“Your son has more than a dozen food allergies. Some are life-threatening.”
It has been more than a decade since I heard those disturbing words, uttered by one of the country’s leading pediatric allergists. In an instant, my life changed. Thoughts of every upcoming birthday, vacation and holiday flashed before me as impossible dreams. I had no idea how I could make a life for a little boy who was allergic to everything.
Daniel was 18 months old, and we’d spent almost his entire life getting conflicting diagnoses. From the day we brought him home from the hospital, he spit up constantly; we couldn’t lay him down to change a diaper as he would choke on his own vomit. His little body was covered with red and weeping eczema. It was an exhausting first year with no answers on the horizon.
I knew something was seriously wrong with my son. Still, nothing prepares you for hearing that your child has a life-threatening illness. I felt terrified and alone. Looking back, I wish that I had known that it would all be OK, that a “new normal” for my family would emerge, and that I would grow so much as a person because of the experience. You, too, will adjust to parenting a child with food allergies. Start by taking the following five steps.
1. Make an Action Plan
The worst part about a food allergy is the risk of a life-threatening reaction. Lessen this risk by putting a plan in place in case your child has a reaction. (Download a Food Allergy Action Plan form at www.foodallergy.org.) Keep copies with each set of your child’s medications. When you have clarity about how to treat your child’s symptoms, you’ll feel much more secure.
2. Get Comfortable with the Epinephrine Auto-injector
Yes, it can be sad and scary to have to carry epinephrine for your child, but trust me, if she ever needs it, you will be thrilled to use it to save her life. If you’re not comfortable with using the EpiPen, ask your child’s doctor for a demonstration on how to administer it.
If your child does not have a prescription for epinephrine and you’re wondering whether he should have one, don’t wonder – ask! Those kinds of gnawing concerns will only increase your anxiety.
3. Share Your Feelings
I’ve worked with hundreds of mothers across North America and I’m amazed that they rarely share the emotional wounds bleeding inside them. Sure, they’ll talk about how much they hate the extra cooking, shopping and label reading, but that doesn’t have nearly the same effect as bearing your broken heart and disappointment to your good friend, partner or spouse.
Find someone who cares about you and pour your heart out. Part of the beauty of life is that we have friends to support, comfort and love us.
4. Find a Few Safe Foods and Recipes
Plan meals around simple foods like roasted chicken, beef, potatoes and rice, and simply leave sauces or condiments on the side.
You’ll soon find that the silver lining to dealing with food allergies is that your whole family will have a much healthier diet, and you might even take off those last 10 pounds. Find a few safe pre-packed products that you can have on hand for quick snacks or when you’re on the go.
5. Make a New Friend
Find a local or online support group for parents of children with food allergies. There is camaraderie among allergy parents, especially mothers, that you won’t find elsewhere. My son has so many allergies, including several obscure ones like mustard and banana, that I was delighted when I met my friend Heidi, whose son is the same age and has most of the same allergies as my son.
Today, many of my closest friends are the parents of children with food allergies and the icing on the cake is that when we get together, we are all aware of the allergies and vigilant with each others’ children.
Once you have your Food Allergy Action Plan in place, find a handful of safe foods and recipes, and share your feelings with a few understanding friends, you’ll be well on your way to restoring balance in your life and creating a new normal for your family.
Gina Clowes is a certified life coach and consultant who helps parents and schools advocate for children with food allergies. She is the founder of AllergyMoms.com, a support community serving thousands worldwide.