No Guidelines, No Guarantees, Just a Love That Lasts
Written By Jen Maidenberg for AllergyKids
When my son was diagnosed with nut allergies at age two, I was sure my life as a mother would never be the same. Almost eight years later, I can’t even remember the ceramic tiled world I was so afraid to drop him on. The world peppered with choking hazards, and poisonous household chemicals. That world – the one that was dangerous enough already – practically disappeared as soon as food became lethal, and now that my son is almost 10, I can almost laugh at what used to keep me up at night before I had nightmares about food.
I felt so desperately alone in the beginning – excommunicated in an instant from parties and playdates dressed in goldfish crackers and populated by filthy hands. Those interactions would never be a gift to me; they would always be a burden. I also didn’t jump with joy, like the other moms I knew, the first time my son was invited to a drop off birthday party. In fact, I spent the next three years as the mom you could count on to stay behind to help (aka hover), while the others ran errands without a thought in the world.
I miss those days.
Little did I know then that those would be the glory days of parenting a child with food allergies. I remember with fondness when I used to fill out detailed forms, and sign up for meetings with principals eager to know every single last detail about my son’s condition. I sigh with longing when I think about the nut-free preschool I sent him to; the school where he was one of at least ten kids with food allergies. I dream about the nut free camp my son went to for three summers, the one where he could eat anything on the menu and the nurse was especially trained in epi-pen administration. I remember when the convenience store was a place my child had never heard of, and the only cash he handled came inside birthday cards and when straight to his piggy bank.
I miss the days when I thought I was in control.
Now, my son runs around our tight knit community in Israel, with a pack of other kids his age. Kids with credit accounts at the convenience store so they can buy snacks after school. Kids who don’t have to read the ingredients on the candy bar labels, and never do.
Now my son earns money for chores and uses that money to buy candy, the labels of which he is responsible to read on his own. Now my son goes to birthday parties and field trips without me. Now, he is the one who surreptitiously scopes the scene to see whose filthy hands he needs to steer clear from; which of his friends have packed weapons masquerading as snack packs.
Now my son carries his Benadryl and his epi-pen twin pack on him wherever he goes. He has been trained how to inject himself in the thigh, with that tight fist (the one we hope and pray we will never have to make) and hold for ten seconds.
Now, I hold my breath and wait for him to come home.
I could blame this new generation anxiety of mine on our move to Israel last year, and sometimes I do. Sometimes I wish we had stayed in what I now know was our “food allergy aware bubble” of suburban New Jersey. (I am careful to make a distinction between “aware,” mind you, and sensitive). Sometimes I wish I could return to that imaginary place, the one I thought was safer than the place I live now.
And then there are days when I meditate on the path my son would have taken had we stayed in NJ. I think of the local tweens and teens who used to gather after school on the main street of our small town; who popped into the bagel store or the Dunkin Donuts for an afterschool treat. I think of sleepover parties and overnight camp and all the other normal childhood milestones I would have wanted him to experience. Would it have been much different if we stayed in New Jersey? Would he have gone to a nut-free junior high? No. Would there have been a nurse accompanying the traveling soccer team? I don’t think so.
If we were living in New Jersey now, I imagine this still would have been the year: The year I decided not to hold my breath for the rest of my life.
The year I grudgingly understood I couldn’t protect him forever. The year I reluctantly accepted that this was the world and I, or rather he, better be prepared to live in it. Not carefully walk around it, but live in it.
We aren’t handed a manual along with our newborns, and we certainly aren’t offered a contract to sign; one with guidelines and guarantees. If we were offered a contract, a preview into the future, how many of us would sign?
Ironically, what many mothers are offered as we prepare for birth, are techniques for how to breathe through the pain of labor. It is the breath that allows us to face our fears. Breathing deep and down into our backs and our bellies, maximizing our oxygen intake and reminding our internal operating systems to relax. And exhaling softly and slowly, reminding ourselves we are safe.
No, there are no guidelines and there are no guarantees. And the parental control we think we have is an illusion that lasts only so long.
But I will always have the breath. And from now until the end of time, I imagine I will breathe deep into my belly when my son walks out the door; hold it; and exhale softly and slowly when he returns to me once again. Safe.
Jen Maidenberg is a writer and mom to three kids, two with food allergies and one (sigh with relief) allergy-free, so far. More of her writings can be found at www.jenmaidenberg.com