It had been a fairly normal pregnancy, except that I was pregnant overseas, far away from my family and subject to loads of local, sometimes humorous cultural pregnancy advice. And, although I saw a well-trained doctor in-country, I was getting most of my guidance via telephone from my own OB/GYN back in the United States whose instructions I followed to the letter. When it was time, I commuted 20 hours back home to deliver my son. He was the most perfect thing I had ever seen.
Early on, he experienced what we now know are sister-symptoms to food allergies. He had acid reflux and didn’t want to be put down. He was covered in eczema: on his back, stomach and chest, arms, legs…even his eyelids. As if that wasn’t bad enough, at 10 months old, my son began having terrible asthma attacks that left him gasping for air. To a mother who didn’t grow up with asthma, this was scary. After the second of such attacks, our pediatrician ordered an allergy panel blood test.
It’s hard to put into words how grateful I am to have been paired with our pediatrician. She’s smart, tuned in, forward thinking and she herself grew up with food allergies. Due to our family history of food allergies on my husband’s side, our pediatrician watched my son carefully and put him on dairy-free formula after I stopped breastfeeding. She asked that we delay transitioning him to milk and had us hold off on feeding him a plethora of foods. At the time, this list felt like an unnecessary hassle I was sure we were struggling with for no reason: no corn, no tomato, no strawberry, no pork, no nuts, no eggs, no dairy, no wheat… Little did I know.
The blood test results came in the form of a phone call on a warm, sunny day in late spring. I looked out the living room window at the still holly trees enjoying the soft glow of afternoon sunshine, bewildered at the list of allergens the doctor was laying out. My 15 month old son was allergic to peanuts, all tree nuts, sesame seeds, dairy, eggs, wheat, soy, corn, tree pollen, dust mites, and our two dogs. I was stunned silent.
Even though the warning signs were there, I still hadn’t seen this coming. I barely knew anyone with a food allergy growing up and I had been in complete denial about the idea that my own child could have one – or several, as was his case. I felt overwhelmed, anxious, angry and fearful.
What’s left to feed him? How do we know he’s not allergic to more things we hadn’t tested for? Oh no! The dogs – my original babies. Who could take them? I felt crushed that my fond memories of baking cookies with my own mother and learning to use chopsticks out at our local Chinese restaurant now seemed impossible to relive with my son. Is he going to feel excluded from his peers? Are the other kids are going to treat him differently? Is school going to be safe? Is travel going to be possible? Will he feel normal?
After 10 years of talking to other food allergy parents, I’ve learned that all of these feelings are very normal. Denial. Anger. Anxiety. Grief. To feel indignant. It’s all perfectly justified. Food allergic parents need to mourn our past expectations and perceptions of our children in favor of a new, informed reality so that we can move on and effectively manage our current daily life with food allergies.
After stewing in the whirlpool of new information for the rest of that spring afternoon, my husband and I took my son for a walk. We were quieter than usual that day as we both digested all the bits of data given to us. I broke the silence to voice my worries aloud, tears gliding down each cheek as I kept listing them. My husband stopped walking. He held my hand and brushed the tears from my cheek, reminding me that there’s more than one way to do the things I was mentioning. We certainly had a lot of learning to do, but we would find a way around all of these concerns. And, thus began our journey to make life as carefree and normal as possible for our child… and, by sharing our experiences, we hope to make them carefree for yours as well.
You can read my recommended steps of preparation for being a food-allergy mom here.
Erin Malawer, Allergy Shmallergy