“What’s your favorite kind of ice cream, Austin?” the pool instructor asked yesterday in hopes to calm my son down and comfort him during his lesson. Austin was hysterically crying, scared to death of something. Whether it was the water, separating from me, or just starting something new, it didn’t really matter. I chimed in, and said, “Austin, tell him your favorite flavor icee.” He smiled, and answered, “Strawberry.”
My heart broke once again. I knew it probably didn’t faze my 3-year-old son that he can’t eat ice cream because he’s severely allergic to it, but it was one of many small moments that together, just killed me inside.
It’s Food Allergy Awareness Week, and even though I know 1 in 13 kids has at least one food allergy, I still feel so alone, and so sad for my son.
You see, just about every fun thing kids do involves food. Heck, not just for kids, but adults, too. We are faced with a struggle not only on a daily basis as a family and in our home, but out in the real world everyday.
Take sports, for instance. My oldest son had a t-ball game this past Saturday. As with most kids sports, each family signed up to bring drinks and snacks to enjoy after each game. Families who don’t live with allergies don’t seem to be mindful. They go to the store, see a package of individually wrapped cookies, and throw them in the cart. I don’t blame them. I once did the same thing. This whole food allergy thing is relatively new to my generation. We never had to worry about whether there was wheat in a snack, or if the pack of Cheez-It crackers were manufactured in the same factory as peanuts.
But here’s what happened: the whistle blew, and all the kids, and their siblings, who were there to show support, sprinted over to the area where the snacks were nicely laid out.
I watched as my 3-year-old stood next to me. His eyes concentrated on all the kids as they joyfully opened bags of cookies. He couldn’t join in on their fun. I said, “Here, Austin, I have a snack for you.” Though he knew this was to keep him safe, my heart broke. He was excluded from the rest of the children. Food brings kids together, adds smiles to their faces, and helps camaraderie. He clearly knew he was different.
This happens all the time. Just last week, I went with him to a birthday party. After bouncing and jumping for an hour, we were directed into the “party room.” All his friends raced to the already set table, and claimed a seat. In front of each child was a plate with a slice of pizza oozing with cheese, and next to each setting was a wrapped Spider-Man string cheese. Perfectly scattered across the table were bowls of cheese balls, pretzels, and M&M’s. I made my son his own setting at the end of the table.
Sure, I had brought his favorite foods, including apple sauce, hotdog, and potato chips, but, he’s no idiot. He saw that he was the only child at the party who wasn’t eating what was served. Again, he was shut out from the excitement of the beautifully displayed birthday treats. I won’t even continue on to when it was time to sing, “Happy Birthday!” and all the children shrieked with the thrill of being served cake covered in Paw Patrol characters.
Holidays are another cause of this kind of suffering. We know that Jewish holidays revolve around the dining room table, with rich traditions and customs when it comes to food. For example, what is a Shabbat celebration without challah? At my son’s preschool on Fridays, challah is served to each child. Only mine is given his own “Shabbat treat.” And, yes, he gets excited for his treat, too, but, as happens so often, he sees that he can’t enjoy what every other kid can.
It goes beyond the Jewish calendar to Halloween. “Trick-or-treat.” Oh, wait, if he eats that, he will die. I recognize, and do appreciate everything the Teal Pumpkin Project has done to raise awareness of food allergies, and promote inclusion of all trick-or-treaters throughout the Halloween season. But, let’s be honest. It’s Halloween, an occasion to eat as much chocolate as possible in one sitting. My son is grabbing glow sticks and stickers in his pumpkin basket instead of food.
But here’s the most anxiety-provoking experience of them all… The Ice Cream Truck. The notorious music that plays loudly, so that all the kids stop dead in their tracks, and sprint to make sure the truck doesn’t pass by. My son stands there, probably wishing he could be a part of the fun. But, he can’t. He has to go home to get a “safe treat.”
Food is an integral part of how we socialize. It brings people together and gives us so much pleasure. The part that hurts the most is that my favorite memories of my childhood involve the treats my son cannot experience. Aside from my personal disappointment, I can’t even fathom the effect it must be having on him. Exclusion is tough, no matter what the reason.
I realize my son doesn’t know any differently and often sees his treats as exciting and special. Maybe I struggle with the issue more than he does. But since I’m the one who has to keep him safe, I can’t help but make this a focus on our lives. I am also a survivor of an eating disorder—at one point food was a sick obsession for me, so I am naturally very sensitive to the role of food in life, and emotions.
And yet, my son is happy, healthy and thriving. And when I pause and examine the angst I feel on his behalf, I am forced to look at what matters in life—even more than sharing a meal with your community. His smile when he eats his special treats offers me lessons I should have learned years ago: that food doesn’t have to have so much power over us.