The Fear of Food

The other day, I went into my son’s class to assist with a holiday service project. The students assembled and decorated gingerbread houses for a local nursing home. Joy, right? Not, really.

I don’t know if you are familiar with ginger bread house kits, but I am, because we received one as a gift, a few years ago, and never put it together because my oldest son couldn’t eat it. It has a tree nut warning, and if you are new around these parts, my oldest son has a tree nut and sesame allergy. He does not have a peanut allergy, which I make very clear to everyone, especially his teachers, because I don’t want someone to pass out as they watch my son munching down on a Reese’s, thinking they are about to have a major medical emergency on their hands.

So, I was a bit surprised when my son’s switch teacher (the lady who teaches two of his subjects) whose class was doing the project with my son’s class, approached me with, “Oh, good, you’re here. I have a student who has a peanut allergy, so I thought we would put the boys together while they do the project.”

I said “Ok, but you know my son is not allergic to peanuts, right?”

She said, “Yes, but there’s a tree nut warning on the box, too.”

I knew this, but since it was a “manufactured in the same factory warning” and not a product that actually contained nuts, I felt comfortable with my son handling the product as long as he didn’t eat it and washed his hands thoroughly before eating his lunch. Furthermore, I was there to ensure that my son took these safety precautions. I told her this. (To be clear, he would not participate in any project if he actually had to handle nuts.)

The problem, she proceeded to tell me, was that they weren’t sure about the other kids limits, and that from his mother’s note, it didn’t seem like she knew if her son could safely handle the ginger bread and candy, which pretty much all of had warning labels on it. Wonderful.

I never agreed to be this kids monitor, but then again, no one was asking me. The teachers had come up with a plan and I was the solution. I guess there is an assumption of solidarity when it comes to food allergies, and that would be true, to a certain extent. But let’s be clear, I am not a doctor, or a nurse. I think they know this about me. So, I  can only guess they anointed me the resident allergy mom.  Which meant, what? That I was supposed to monitor this child for signs of a reaction? Was I supposed to keep him from ingesting something? Jab him with an epi-pen if he started showing signs of respiratory distress? I’m not sure what they expected of me, but I wasn’t happy about any of it, real or imagined.

First of all, my son was unaware that his group was predetermined, so when he and his friends sat down at a table together, he didn’t quite understand why his friends were asked to leave the table and he was made to sit with two other boys that he did not know that well. Why two? Because the boy with the peanut allergy was allowed to bring a friend so he wouldn’t feel left out.

What?

With only three allowed to a table, my child was not allowed to sit with any of his friends so that the other kid wouldn’t feel left out. I know I sound petty, but my son shoulders enough burden with his own allergy, he doesn’t need any more. Every in-school birthday celebration (yes, they still do those), every class party, every birthday party, every social event he attends with food, which is pretty much every one, he is very aware that he cannot fully partake, and while this may not bother an adult, it does very much still bother a child, who does not want to be different.

Cheating, taking one bite, just this once, maybe it’s ok, could be a fatal mistake.

It’s that serious.

I struggled with sympathy for the peanut allergy kid, who wrestled with cumbersome gloves, as he was instructed by the teacher to just work on the base. And I say struggled, because he was a major pain in the butt. He spent most of the time fooling around, throwing stuff at the house that my son was working diligently on. He squirted gobs of icing haphazardly, taking his gloves off a few times, picking up licorice, only to look at me and ask if it was ok that he was touching it. I don’t know if the kid is always a pain in the ass, but I have feeling that his behavior had more to do with him being completely uncomfortable, and, fearful.

I don’t have all the answers to how to deal with food allergies. I can’t tell you what is fair and what is not, especially since I’m not of the ban all nuts from school type, but I’m pretty sure it’s completely wrong to have a CHILD participate in a project in which he thinks there might be a chance that he could potentially die.

I’m not saying the child could die, would die, or anything of that nature, because the truth is, I don’t know.  He may have been perfectly fine handling the food, but he didn’t know and either did his mother and that’s the whole point. All that was left in this boy’s head was a big question mark, which is a huge void when the worse outcome is death. As inflammatory as it sounds, it’s a potential outcome for any food allergic individual.

One time, I read any article about fear. The author explained that in order to face your fears, losing your job, being poor, not making a deadline, etc, you should just keep going through all the scenarios until you played out everything in your head. Sort of like, what if, and in the end you would realize that even the worse possible outcome was not the end of the world.

It doesn’t work like that for people with food allergies.

I’m always amazed by adults who still don’t get it. Because how many adults get a questionable medical test back and assume the worse? How many parents see a cold and think meningitis? How many people hear the phone in the middle of the night and think death? A lot.

Then why is it so hard to understand what a child with food allergies experiences, sometimes, daily. Except their fears aren’t far-flung or over exaggerated. They are real.

Kids shouldn’t have to worry about dying. Not from making a gingerbread house. But they do.

And probably because of this, my son is way more gracious than me. I never voiced any of my discontent to him or his teachers and you can be sure I kept and eye on the peanut allergy kid double checking that he washed his hands with soap. No, I smiled and kept my feelings to myself that day because I’ve always taught my son to make the best of a situation and he does. He never complained, never said that’s not fair, as he watched his three friends sitting together. The only mention I made of the day was when I was tucking him into bed that night. As we were talking about his day, I said sorry you couldn’t sit with your friends, today. He answered, that’s ok, I think our house turned out pretty good.

I think he turned out pretty good.

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