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?