Do you remember your first kiss? I do. It was messy and awful, but I still couldn’t wait to tell my friends. I never shared this milestone with my mother though; we did not have that kind of relationship at the time. I knew, however, that if I ever had children, I would want to be the type of parent who shared in these life milestones. After my first daughter was born, I thought about how I would react in these moments. I pictured us giggling together over the awkwardness and excitement of it all, and sharing my awkward first kiss story with her. However, when my daughter told me about her first kiss, my initial reaction was nothing like I’d planned. I didn’t ask how it went or any number of moment-appropriate questions. Instead, here was the exchange:
Daughter: “So we finally kissed!”
Me: “Does he know that he can’t eat nuts before he kisses you? Are you okay?”
Daughter: “Ummmm, yeah.”
Yes, I am the mother of a teenager. But I am also a food allergy caregiver. Sometimes those two roles seem completely intertwined and aligned. Other times, not so much. More recently I find myself thinking, Did I really just say/do that? What is wrong with me?! Food allergy parents raise children in an alternate universe, where danger lurks in places most parents would consider relatively safe. A first kiss or the first parent-free high school party—these milestones and experiences present unique dangers to food allergy sufferers. To help our kids experience such moments in an authentic and uncluttered way, we need to work their whole lives preparing them to defend themselves from the dangers that hang over what should be moments of unadulterated (pun intended) self-discovery. Developing independence is extraordinarily important for all teens, but for food allergy teens, the ability to lead independent lives requires years of added preparation and role-playing. Otherwise, that independence can be life-threatening.
It is natural for food allergy caregivers to want to create a protective bubble around our children. A lot of us home school our kids, require that they sit at the “allergy-free table” in the school cafeteria, and generally don’t let them out of our sight. Those can be comforting and often appropriate choices, but as time goes on, the bubble needs to expand and air must get in. Early on, I found myself erring on the “bubble” end of the spectrum, but over the years, I realized that my daughter is only in my care for a tiny portion of her life, and that her long-term safety will ultimately depend on her ability to self-protect. So while my “bubble” instincts still surface from time to time, I instead focus on preparing her for future high-risk situations that she may encounter as she becomes increasingly independent. We practice how to navigate those together.
I must pick my moments carefully though—as any parent of a teen will tell you, they are not always open to parental feedback or advice. It helps to carve out mother-daughter time. I often find that these moments seem to happen organically, and are usually on long car rides to her spring dance competitions or on our treasured hikes around a local lake that fortunately, she still seems to enjoy. My pride swells when she shares the challenging situations she finds herself in and her responses to them. In turn, she lights up when she sees me visibly relax upon hearing her share these experiences, and how she’s dealt with them. Fortunately, she tends to handle these challenges with a level of maturity and grace that makes me increasingly confident she will be able to successfully tackle the challenges of managing food allergies in college and beyond.
While my daughter is still in high school, our teachable moments are increasingly focused on more adult situations. For instance, we talk about the special dangers to a food allergy teen when overindulging on alcohol. Losing control is never wise, but for a teen managing food allergies, it can lead to the relaxation of one’s defenses. I never thought I would teach my daughter how easy it is to nurse a single drink over the course of an entire evening, and advising her to sip slowly should she find herself in an intensely peer-pressured situation. Ideally, she will be tough enough to just say no, but we all remember how overwhelming peer pressure can be. Food allergy caregivers cannot afford to behave like ostriches with our heads in the sand; we must be practical and realistic.
To those food allergy caregivers with little ones, I know it’s tempting to keep them in that protective bubble. Try to think ahead to the moments when you will not be right next to your children. It happens fast. Before you know it, they will be in preschool, and the teacher you thought understood the dangers of allergies offers your child an allergen-filled cupcake during another child’s birthday celebration. Or a friend at your child’s lunch table in elementary school will offer to share a fun treat that is full of your child’s allergens. Then the science teacher in middle school will decide to do a science project with almond extract. How will your child handle those moments? Is he or she equipped to do so?
You may be surprised at how capable food allergy kids can be at advocating for themselves—you just need to let them practice! Self-confidence and the ability to self-protect is the best gift you can give them as a parent. I sleep a lot better knowing that my teen is quite comfortable creating a reasonable bubble of safety around herself. So, embrace those teachable moments, while always mentally fast forwarding to the next big age-appropriate milestone, and try to relax and enjoy them when they happen. Encourage your kids to speak up for themselves; fight your bubble tendencies to handle those battles for them. Our kids are strong, but they need to exercise their food allergy muscles as they grow in order to be the capable self-advocates they need to be to navigate life outside of our parental cocoons.
Halley Gilbert is the SVP and Chief Legal Officer at Ironwood Pharmaceuticals. She is an attorney with over 15 years of experience in healthcare and law. Halley is on the board of Allergy Amulet and is the mother of two daughters with food allergies.