When my youngest child was diagnosed with multiple food allergies and other related health challenges, I initially felt angry, afraid and vulnerable. Early on, it was easy to keep our world small and intimate; more often than not, we ate in and hosted our own gatherings. But as our daughter grew into a social and energetic toddler, pre-school and friendships got us out and about! And our foray into the big, scary world wasn’t always positive. When kids at a toddler gym birthday ate cupcakes containing one of my daughter’s allergens, I watched my otherwise playful and outgoing child, hide behind my leg rather than run around with abandon. The sadness that followed wasn’t because of one afternoon’s disappointment but from knowing that this child would rarely be able to play free-from-worry. Like every other parent of a child with food allergies, I now carried not only a pervasive and stressful concern for my child’s physical safety, but also one for her emotional well-being. Would she feel included and safe to play freely in her school and extracurricular communities? Each new step into the world at large brought a host of challenges - dining out, play-dating, advocating for allergy protocols in pre-schools, getting extended family and caregivers trained and food allergy sensitive, traveling, etc… I fatigued quickly, felt resentment and frustration and continued to be perpetually burdened by worry.
It became clear to me that this food allergy diagnosis was taking up way too much emotional real estate and that it was impacting my child’s sense of well being. I actively sought out food allergy communities and their counsel, and I read everything I could get my hands on, both about food allergy and child development and wellbeing. In short time, I came to understand that managing food allergies would require compassionate acceptance and tenacity.
Self-compassion opened me to yield to worry and define for myself the relationship I would have with it. If fear would be a part of my life, I would at least try and capitalize on it. I would harness it to create healthy habits of vigilance to keep my baby safe, and work hard to tame it to avoid its potential toxicity. Acceptance of the added burden of managing food allergies, would open me to welcoming my new life-long journey and would help me build the endurance I would need for it. Food shopping and dining out would now take extra time - label reading and holding extra interviews with waitstaff and chefs about food preparation practices. My husband and I would host playdates far more often than we would drop off, and we would hold open our evenings as we would be school, sports and extracurricular volunteers and chaperones for many years to come. Lastly, I would commit doggedly to pursuing my family’s passions, despite food allergies. For instance, travel, our most cherished family pastime, would require more advance planning, perhaps a more generous budget (think, home rental with a kitchen for example, over hotel), and internet savvy to vet destinations, experiences and translation. I would work tenaciously to ensure food allergies did not get in our way of doing what we loved most!
Nine years later, managing food allergies is now so integral to our lives that we don’t feel as victimized and vulnerable as we used to. While we still have added burdens, live with worry day in and day out, and continue to feel occasionally limited or frustrated, we also live out our passions and embrace the compromises we make in order to do so. We hiked the Grand Canyon, and ate homemade food on its rim. We spent time on advanced research so that we could explore Michelin rated restaurants in New Orleans and Krakow, Poland. We’ve braced for and mitigated cold induced hives to swim in the Atlantic Ocean, crystal lakes in Maine, cenotes in Mexico, and thermal baths in Budapest, Hungary.
By modeling compassionate acceptance and tenacity, I hope to light the way for my child who will someday soon manage her own food allergies.