Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Is the Honeywood Over?

WARNING: This takes long-winded to a whole new level.

As the mother of four kids under the age of 9 and the instructor of a toddler fitness class, I spend a fair amount of time around children, and I have commiserated with many a friend over the struggle to get kids to eat well. My kids fit a lot of the eating stereotypes for their respective ages: they love pizza, pasta, white bread, and pretty much all sweets. But having seen some of the titanic battles waged by some of my friends even to get their kids to finish a bowl of Kraft mac n’ cheese, I have to admit that I’ve had it easy. My children, with a little encouragement and/or bribery, will generally eat vegetables. They love fruit, will eat wheat bread if it’s not too nutty or grainy, and are mostly willing to believe the argument that too much of certain things like fats and sweets really isn’t good for them. None of my kids has ever been below about 50% on the weight charts for their ages. So the worst I’ve had to deal with are the quirks like the fact that Bookworm will eat raw tomatoes like they are candy—I’ve seen her put away nearly an entire pint of grape tomatoes in a sitting—but often has to pick a piece of pizza apart into its component atoms to remove the chunks in the sauce. Or the fact that Aslan can hide two or three masticated baby carrots in her cheeks while putting off a decision to swallow until, having reached the point where she can no longer move her jaw, she instead regurgitates the whole mess back onto her plate. Worse, if downing the said carrots was a requirement to get dessert, she may even try to eat them again.

One of the most entertaining of my kids’ vegetable-related eccentricities is the fact that they all like lettuce, but don’t generally care for anything else in a salad (which in my opinion is what makes a salad, a salad). Even Bookworm, my only tomato ally in the family, prefers them on the side. She doesn’t even want dressing. But she will eat more than one plateful if it’s just plain lettuce, or in the words of her Grandma, “Honeymoon Salad”—lettuce alone. Bookworm, though, decided somewhere along the way that the name was really “Honeywood Salad,” and despite her father’s and my attempts to explain the play on words in the original name, she sticks to her version with a determination that would be envied by Olympic swimmers. When I suggested that she ask Grandma which was the right name, she adamantly refused, insisting “…you’re always telling me to ask people stupid questions.” So I gave up the argument, content that my daughter will at least fill up on salad while she waits for dessert.

Yesterday, however, a trip to the allergist changed radically the way our family will eat in the future. The visit was inspired by the fact that Aslan had thrown up a couple of times after eating peanut butter, which is a favorite staple of her older sisters. The first time was a year and a half ago, when she was about 18 months old, and our family pediatrician advised us to wait until she was three before trying again, as apparently sensitivity to peanuts is something many children outgrow. So we let her have one bite again last week, with the same result. This time, our regular doctor (a different one since the earlier advice) advised we have her tested by a specialist.

Given this lead-in, the fact that she turned out to be allergic to peanuts was hardly a surprise. I had already spent the week since the reaction to the peanut butter cookie we gave her reading the labels in our pantry and mentally noting which things would have to go. I also did a fair amount of online reading about food allergies, and peanuts in particular, and learned that peanut allergies can be some of the most severe and are also among the least likely to be outgrown. Buzz’s preschool has sent home a fair amount of literature on nut allergies, as enough children there have to carry Epipens that the whole school has been declared a nut-free zone. One such flyer included a story written by a mother pleading for understanding and support from teachers and other parents in protecting her 5-year-old from chance exposure to peanuts, as even accidentally rubbing her had against a peanut butter smear left on the cafeteria table and then touching her face could be enough to send her into an airway-constricting emergency. Or it might just make her hand itch…one could never be sure. I found the story fairly heart-wrenching, since like most Moms my worst fear is that something horrible will happen to one of my children when I’m not there to help or protect her. In my nightly prayers I almost always express my gratitude for my healthy children, and I have enough friends and family who have dealt with debilitating and/or life-threatening health issues that I don’t think I’ve really taken my own health or that of my loved ones for granted.

But my sympathy for this mother’s plea is now the empathy of personal experience. It is estimated that 12 million Americans have food allergies, perhaps 3 million of them school-aged children. These food allergies are the leading cause of anaphylaxis (until yesterday I’m not even sure I could have spelled that), which is a severe, life-threatening reaction. Ninety percent of these food allergies are caused by eight foods: peanuts, other tree nuts (pecans, almonds, walnuts, cashews, etc), eggs, soy, milk, wheat, fish and shellfish. Aslan, as it turns out, is allergic to the first four. The peanut allergy is so severe that almost 24 hours after the test when the rest of the positive results, including the pure histamine control spot, had all completely faded, the reddish wheal marking the spot where the doc poked her with peanut extract was still visible, like a counterfeit mosquito bite. As I said before, I had already resigned myself to the likelihood of a peanut allergy. To learn that she was now also to be denied other nuts (she loves almonds), eggs, and soy products came out of left field. I have been an avid reader of food labels for a long time, mostly in search of options lower in fat and sugar and higher in fiber. I had some idea already how many things either contain eggs or soy, or are manufactured on the same equipment as various nuts. Going home and just looking through our pantry reinforced this in a big way. Granted, she’s been eating many of these things without identifiable allergic reactions for years, but that doesn’t mean that the next time might not be the one that sends her to the emergency room. Peanut butter she has never really developed a taste for, so she won’t really miss it, but she adores eggs. Other favorites now on the prohibited list include Corn Flakes, most of our favorite sandwich breads, Ramen noodles, Annie’s White Cheddar Macaroni and Cheese, chicken noodle soup, most ice cream, and the entire spectrum of Girl Scout Cookies. We will be making no more family trips to Five Guys, a fabulous burger dive with a trademark open vat of shelled peanuts for patrons to munch on while they wait. Any time we do eat out, it will take significant advance homework.

So part of me is still reeling a little from what feels like a sucker punch. My adorable three-year-old, I feel like whining, is being deprived of the right of the very young to ask for a treat with a kid’s blissful ignorance of its nutritional value. Bad enough that she got landed with a birthday on Christmas Eve, making it unlikely during her school years that she will ever get a birthday party that isn’t at least a little overshadowed with Christmasness—now she can’t even have a regular birthday cake. When she starts getting invited to her friends’ parties, she won’t be able to eat theirs.

But a bigger part of me is simply reeling with gratitude, a little breathless at how lucky we’ve been. If my worst fear was a potential hurt that I couldn’t protect her from, I am now forewarned and can be forearmed. Reading the labels and learning some new recipes may be frustrating, but thanks to regulations designed to protect allergy sufferers, the information is there and I can find the things that are safe. In doing so, we will be rewarded not only with protecting her from potential harm, but with other likely benefits, like probably clearing up at least to a significant degree the annoying eczema that has plagued her on and off for the last two years. Her condition, with the necessary precautions taken, is not going to shorten her life expectancy or adversely affect her quality of life. It is quite possible, in fact, that she may outgrow at least some of these allergies. My nightly expressions of gratitude for my healthy daughter will now be all the more fervent.

And Aslan’s reaction to all this? I have joked that she is the first of my children to hit the Terrible Twos right on schedule, but I have been amazed at the poise she has shown throughout this process. When told before that she couldn’t have peanut butter, she simply accepted that and never begged for it, even when her sisters were allowed. Yesterday, I got to sit with her while a nurse jabbed her back about two dozen times with a needle, then held her hands for twenty minutes while several of those pinpricks turned into vicious itchy blotches. She did whimper a little—who wouldn’t?—but by the time it was half over she was already telling the doctor knock-knock jokes and introducing her stuffed animal (a lion, of course). When we explained the results and their implications to her, she didn’t whine or try to bargain. She simply seems to accept at face value our explanation that these things could make her sick. I’m sure there will be times when her limitations will feel more restrictive and she may resent them, but for now, she’s taking it famously.

Kinda makes me think back on the scriptural admonition that those who wish to be saved in the kingdom of God must become as little children. Aslan is learning discipline at a very young age. If all of us learned to truly avoid those things that could do us harm, how much better off would we be, physically and otherwise?

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Discovering Mobility

...but not completely mastering it.

Accountability and One-upmanship

Buzz and Aslan spend much of their time at home together bouncing back and forth between being inseparable conspirators and archrivals for entertainment, attention and independence. One afternoon this past week, Aslan couldn’t wait for Buzz to get home from preschool, I suspect at least in part because she’d been promised that snack time would immediately follow. A bowl of goldfish for them can be a handful of skit participants as well as sustenance, but on this occasion I guess they were too hungry. Instead, they launched a creative enterprise at the kitchen table with a box of crayons between them. They were ignoring the stack of drawing paper that lives next to the table in favor of acting out scenes with the crayons as characters. Loudly. So I thought I could go upstairs for a few minutes to read the manual for our garage door opener to look for a solution to the issue of our remote suddenly starting to open the neighbor’s door as well as ours.

I should have known not to be so complacent, but I thought I would have more then five minutes before Buzz was yelling upstairs that Aslan was writing on the walls. Sure enough, our resident lion had gotten bored with the game and gone looking for new horizons to decorate, settling for scribbling all over the wall of the main level powder room. I went back to the table to pack up the crayons to discover that she’d done a fair number on the table too; so much for the paper.

It was time to get dinner on, so I didn’t worry about the crayon marks at the time, short of assuring Aslan that she was indeed in trouble for breaking the rule that drawing is only for paper and never walls. Recognition that she’s in the doghouse didn’t quite remove the impish grin inspired by all the attention she got, but she managed to put on a fair approximation of a properly abashed apology. Buzz, probably hoping for a more dramatic reaction from the Doc, flew downstairs at the sound of the opening garage door to give him a full report of her sister’s misdeeds. I’m not sure whether she was more interested in retribution for the defection of her partner from the crayon puppet theater or just excited about the prospect of getting to see the withering reprimand that was surely forthcoming from Dad. Either way she was disappointed, as I told him that Aslan and I had already discussed it and that she would help me clean the wall later.

Buzz did get a little more satisfaction when at dinner Aslan started whining because there were still crayon marks on the table. A tad irritated, I looked her right in the eye and asked, “And whose fault is that?”

She looked back at the table, considered a moment, then slowly raised her hand. She didn’t complain any more about the marks.

Friday, February 20, 2009


So here launches my blog experiment.

I’ve thought about trying this a number of times in the past and generally talked myself out of it, based largely on the inconsistency of my past attempts at journaling. It’s not lack of motivation, particularly when it comes to documenting the bat-out-of-hell rate at which my kids are growing. I’ve been doing a little better at my traditional diary of late, and that adds to my confidence, but mostly the idea has been growing on me since I’ve spent some time recently reading the blogging efforts of a few friends and really enjoying them. Probably my biggest regret from the list of things I’ve let slip through the cracks in the last ten years or so is the number of friends I’ve failed to stay in regular touch with. Even email hasn’t helped as much as I would like, because I am just too verbose to keep it short, and so I don’t get started because I know I won’t finish in the limited time allotted before one of the kids interrupts. Case in point: I have been interrupted three times in the time it has taken me to write this paragraph, once to fix a blanket, once to hug a stuffed puppy, and once to get some apple juice. All by the same kid.

So maybe this will provide me with another route for catching up: if I can keep this going, then once I get around to the doggone emails, I can make them short greetings with a blog link. Wish me luck, Mom.

The other reason I just HAD to start this today is the idea that got planted in my head yesterday while reading my sister-in-law’s blog. Like I expect to be the case with me, she gets a large part of her material from the antics of her four children, whom she refers to by code names in order to protect their privacy. I dunno how much privacy I am realistically going to expect on such a public entity; I feel a little like I’m posting all this on a sidebar in the New York Times; probably no one's really looking for it, but it's out there if anyone happens across it. Except that the Times would get expensive in a hurry—maybe the Bull Run Observer. Anyway, I found myself thinking about what I would code name my family members, and had so much fun with it I just had to write it down. If it keeps being this much fun, I’ll just have to keep doing it.

So my oldest daughter, age 8, was the easiest. She is Bookworm, and has been ever since starting kindergarten almost 3 years ago. I have had a great time introducing her to the books I remember vanishing into repeatedly at her age…one of the few things I remember with a fair amount of clarity, in fact, from being her age. As I did, she has found a heroine with whom she identifies in Ramona Quimby, and pops up at any moment to ask whether I remember such and such a scene from Ramona the Brave. I was astonished to find out a few months ago that Beverly Cleary produced two more Ramona books since I evidently outgrew them. Ramona actually has a baby sister now…who knew? And how perfect for my Bookworm, whose delight in being a big sister is one of her other most defining characteristics.

My 5-year-old was probably the toughest, not because coming up with ideas was hard, but rather that she has so much personality it’s just hard to decide which aspect to use to describe her. “Drama Queen” has too many negative associations, as do any of the half-dozen singer-performers that come to mind when I think of her tendency to dance through a day like she’s in a Rodgers and Hammerstein production number. I finally settled on Buzz. Firstly, it’s a noise. Secondly, “To Infinity and Beyond” is a pretty good motto for her. She certainly seems to spend a lot of time in orbit, or at any rate in constant motion.

Daughter #3 has to be Aslan, which would be obvious to anyone who has called her by name when she is walking around on all fours, only to be informed indignantly, “No, I’m Aswan the Wion!” She completes the picture by roaring and stalking around for a while, then pausing to find some sort of blunt instrument, which she brings to me before flopping over on her side and telling me that I need to kill her on the Stone Table. I don’t usually oblige, since I’m all too aware of what happens to the Witch afterward.

And then there’s the little’un, who for now will be Spot. This is not based on any physical manifestation, though of our three kids with discernible birthmarks, the stork bite on her forehead is probably the most obvious (at least when she is screaming). But Buzz started a few months ago to call her “Spot Baby” out of the blue. When I asked why, she said her pretend friends suggested it to her. She has had an active fan club of pretend friends for quite a while now, ranging from Nintendo’s Mario to her friend Window (one of the ones in the living room). I’ve rarely seen any kid so active or content in spending an hour in deep conversation when she is providing both sides. Anyway, it may be random but it’s short and simple. It’ll do until the baby names herself.

Not to be left out, my husband will be “the Doc.” It will be true enough soon, as his dissertation defense is scheduled in a few short weeks. The “the” is necessary as I could see him being a tad disgruntled if he felt that his moniker came from a dwarf.

So there’s our family in a nutshell. How dull life would be without them.