A plea from a mom with allergies: Ask, don’t tell

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Image courtesy of  Evan Hamilton.

I have several life-threatening food allergies: shellfish, tree nuts, peanuts.  I’ve had anaphylactic reactions to nuts and shellfish but, thankfully not peanuts (yet).  I developed a serious reaction to nuts and peanuts later in life (my early 20s) and my shellfish allergy has always been there.

We have come a long way since my childhood with allergies.  When I was 8, we had a “food day” regularly at school.  The mission was to learn about things like vegetables (we had to do a vegetable passport for one unit and bring in a vegetable we liked) or dairy or whatever.  Then there was a “seafood day”.  My mother had always warned me to stay away from shrimp.  While my father ate shrimp often, my mom had a shellfish allergy.  So, when “seafood day” was thrust upon me, I told my teacher about this.  She told me I had to try something and brought me shrimp.  I think she had good intentions.  She assumed I was being a picky eater (I was also that) but I was just trying not to have a reaction to something I knew my mom had cautioned me about.  So, she forced this upon me.  Me, being the A student, did what I was asked.  And then I started feeling ill.  I got on the bus shortly after the unit finished to go home and wound up barely making it to our stop – the first one – before puking all over the parking lot of the church at the top of the subdivision where my grandmother lived.  It was so awful that I still remember it.

Thankfully, in the days of peanut-free classrooms, this seems unlikely to happen today (thank god).  It would be a major scandal!

So far, R doesn’t appear to have allergies.  We’ve been up-to-date on the new protocol which recommends early exposure and trying to feed her PB2 (well, dad is because I can’t handle peanuts) but she actually hates peanuts.  Still, I worry she could develop them later in life.

I’ve tried to be honest but not alarmist with my allergies and advocating for friends who have kids with food allergies.  You see, I was fed a lobster and had quite a severe reaction.  The person who fed it to me didn’t warn me that the soup had a lobster base because I was sure they were making it up.  It’s this sort of thing that gives me pause for the sake of kids everywhere with allergies.  While I know my rules well, can read labels, and can leave a place if I can’t eat, a kid cannot necessarily do those things.  And, really, there is so much information out there and disdain for those with food allergies.

There was an article on mom.me which illustrates just how little people understand.  A child on a Singapore Airlines flight developed a severe reaction to peanuts on the plane.  These reactions are uncommon (this is not something I have to worry about, thankfully) but they do exist.  The comments made by others online are disheartening.  People assumed the child should wear a mask.  Others assumed that they just shouldn’t fly.  These aren’t helpful comments.  A painter or surgeons mask isn’t going to help and avoiding flying if you are travelling overseas is just not feasible.

It illustrates how out of touch people are.  So, today I’m going to make some simple suggestions about how you can be a better friend to those in your life with allergies (especially kiddos):

1. Note that potlucks suck for us.  I. HATE. POTLUCKS.  I have been known to have a breakdown before potluck meals in places we cannot easily get away from or which are held in places an hour or more from a fast food restaurant.  If I’m asked to come to someone’s house and stay for several hours, I often know I won’t be able to eat anything but what I brought.  With kids, this is exceedingly tricky and exhausting.  If you throw a potluck, try to keep utensils located only in the dishes they came with (I once could not eat anything but bread for about 6 hours because someone decided to be cute and use the wrong utensil to get something out of my dish).

2. Don’t be offended if someone asks to come late or brings food for themselves/their kid.  I think people get really uptight about this for no reason.  If you offer to feed me, I will sometimes say thank you but offer to bring food.  I’m no trying to be rude, I’m just trying to be a friendly guest and not a hangry one.  People with kids may need to bring special food for their allergic children or may need to feed them at a meal time before they arrive to make sure their kids are happy.

3.  Don’t expect them to bring enough allergy-free snacks to share.  Pre-baby and being a person who liked to cook and bake, I brought a savory and sweet dish to gatherings and dinners so I could ensure I’d have food.  Now, as a working mom who is the only cook in our household, I just can’t do that anymore.  I sometimes bake something and then bring a main for myself.  I can’t do both.  And for time-pressed parents with kids who can’t rely on whatever may or may not be available, that’s probably where they are at.  Again, they aren’t being rude.  They are dealing with more than the rest of you are worry-wise while also trying to be gracious guests.  Likewise, the cost of food/snacks for food allergic kids can be pressing.  If they brought enough to share, it could sometimes cost a fortune.

4. If someone asks you to not bring something into their home, don’t bring it.  This seems simple but I have asked people kindly to not bring things I am allergic to into the house. This is not always obeyed.  A lot of people seem to act like this is unreasonable.  We still regularly get offered Christmas gifts with nuts. They go in our garage trash basket which is handled by my husband.

5. It’s okay to say “I can’t accommodate you” if you feel outhorsed by an allergy.  I would rather you tell me you aren’t sure you can safely feed me than hear you say “yeah sure” and either arrive to no food or food that could kill me.

6.  Don’t try to convince someone (ESPECIALLY a kid) to eat your food if you know it is not safe or cannot be sure it is safe.  Kids may feel left out if they are not able to eat something.  Don’t make them feel worse.  If I can’t eat your food, it could kill me.  It’s not a judgment on you if someone refuses your food.

7.  Don’t tell someone you know how they can “cure” allergies by repeated exposures to what they are allergic to. In most cases, this will only kill them or make their reactions more dangerous over time.  In some cases, this does work but only in controlled environments should this be undertaken (an allergist will do this, usually).

8.  Allergy sufferers cannot eat at every restaurant or go to every place you do.  I cannot set foot in Texas Roadhouse, for example.  I also can’t eat at Applebee’s or a number of local restaurants.  It’s okay to make plans at your favorite place but some may not be able to attend.  Kids who can’t eat may not be friendly to anyone.  Trust me, it’s better to meet up another time.

All in all, if you don’t know or are confused, ASK!  Most parents will be able to tell you all about it and will appreciate that you care about their kid.  Try to be understanding and don’t be offended if an allergy suffer says they are bringing their own food or will eat before.

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