When it comes to the biggest family holidays of the year – Christmas and Thanksgiving – I usually break into a cold sweat at the mere thought of all the planning.
While most others are simply debating whether to roast or deep fry the turkey, I’m contemplating whether to stay home and make it somewhat easy for myself or to go visit with family and make it “challenging” (to say the least).
The challenge arises because my 13-year-old daughter, Julia, has life-threatening food allergies to milk, eggs and peanuts. My younger daughter, Emma, who is 11, also has a serious health concern – FPIES (food protein-induced enterocolitis syndrome), and poultry will trigger her symptoms.
This year, we opted for the challenging Thanksgiving. It’s not that I’m a glutton for extra work and precautions, but this year promised to be special. My mother, who lives about two hours away, was expecting my two younger brothers, one of whom is married with two girls and the other was coming home from his first semester at college.
Traveling to see the family seemed really important. Sure, staying home would have been a lot easier, but that would have meant keeping my girls away from their family – and I was not going to allow that to happen.
So there I was, faced with the major dilemma for families living with food allergies – how to protect our children from potentially harmful foods without depriving them of normal experiences, such as spending time with family during the holidays?
For this Thanksgiving trip go off with as few hitches as possible took serious planning and preparation. Not only did I cook and prepare all of the girls’ food ahead of time, but I also planned out how to transport the food.
But for allergy moms, when the going gets tough, the tough get busy! I called my mom in advance to go over what she would be serving for dinner, the ingredients she would be using and how we could designate space for the girls’ food in her refrigerator. I then planned my food preparation to mimic the meal my mom was preparing, as a safe version for the girls.
My goal was to have the girls eat the “same” meal that was being served, keeping it dairy- , egg- and peanut-free. I try my best to do this for special occasions, like birthday parties and weddings. I have found that trying to make my girls feel included rather than excluded helps with the social and emotional aspects of living with food allergies.
This is the continuing battle of parenting children with food allergies: to protect but not isolate.
Holiday celebrations get even more challenging when there are multiple cultures involved. For example, traveling to my mom’s house for Thanksgiving is unique because my stepdad is from India. I love the Indian culture, the clothes, the movies and, of course, the delicious food. The only problem for us is that Indian dishes often contain nuts.
My mom’s background, meanwhile, is Portuguese, which means that cheese and eggs are pretty much found in every dish.
How we Pulled it Off
This is my Thanksgiving (and sometimes Christmas) challenge, which usually turns into a bit of a juggling act. However, over the years my mom and I have developed an unspoken agreement that I am the only one who cooks for Julia. Translation: if I am coming over, I may be bringing everything but the kitchen sink!
One thing I have learned about being a mother of a child with food allergies is that it is OK to ask for help. I may not be comfortable with my mom cooking for my daughters,but asking her to pick up something that I might need at the grocery store definitely lightens my load. I’ve even brought modern technology into the process – texting her pictures of the items that Julia regularly eats or drinks to make things easier for both of us.
The juggling act is something all of us food allergy moms and dads do on a daily basis, but it becomes more intense around the holidays. However, when my girls saw their Uncle Trevor (whom they think of more as a big brother) and ran to hug him, it warmed my heart.
When I saw Julia sit on the couch to hold her newest baby cousin Clara, it brought tears to my eyes. This is what all my work was for and thankfully everything did go off without a hitch!
My hope is that by watching how I handle these important holiday situations, my girls are building independence and confidence to navigate for themselves in the future. I never want my children to feel as if their food allergies or FPIES make me resentful or angry.
Much to the contrary, I feel that these challenges have brought us closer together as a family. They have taught us that we all have challenges and that it is how we choose to deal with them that defines us.
We try not to let food allergies dictate our lives: even when that means four days of prepping food, two days spent cooking and baking, traveling with two kids, two dogs, and daddy packing the car with five bags of food and four suitcases. Julia and Emma are my reason for everything, and I would – and will – do it all over again so they can have the “normal” holiday traditions, just like other children.
Monica Martinez and her family live in Folsom, California.
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