Food Allergies and the Good Enough Mother

in Features, Food Allergy
Published: October 9, 2014

mother daughterIf a vigilant allergy mom makes a food error, she’s racked with recrimination. Can we ever admit that, even though anaphylaxis is on the line, a mistake can happen – and that mother is only mortal? – from Allergic Living magazine

WHEN my daughter was diagnosed with multiple food allergies nine years ago, I could not have predicted the anxiety, guilt, and self-blame that I would experience as a mother. It was hard enough figuring out what to feed her, how to handle preschool, and how to use an epinephrine auto-injector.

Things became even harder when she was also diagnosed with celiac disease. But hardest of all, I see now, were the times that despite my vigilance, I made mistakes.

Having a child experience anaphylaxis is one of the most terrifying experiences a parent can face. But when you’re the one who made the mistake – when you served the cookie or cooked the dinner – the psychological aftermath is brutal.

Take, for example, the Milk Mix-Up. I will never forget the summer evening when my daughter (age 6) was playing with her younger brother in the backyard while my husband and I were cooking dinner. I brought two glasses outside – one filled with cow’s milk, the other with soy milk (since she’s allergic to milk) – and set them down on the patio table. Only the kids changed places when I went back inside. You can see where this ended: one long, harrowing evening in the ER.

The next day, my daughter bounded out of bed, feeling fine despite repeated shots of epinephrine, steroids, and a late night at the hospital. It was nothing short of miraculous. I, on the other hand, could barely move. I felt as though I’d been in a car wreck. For weeks afterward, the litany of self-recrimination in my head would not turn off.

Eventually I managed to move on, but the guilt and blame lay submerged under the surface, whispering voices telling me that I was a Bad Mother, until I finally wrote an essay about this incident for a book about mothering. Suddenly, I started to have conversations with other food allergy parents (mostly moms) about mistakes they’d made. One mom confessed her guilt over what she ate when she was breastfeeding, which made her wonder whether she was to blame for her tween daughter’s extensive allergies and eczema; another woman blamed herself for signing her son up for an oral immunotherapy trial, which she now worries may have contributed to the development of EOE, the troublesome allergic condition of the esophagus.

A close friend confided that she’d never been able to understand how I could have mixed up the milk, until she did the exact same thing herself. I read truth-telling threads in Facebook groups and confessions on blogs, including one post titled “The time I almost killed my child,” that left me teary-eyed and shaken. The blogger’s crime? She’d read the ingredients on only one of two cookie boxes. Same brand, same cookie. Different flavors.

Another friend with a daughter with a peanut allergy summed it all up. “I can be so forgiving of others,” she said. “But I’m so hard on myself If I do one thing wrong and 10,000 things right, I focus on that one thing. Somehow I can’t give myself the same grace that I can give to any other mom.”

Here’s the thing: No matter how careful we are, no matter how many times we read labels and call food companies and obsess over trying to control our child’s environment, we’re all human. We’re going to make mistakes. So why is it so hard to forgive ourselves?


FOOD allergies are particularly hard for families. Mistakes can be deadly. Trying to avoid food allergens is often stressful, simply because the stakes are so high (not to mention the frustrations of navigating a sea of “may contain” statements on food labels). Plus, food is both intimate and deeply social.

Research corroborates what many of us already know: a child’s food allergies frequently negatively impact the mental and emotional health of parents. A couple of studies suggest that moms may bear the brunt of the added stress.

In 2005, Canadian researchers studying peanut-allergic children with anaphylaxis found that mothers bore the primary responsibility for managing a child’s food allergy and felt inadequately supported for doing so. A slightly larger 2009 study in the U.K. found that mothers of food-allergic children had a poorer quality of life as well as higher levels of anxiety and stress than fathers. Similarly, researchers in Chicago who conducted a web-based survey among parents of food-allergic children found that more than half of the respondents (most of whom were mothers) felt that they worried more than their partner about their child’s food allergy.

My own interviews with dozens of mothers of food-allergic kids support these findings. Stories about stress, guilt, and blame frequently come up. On one level, this isn’t surprising. Mothers still spend more time with their children than fathers – nearly twice as much in the U.S., according to the 2012 American Time Use Survey – and more than twice as much time on food preparation and cleanup.

When you spend more time with the kids and do more of the cooking, you’re the one who’s more likely to make a mistake, witness an allergic reaction, and feel enormous guilt about it afterwards.

But I wonder if something else is at work as well. As a women’s and gender studies professor, I have to ask: does the impact of food allergies on mothers have anything to do with way our culture understands motherhood?

Next: The Good Mother-Bad Mother myths