I took her in for blood work at age three, and the doctor got the results back and said, “It says here your daughter is allergic to peanuts – you should take her to an allergist,” I laughed it off.
After all, I thought, we have peanuts in our house, and clearly aren’t careful about what we eat. So it couldn’t be us. Seriously, I wasn’t the parent bringing sad looking cupcakes as a substitute for cake to birthday parties in Tupperware, or scrutinizing the ingredients on every box in the aisle of Trader Joe’s. That wasn’t me.
So when the school nurse insisted we follow up with an allergist, I rolled my eyes, heaved an angry sigh and said, “FINE.” And even when they did the scratch test and fierce red hives broke out all over my daughter’s back like fireworks over the horizon on the Fourth of July? I couldn’t believe my own eyes. “We’ll wait till the next round of blood work comes back to see how allergic she REALLY is,” I thought to myself.
Well, the next round of blood work came back. And my daughter – my sweet, loving, ridiculously kind and thoughtful daughter – has an anaphylactic cashew and pistachio allergy. She’s also allergic to peanuts and soy, by the way, just as a sort of morbid garnish.
Suddenly, I found myself thrust into a new kind of parenting. Suddenly, I found myself living in a terrifying new world where every meal or snack could pose a potential threat to my daughter’s life. What if I forget to text the caregiver for a playdate? I wonder as I toss in my bed at night. What if she is in a situation where she can’t breathe enough to tell someone where her EpiPen is? What if she unthinkingly takes a bite of a cookie – this sweet brown-eyed girl’s favorite food – that kills her?
Moreover, this is a problem that could go away as she gets older – but it’s possible that it could get worse. Unlike many things in childhood, where “this too shall pass,” here, my friend told me, the worries here actually get worse, not better, with time.
“What if one day, she has her first kiss – and it’s from someone who had Pad Thai with peanuts just before?” my friend told me. I want to vomit just thinking of it.
I am writing this, then, as a woefully inadequate apology.
I am so sorry, parents of children with allergies, that I had no idea what you go through daily. I am so sorry that I didn’t even try to understand what it is like to walk around scared to death that your child might die any day. That fear is not, as I once so callously dismissed it, unchecked neurosis or anxiety. Your fears are real, and awful, and omnipresent.
I am so sorry that I didn’t get what it was like to never be able to go to a restaurant – for fun, for a celebration, for a party — without being afraid.
I am so sorry I didn’t see how hard it is to never be able to just sit down in a café and order whatever you like without interrogating a server or a chef to make sure it will not harm the person who is most precious to you.
I am so sorry that I didn’t see how scary an innocuous thing like a bake sale can be for a parent or a kid with a potentially fatal allergy.
I am so, so grateful for those of you who have been advocates for allergy awareness prior to my getting here. Because your hard and tireless work to raise awareness has made it less likely that my daughter will die.
And I am so glad for those of you who don’t have to think about these things. Trust me when I say you do not know how lucky you truly are. But please give a second after reading this post to think about it, and to be more aware of the needs and fears of those who aren’t.