We’ve all seen the parenting memes about hiding in the closet/bathroom/etc. to unwrap and enjoy a snack without our kids hounding us for “just a little bite.” I’m that mom who hides to eat a chocolate bar, or honey bun if I get too stressed or “hangry.” Yet, the reason I hide is not so I don’t have to share a bite, but rather because if I did share a bite, my son would go into an anaphylactic response.
You see, my son is allergic to wheat, eggs, peanuts and dairy. When he was diagnosed with these allergies at six months, after weeks of deep, horrifying coughs, projectile vomiting and raw, red spots of eczema on his cheeks, we went all gung-ho in ridding our house of allergens. I was breastfeeding him at that point, and I had to cut everything he was allergic to out of my diet.
I had to go grocery shopping at least once a week, and I threw away more food than I care to admit. The labels that claimed that this substitute was as good as the “real” thing were big, fat liars. The pasta didn’t taste the same; it was gummy and weird and fell apart while cooking. The pancake mix burnt on the outside but was raw in the middle. I spent hundreds of dollars on fake eggs to bake with, as well as every flour under the sun, only to constantly fail. Cooking and baking, which had always been an enjoyable pastime, turned into an anxiety inducing experience.
My diaper bag went from carrying diapers and wipes to EpiPens and Benadryl in case I ate something that was cross contaminated. When my son started eating solids, which was delayed as recommended by the allergist, we became unwilling regulars at the children’s ER.
At some point, for my sanity (and our grocery bill), I gave up. I stopped searching for the substitutes and bought what I always bought — saving the specialty food purchases for only my son. When I cooked, I cooked separate meals. When I ate things that he couldn’t have in front of my toddler, his large eyes followed my hands and my mouth as I chewed, and I felt an intense guilt settle deeply into my bones, into my very psyche.
As he got older, we transitioned to eating almost exclusively allergy-free, adding in “unsafe” things for us at mealtime, i.e. “cow cheese” and wheat garlic bread for spaghetti night, or real sour cream and cow cheese for tacos. At nearly four, he understands that he can’t eat certain things and can list his allergies. We’ve never needed to use his EpiPen, yet I constantly dread the day that I’ll need it, and have nightmares almost weekly.
In my closet, high on a shelf, is a small cache of chocolate. I prefer dark chocolate, which in itself is mostly allergy free, but I have a thing for peanut butter. Before my son, I ate peanut butter daily in some form; a Reese’s cup, or just a spoonful of creamy peanut butter while standing in the kitchen. Now, it’s almost taboo to even have peanut butter in my cupboard. The chocolate bar with salted peanuts sits up high, and I’ll often sneak a bite. When the kids start calling, I chew quickly before they discover my transgression. But soon, much too soon, I hear the voice:
“Mama? What are you eating?”
The guilt that has lived deep within my bones for years rears its ugly head, and a flash of sharp panic hits me. I try to swallow the bite quickly, but somehow always tend to choke on that rich, thick chocolate.
“Nothing,” I always respond, with a culpable, defensive edge to my voice. He knows that I’m hiding something from him, and his questioning look cuts to the very core of me.
“It’s chocolate, buddy,” I admit, already knowing what he’s about to say next.
“Is that wheat chocolate?” He knows that wheat is his worst allergy, and he has this adorable notion that everything he can’t eat has wheat in it.
“No…this has peanuts.”
“Oh. I can’t eat peanuts. I allergic to peanuts.”
“I know, sweetie.”
His shoulders droop, and he walks out of the room, and I’m left there, staring after him, tears blurring my vision. Every time he catches me in the act, I’m left feeling almost criminal.
The things he says can sometimes make me stop in my tracks, like the day we were shopping at Costco. We scan labels and often put stuff back on the shelf because of the ingredients. As we added a box of ramen bowls to the cart, he asked if he could eat it. My husband shamefully admitted that he couldn’t, because it had wheat.
My sweet boy, sitting next to his little brother in the massive cart, looked down and then said in a sad voice, “I can’t wait to grow up so I can eat the things you and Mama eat, Dada.”
I saw the stricken look on my husband’s face as he said in a fake bright voice, “Me too, buddy.” Later that day, he came and hugged me tightly, and I could feel his body quivering.
We don’t use words like “regular” or “normal” when it comes to describing foods in our house, in an effort to avoid having him think what he eats isn’t normal or regular. We’ve also started limiting the term “special” when we discuss his treats or foods.
When I picked him up from school after a birthday party in his class, for which I sent a gluten free vegan chocolate cupcake, I asked how his day was. He was noticeably glum as he told me, “I don’t want a special treat…I just want what everyone else eats.”
I felt defensive almost instantly, knowing how much trouble I went through to send that cupcake for his party; how much it cost, how I had to drive across town to get it…didn’t he realize how much I did for him so he could enjoy parties and not get left out? But my anger dissipated as quickly as it had appeared when I looked in the rear view mirror and saw his teary eyes staring out his window.
Of course he didn’t know that his “special” cupcake cost more for one, than a dozen of the Walmart cupcakes that were served to the other kids. Of course he didn’t understand that I’d had to call and order this cupcake, and then drive across town to get it. He only understood that the other kids all ate the same white cupcake with rainbow sprinkles, and his dark brown cupcake, with smashed frosting from his backpack, looked nothing like theirs; he understood that he was different, and he was feeling it more and more as the days passed. He felt it when the teachers told him they had to ask his mom first, when candies and treats were dispensed. He felt it when the other kids stared at him as the teacher pressed his inhaler and spacer against his face because he had an asthma attack after giggling too hard. He felt it when the kids lined up for pizza, and his teacher unpacked his lunch bag onto his plate.
As much as I try to shield him from feeling different, I realize that I fail more than I succeed.
As much as it pains me, I know that my son is growing the thick skin he’ll need to face our world.
As much as I mess up, and it’s more than I wish, I know that my son loves me, with all my flaws.
As much as I feel the guilt gnawing at my bones, settling into the depths of my heart, I also know that I’m the best mom for my kids.
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