When my son, Julian, was diagnosed with peanut allergy years ago, I faced the news alone. My husband Victor could not come to the allergist’s appointment as he had a business commitment. Overwhelmed by the thought of possibly losing our child, I had a meltdown when I called Victor later. Sobbing, I explained: “He could die from this allergy if we’re not careful.” To my surprise, Victor calmly responded, “No, he won’t. It’s not a big deal. He just won’t eat peanuts.” While his intentions were to reassure me, I felt my concerns had been dismissed; not the response I was looking for from my partner. “He doesn’t get it,” I thought.
After I got over the initial shock, sadness and anger with this card we’d been dealt, I began to accept the fact that I could not change Julian’s situation, but I could do a lot to reduce the potential for risk. As a take-charge mother, I spent hours calling food manufacturers to learn about their products, meeting the school principal to develop a management plan, and educating others how to read a food label and to use an auto-injector. When we ate out – whether at a restaurant or someone’s home – it was typically me who asked questions about the food, often calling ahead to make inquiries. Before I went on a business trip, I stocked the house with groceries and prepared meals. In the early days, this was a lot of work which added to my already busy schedule and increased my level of stress. I became resentful that I was doing it all.
It was during a TV interview about allergies that Victor and I took part in, that I had my “Aha” moment. On camera, he admitted that while he took precautions to keep Julian safe, he had ridden on my coattails with respect to our management strategies. This was his way of saying: “Laurie does most of the work.” The comment made me realize that I was just as guilty for this imbalance; I’d enabled Victor to be more laissez-faire – by simply taking over. My behaviour must have sent a message to Julian, too, that “Mom would do it all.”
That evening, we had a family discussion. I expressed my hopes that both Victor and Julian, then 7 years old, would do more. What if something happened to me or our family situation changed? (Not a pleasant thought, but almost 40 per cent of marriages do end in divorce.) We agreed that if Julian wanted a new food product, he would have to read the label to determine whether we should buy it. If Victor purchased the product, he would call the manufacturer if it was a company we did not know.
When we went to restaurants, Julian was encouraged to ask about menu items. My husband and son learned how time-consuming it could be double-checking food items, and hopefully they appreciated the past efforts of “mom, the martyr”.
But they also built their own confidence in reading food labels and advocating for Julian’s safety. I learned to keep quiet, and let them figure things out for themselves (and that’s no small task when you think you know better). It turned out to be a huge relief not having to do everything.
Looking back at those early years, my husband and I should have done things differently. To parents starting out on their food allergy journey, I offer these lessons from the marital trenches:
- You and your partner both brought your child into the world. Learn as much as you can and develop management strategies together.
- Have one set of rules which your food-allergic child and others can follow. This is especially important where there are two households, due to divorce. If you don’t get along with your ex, remember to stay focused on the child’s safety and put personal differences aside. Food allergy rules should not dissolve into a case of “who’s the better parent”.
- Go to key appointments together – medical, school, other – so that you hear the same information. This lessens the chance that one parent is expected to be the keeper of information.
As we learned to be better teammates on food allergy management, I came to appreciate that my husband’s calmer approach was complementary to my more uptight style. It was not always bad to be laissez-faire as long as we stuck to key rules. In fact, Victor has helped me to learn to let go. While I wanted to say “no way” to a boys-only camping trip in the interior of Ontario’s Algonquin Park when Julian was 10, Victor proved that with careful planning, Julian could spend five days in the wilderness eating safely – no cell phones, no hospital in sight, and no hovering mother around.
From the Winter 2010 issue of Allergic Living magazine.
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