When some people find out that my son is allergic to nuts – all nuts – they cringe and shake their heads, desperate to separate their experience from my own, to find the flaw in me or my particular journey that caused this terrible predicament. They ask me if I ate nuts when I was pregnant and nursing as a way of building immunity, because, of course, I am and will forever be the source of all my son’s impediments. I want to say, “Yes, I did. I ate nuts, all the nuts. I bathed in nuts, too, and after every shower I slathered crunchy almond butter all over my body. I did all the things you’re supposed to do.”
I don’t say that, though, because I didn’t do that thing with the almond butter. But otherwise, yeah, I consumed nuts regularly, as suggested by the latest research on allergies and yeah, it didn’t work.
So here I am with a three-year-old who, as luck would have it, is picky enough not to chomp blindly into random foods with abandon. He scans a table covered in platters and asks family friends if the food they’re serving has nuts in it. As soon as he’s confirmed a definitive presence of something nutty, he quickly turns his nose up at it, as though he never thought it looked edible in the first place. We sometimes page through cookbooks together and he notes, with furrowed brow, the walnuts in the broccoli salad and the hazelnuts framing the chocolate cake. “THAT,” he taps the page with one tiny accusatory finger, “has nuts. I can’t have that!”
It sucks, what’s off limits to him, and yet, I can see how it gives him confidence, makes him ask questions, defines him a little bit, and makes him (the way obstacles do for all children) interesting.
Gillian Fein, creator of LaLa Lunchbox, recently posted a series of allergen-free lunch ideas and has written candidly in the past about her experience growing up with allergies. I love what she says about how her allergies and other people’s reactions to her allergies shaped her as a person. I mean, what other choice does an allergic kid have but to be empowered by her limits?
In the scheme of challenges, my son’s is a minor one. His reaction to only a few nuts is anaphylactic. We live in a time and place when foods are pretty clearly labeled, where schools are conscientious about foods coming in, and where there are substitutions at the store (sunbutter!) or in recipes I overturn online for nearly everything (nut-free pesto!). He’ll probably spend his life missing out on some of my favorite foods, like chocolate peanut butter ice cream, baklava, banana nut everything, or all those really trendy and delicious kale salads with almonds in them. This is sad for approximately ten seconds upon comparison to children who struggle to hear, see, walk, talk, or swallow.
The trickiest part so far about allergies, aligned with the fear that my son could eat something when he’s not with me that might threaten his life, is that it exposes how little control I have over, well, everything. As careful as I am, my son will spend more and more time away from me in a delightful and terrifying world filled with nuts of every stripe. As careful as I was during pregnancy, as many nuts as I consumed, things did not go according to plan. So why should they continue to do so in life?
There’s lots we can do. In my case, I tell my son what he’s allergic to, remind him of that stupid afternoon when he got hives and vomited in a café garden, and tell him what he can try to do to not have that happen again. But the rest of it (the unknown, the future) is out of our control as parents and humans. Maybe it isn’t our job to believe we can prevent every danger and obstacle. Maybe it isn’t our job to judge the other parents (ourselves included) who haven’t prevented all the dangers. Maybe all we can do is stock up on absurdly expensive EpiPens, hope our kids know a cashew when they see one, and have faith that things might just be okay.