Every parent will tell you that their greatest fear is losing their child. You have nightmares about it. You can imagine it happening to your family when you read story after story of simple mistakes-turned-tragedies. You see the dangers in knives, busy parking lots, staircases, swimming pools. You baby-proof, you toddler-proof, you hold hands, you teach lessons. Most of these situations are avoidable. There are safety precautions you can take. The dangers are isolated... the fear is often extreme. Except when it’s not.
I am an anxious, helicopter parent. I watch my kids like a hawk. I have to watch your kids too. As they approach, before they can even begin to create the bonds of friendship, my 4-year old speaks up: “Were you eating food? I need you to please wash your hands before you play with me.” The child usually stares at her, confused. The parents, when they are nearby (but most are never nearby), look back and forth from me to my precocious child. “She has food allergies,” I explain. Sometimes the families appease us, grumbling at the inconvenience of wiping their child’s hands. Most times, they choose to walk away. It’s a big playground. There are plenty of other kids to play with.
In that moment, my heart breaks. Not for my daughter who has never had the chance to form her preference for smooth or chunky peanut butter. Not for my son who has never experienced the delight of the perfectly crusty fresh-from-the-oven baguette. My heart breaks for the kid who is looking longingly at our collection of colorful shovels. For the kid who will never know the joy of giggling at my son’s jokes, who will never hear my daughter stick up for them as she articulates against playground exclusion that “everyone can play here.” My heart breaks for the child who is rushed away from an opportunity to learn empathy or how to compromise in a relationship or how to go out of their way to help a friend.
My kids run, climb, imagine, dream, color, build, race, sing, dance, splash, throw tantrums, make messes, snuggle, scream. They fill my heart with unbelievable love. They are everything to me.
Losing a child is the worst pain that I could imagine. I would never wish it on anyone. Yet I hear you wish it for me. That is what I hear when you ignore my children’s need for health and safety. That is what I hear as your child walks around the museum exhibit with an open bag of goldfish crackers. That is what I hear as your toddler approaches the playground with food smeared all over their hands and face. That is what I hear when you refuse the simple request to wash or wipe your hands after eating.
I so desperately want to go to the playground and sit on the sidelines. I want to talk to my friends and ignore my kids, both for their freedom and my reprieve. I want to let my guard down. I want to see them as kids, just kids. Not allergy kids, not challenging kids, not inconvenient kids. I want the world to be a place where they can be who they are. I want a world where they can learn, grow and live with just as much safety as anyone else.
This May, as the food allergy community celebrates Food Allergy Awareness Week, our family recognizes the fourth anniversary of my daughter’s first allergic reaction. She was turning 9 months old and I had chosen yogurt as a new food to celebrate the milestone. It was almost the last milestone we celebrated. According to Food Allergy Research and Education, “every three minutes, a food allergy reaction sends someone to the emergency department — that is more than 200,000 emergency department visits per year.” Epinephrine is the only line of defense in preventing these reactions from becoming fatal.
We have done everything we can to ensure our children live a safe, normal life. We have concocted elaborate recipes, replicating almost all of our previously beloved foods from expensive allergy alternatives. We vacationed at the “Happiest Place on Earth” where my daughter walked into a bakery where she could choose anything she wanted and I cried as I watched her eat her first doughnut. We pack all of our own food and treats for every playdate and party. We are teaching our children to advocate for themselves and they do they best they can at the ages of 2 and 4. We surround ourselves with caring friends who work to support us and our children.
Just like all parents, we do our best. We cannot protect our children from everything. I know that accidents can happen. I know that tomorrow isn’t a promise or guarantee for any of us. I know that anything could kill my kids. I just ask that it not be you.
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