I went to university with a guy who had a life-or-death food allergy. I rarely saw him eat. And he refused to step foot into most eating establishments. He would, however, make an exception when it came to bars. He didn’t eat much, but he could drink most of us under the table. Quite a feat when I think back to his tiny frame. See, he was practically anorexic. I didn’t realize it at the time, but now I know: He was scared of food. I found out years later that he had a weekly appointment with a therapist. But I’m not sure if that ever cured his phobia. And the booze was only a temporary solution, one that didn’t help much during daylight hours.
When I think of him now, how challenging everyday life must have been—not because of his food allergy, but because of his food phobia—I can’t help but worry that this will be my son’s fate one day. He’s still only a toddler, so he doesn’t really get what we’re saying just yet. He doesn’t understand why we have to bring his own food the rare times we go to a restaurant, why we vigorously wipe down his highchair before we sit him in it. He doesn’t realize he has an allergy that will mean missing out on fun treats and yummy sweets.
But I worry that, once he does understand, his zest for life will be replaced by a fear for his life.
Currently, mealtime is a wonderfully positive experience for our boy. He pretty much loves all food (well, the foods that he can eat), and he will loudly and proudly let us know how much he is enjoying the experience. He’ll throw us a million dollar smile when we present him with a colourful plate of fruits or veggies, stuff turnips and parsnips into his mouth at high speeds, gobble up his avocado toast while MMM-ing for more, yell out “NUM NUM” (so loud I’m sure the neighbours can hear) when he sees an old favourite, like pasta with meat sauce, or egg-free pancakes with ricotta cheese on top.
I love food, so I love that my son loves food. I don’t want to do anything to take this joy of eating away from him. But what if, by trying to save his life, I inadvertently kill that joy?
Since my son was diagnosed, I’ve heard of many different parenting styles when it comes to raising a child with a food allergy. I’ve heard of vegans who can’t (and don’t) eliminate nuts from their diets. I have more than 1 cousin whose non-allergic child loves peanut butter, and thus continues to eat it, at a safe distance from their food-allergic sibling. They’ve been taught to be extra careful and to wash up after every nutty snack. I know of parents who let products with “may contain” warnings into their home, and even let their allergic child eat them. I know of other parents who not only read labels, but call every single company before feeding something new to their child. Some parents never order in, and never eat out.
My husband and I have gone the following route: We’ve removed all products that contain (or “may contain”) nuts and tree nuts from our home. We ask visitors to our home to get rid of any potentially dangerous snacks from their bags before walking through the door, to wash their hands (if they want to hold or touch our son), and to brush their teeth (if they want to kiss him). We ask our extended family and friends not to serve, or eat, certain foods while we’re visiting. Yup, we’re one big, walking inconvenience these days.
Peanut butter used to be one of my staple breakfast foods, so I get it. (If it weren’t for SunButter I don’t know what I’d do!) And my “tea and biscuit” loving husband finds the limited selection of cookies and baked goods that can enter our home disappointing to say the least. We know we’re asking a lot, but we also know that friends and family are only temporarily inconvenienced. This is our new normal—and it’s for the rest of our lives.
I’d like to be as brave as the vegans, as my cousins. But for now, I can’t do it. Maybe when he’s older, I keep telling myself, when he doesn’t put everything in his mouth, when a crumb on the floor won’t be the reason he has his first anaphylactic reaction. But if other parents can do it (and their kids have thrived), why can’t I?
I tell myself I’m being smart, cautious. But if I don’t have it in me now, does it mean I’m living in fear? And will I then pass this fear on to my son?
Lucky for me, I’ll be attending (and speaking at!) Managing Your Child’s Food Allergies – Nutrition and Advocacy, a talk hosted by Allison Venditti, a food allergy mama, advocate, and founder of a local food allergy support group. I hope to leave that talk with some new tricks up my sleeve about how to keep my child safe and how to educate him about his allergies—without projecting my anxieties onto him. I also hope to leave with a few more names of people who are interested in this project of mine. But that’s another story. 😉
If, like me, you hope to curb any potential food phobias in your child, join us at 6:15pm on Tuesday, April 18th. We’ll be at St. Alban’s Boys and Girls Club waiting to chat with you. You can RSVP here if you’re interested.
Has your child’s food allergy turned into a food phobia? If not, how did you avoid projecting your anxieties onto your child? Please share your experience with us in the comments below.