Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Back-to-School Time: Thoughts from an Allergy Mom

Back in May I talked about how I had attended the Food Allergy Resource & Education Annual Conference in Orlando, Florida. I talked about how excited I was about all the knowledge I had gathered and how excited I was to share all of that with all of you and help to spread what I had learned to the masses.

I did. I talked about those things. I even wrote one post explaining food allergy basics and talked about how excited I was to write about more things... and I was super, duper excited.

Then I didn't write about the things that I learned at the conference. There were two reasons for this:
  1. I took a step back from the excitement and realized that this blog has never been about dry lists of facts and numbers. This blog has always been about bits of me - faith topics, recipes, my life as a mom, and yes even bits of our journey as a family working through food allergies. As such, I took a step back and started to re-evaluate the information I wanted to present here. The result of this train of thought is what you'll see in posts like this one and the post I wrote about Ricky Gervais and Bullying a few weeks ago.
  2. So what the heck has taken so long to come to this conclusion and frankly - write much of anything at all? Well... it's been a beautiful, sunny, rain-light summer here in New England and we've been exploring the seacoast, local museums, parks, free concerts, and all sorts of other wonderful kid-friendly activities. My kiddos are 4 and 2, the older child heads off to 3-day-a-week preschool in the fall, and quite frankly - living in New England I am stuck inside due to bitter cold for way too many months of the year. As such - I took advantage. And it's been glorious.

But now here it is, mid-August and back-to-school time is upon us. I have come to think of these things again because I am about to send my son off to a "real" school for the first time without my watchful eye making sure his hands are wiped, his surface is wiped, and the ingredients of the foods of the 3 people closest to him are checked. I have been in touch with the school nurse and it's incredibly likely that his classroom will be peanut/treenut free. This is certainly a reassurance, but it's not what's consumed IN the classroom that scares me - it's what's consumed before kids get there that does.

I'm more nervous about kids eating peanut butter on their toast or bagel BEFORE they get to school than I am about a package of Austin peanut butter crackers entering the classroom for snacktime.

So what series of events transpired that led me to come back to this topic? Two things:
  1. I have a number of friends who keep sunbutter on-hand so that if they are coming out with us for a picnic lunch, they can give their kids sunbutter & jelly sandwiches and keep my little guy safe. This is awesome and I am more than a little appreciative that they do this. However, it occurred to me the other day while I was making sandwiches for an excursion with the kiddos - if Will is ever eating at their house and I don't have a lunch for him, he likely can never eat a sunbutter and jelly sandwich at their house. How many of us while making a nutbutter & jelly sandwich have used the same knife for both jars? I know I have (much to the chagrin of my husband, who hates seeing nutbutter streaks in his jelly jars) - and what sparked this train of thought while I was making sandwiches was that I had just talked to a mom whose daughter has an allergy to sunflower seeds. We use sunbutter. If her daughter is ever at my house, I can't offer her a plain jelly sandwich as a substitute.
  2. Thinking ahead to when he gets to the age of dating as was sparked by an article I was reading in Allergic Living magazine. In addition to discussing "the birds and the bees" with Will, we also have to make sure he understands that for him - kissing can trigger a reaction if he's not careful. Protein from allergens can linger in a person for hours - not even tooth-brushing can get rid of it - if a significant other doesn't avoid the protein all together while dating Will, they'd have to avoid smooching for several hours, brush their teeth, AND consume an allergen-free meal before locking lips. Talk about conversations you're not normally thinking about when you have a 4-year-old... but how old are kids before they start kissing each other? I think I was 6 or 7 when a little boy wanted to kiss me on the playground - clearly nothing crazy, just a peck... but for Will a peck from a little girl who had a peanut butter smear on her bagel that morning could cause him to break out in hives. It's incredibly rare - but it's still possible.

Thankfully, we do have an allergy plan in place and will be working with the school nurses. We've been assured that the staff are all EpiPen trained and are educated in the signs of anaphylaxis. We're (slowly and as he's ready) handing ownership of Will's allergy over to him - he's starting to speak up for himself in restaurants and letting the waitstaff know that he's allergic to peanuts & treenuts. When they pretend to go places, he always asks his sister "Do you have my epipen?" and they "pack" their "shot" from their doctor's kit before they go to the "grocery store" to buy "peanut free and almond-safe" (he's not allergic to almonds) snacks. He has started asking me to make sure that things he's eating at the store on sample are safe and I make sure that he watches me read labels. We've been stressing with him everywhere we go that he should only eat food that Mommy and Daddy give him and never, ever share food with someone else.

What's my point here? Well I have two points (and apparently thinking in "twos" for this post).

The first point that I'm driving at is that if you're not an allergy parent but you are a parent - please take a few seconds and educate yourself (if you don't already know) about cross-contact. Because we are all part of each other's villages and should look out for each other, it's important that we teach our kids how to keep each other safe as part of a community. Kids that have peanut butter for breakfast should thoroughly wash their hands, make sure none of their breakfast gets on the clothes they're wearing that day, and brush their teeth thoroughly after eating. When you're having "the talk" with your kids, make sure that they understand that at some point they could date someone with a food allergy - and discuss how they can keep that person safe (and that causing anaphylaxis is not a preferred means to get back at someone who breaks up with them). A couple of short reads that you may find helpful are:

And if you've got a kiddo that you want to help educate on food allergies so that they can be a support for their friends, Disney & Mylan have partnered together to write this adorable little book called "Show & Tell Scout" that is wonderful for explaining to kids all about food allergies, why other kids can't share or trade food, and how to work together to protect each other and still all have fun. You can read the e-book for free by clicking here.  I got a printed copy at the FARE Conference and my kids love it.

We're all a part of the same village and we should be working to protect each other. I don't write anything here in this post that I don't do myself out in the world. In fact, last week I had packed almond butter and jelly sandwiches to take the a park for a picnic. For a while we were the only ones there, but as my kids were going in between sandwich and splash-pad frolicking - another family arrived. I looked at the smearing of sandwich goo all over my kids' faces and immediately went over to the other mom. "Excuse me," I asked, "Is your daughter allergic to almonds? My kids have almond butter and my son has food allergies, so if she is I get it and I'll keep my kids contained and thoroughly wash them up before I let them loose again."

Not only was she appreciative that I asked (even though her daughter wasn't), she also immediately closed the container of nuts she herself was snacking on (that I hadn't even seen, it was behind her) and put them away until we left.

At the end of the day - I've learned - no one wants to see a child get hurt. And if you're not insane, demanding, or rude about it, everyone wants to protect each other's children.

My second point is one that I think may ring a bit truer to all of us, and that's the bizarreness that is releasing your kids into more and more levels of independence. For us it's food allergies, but for you and your family it may be something else. Maybe your child is on the autism spectrum, or has a learning disability, or some sort of physical limitation, or is overly bold and risk-taking, or whatever thing YOUR kid has that's a part of who they are - we all as parents have that "thing" that makes us nervous to let our kids just... go. Be themselves. Experience the world and learn and make mistakes and figure things out for themselves. To take the risks they need to take to learn and accomplish great things and impact the lives of others (hopefully in positive ways). They cannot do that if we keep them under our protectful wings forever, and the LAST thing I want to do is to keep my kids forever underwing. They don't want that, and I want them to be successful enough people to get out of my  house and be their own people. Maybe come back home for dinner on Sunday if they live within a reasonable drive.

So while I sit here nervous about the dangers that Will might encounter in the real world - much as every other parent is, just my nervousness is slightly different than some others - I think about the importance of him needing to do it himself. I recognize that I can talk to other parents, educate them and the community, and work to do what I can to make the world a little bit better, safer, and easier for him. It's why I write about food allergies here on this blog; I want to raise awareness at the level that I can, so that it can then trickle down to kids and neighbors and communities.

But at the end of the day, going to school and getting out in the world is going to be what makes him figure out how to do it for himself. The world is a big, crazy place and it's hard to be an adult. Being a kid, though... being a kid and yearning for that independence, striving for it while knowing that you still have the safety net of your core family at home...

...that's what makes people grow into some of the best adults.

Enjoy the big, crazy world. William Silly-um.

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