Samantha Yaffe’s frank take on motherhood with allergies
When Lucas was about 3, I had him enrolled two afternoons a week in this cute little neighbourhood program. On account of his allergies, the kind people in charge declared the space peanut- and nut-free, directly informing each parent (or nanny) to send only nut-free snacks for their little ones.
Not such a remarkable scenario today, but four years ago this type of directive was new to some.
So, there I was on the third day getting ready to exit when this mom came in with her tot, to whom Lucas had taken a shine. She’d looked up at the NO NUTS sign on the wall and, obviously unaware that I was the cause, made some remark about how ridiculous that was. Her son loved nuts and shouldn’t be told what he can or can’t eat. Without taking a breath, she went on to say that he is also lactose intolerant and that she has a mind to ask the program director to ban dairy products.
“So ridiculous,” she kept repeating. When her rant seemed to be coming to a close, I softly responded with feigned ignorance. “Could it hurt your son if someone else was eating dairy products in his presence?”
“No,” she said, “but he’s effectively allergic to it .… Anyway, I would never make it anyone else’s problem.”
A Name and Face to Allergy
“Ya, I wouldn’t either,” I say. “In fact, my son is allergic to egg, shellfish, mustard, kiwi and poppy seed, and I would never expect other parents not to send their kids with those ingredients. I mean, he’s only affected by those allergens if he eats them, so why make it other people’s problem, right?”
“Absolutely!” We’re like instant BFFs, united by our agreement over what’s right and good vis-à-vis those “ridiculous,” over-advocating, nut-allergic parents.
“But here’s the thing,” I said. “He’s also allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. These allergies are life-threatening and can be triggered by trace contact with his allergens. So it actually really matters what other people are eating, especially in his presence, which is why I ask for other parents’ courtesy on the peanut and tree nut matter, and why I don’t dwell on the other stuff.”
“Riiiight,” she says, while our two boys are playing dinosaurs on the carpet across the room. “I didn’t realize it was Lucas.”
Somehow putting a name and face to the meaning of the sign, and hearing my story while her daggers were down, transformed this naysayer pretty quickly. It also made her realize that different allergies (and in her case, intolerances) mean different things to different people.
Through past responses to this column, through the Toronto allergy group I run, and most recently from online feedback to an explosive allergy-denial article published in Chatelaine, I’ve come across a lot of dissenting views: non-allergic parents feeling put out and off by the needs of a few allergic kids, others who simply don’t understand or believe the severity of anaphylaxis, and many who’d like to dismiss we parents of allergic kids as hysterical freaks. But the most disturbing sentiment comes from the divide within our own allergic community.
Some parents whose children face other serious allergies aside from peanuts or nuts – like milk or egg – seem to be sour grapes about the strides made in accommodating peanut and nut allergies over the past five years.
Indeed, school anaphylaxis measures are not all about “the peanut”. This is why Ontario’s ground-breakingSabrina’s Law, for example, doesn’t call for school-wide bans but rather requires that principals develop school-specific strategies to reduce the risk of exposure to anaphylactic triggers (whatever they may be), communication of such strategies with the school community and staff training for allergy emergencies.
My younger son Judah was severely allergic to dairy until he was 2 years old and Lucas has a laundry list of allergies. So I get it. But what I also get is the strength of our allergic community when united – as illustrated by the numerous petitions that led to Sabrina’s Law or the lobbying begun on the Allergic Living forum that ultimately led to the education minister’s anaphylaxis directive in British Columbia or more recent local demonstrations such as the Walk to Axe Anaphylaxis and the hundreds of effective responses to Chatelaine’snegative article. The changes we’re able to bring about hinge on us working together as a food allergy community, toward the same goals. It isn’t about being for or against accommodations for one allergy or another, it’s about making school life safe and rewarding and normal – for all our allergic kids.
We can’t make our kids’ worlds allergen-free – in most cases it’s not optimal to institute large-scale bans of peanuts, milk or anything else – but it is possible to inspire policies and attitudes of tolerance, sensitivity and vigilance. If your anaphylactic child has a food allergy that isn’t being accommodated in his or her specific classroom, in several provinces and states you can make the case that this must be addressed. You now have a legal or at least government framework to draw upon in discussions with your principal or school board.
Let’s face it: we all want to rip the eyeballs out of anyone who threatens to put our children in harm’s way, and it can be hard to keep your calm when you feel somebody’s child’s needs are being given more respect than yours. But the most positive changes are made when we use tolerance, sensitivity and vigilance ourselves. A diplomatic approach to education and awareness is our honey. Everything else is for the bees.
Allergy in the News: Air Canada Ordered to Offer Nut-free Zones.