Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What Does It Mean To Be A Good Food Allergy Mother?

As part of the college application process, parents are asked to write a summary of their child's strengths, weaknesses and issues that may have affected their high school performance. The summary is then used by the child's guidance counselor to write a letter of recommendation (one the parent never sees) to the colleges to which the child is applying.

I found myself writing at length about my son's food allergies, including the following:
Other people really don't understand the effect food allergies have on kids, socially and anxiety-wise. My son has had four major reactions that involved breathing difficulties and rescue meds; he's had countless other reactions that did not progress as far, but that made him sick. Coping with the fear of a reaction and learning to make good decisions, cook his own food, and watch out for potential issues (like kissing someone who has eaten peanut butter) has been a major undertaking.

There was more before and after that paragraph: about the clinical trial, about exclusion, anxiety, expectations, maturity. There was a lot. I wrote and wrote and wrote.

And then I took it all back out.

It occurred to me that the high school counselor would likely interpret it, no matter how well written, as overprotectivenessWhat exactly is overprotectiveness? I wondered as I looked at the blinking cursor. Would I know if I had the dread disease? Or, is it like racism, where everyone can only see it in others but either don't see it or excuse it in themselves?

And, more important, if my definition and the high school counselor's definition of "appropriately protective" vs. "overprotective" are different, who wins? Clearly, in this situation, what she thinks matters a whole lot more than what I think. I had already had past conversations with this counselor. It was clear that no amount of education was going to change her opinion.Yet her letter will carry enormous weight with these schools.

There is, of course, another way to look at the situation. I could include reams and reams of information about food allergies. I could let my anxiety all hang out. I could emphasize what my son missed out on throughout his school years. I could magnify the bullying incidents. I could complain about the uncaring teaching and support staff. I could rally against a society that teases and marginalizes kids with a medical disorder. I could name the dead kids...quote the test scores...talk about death from food allergy as likely or even certain.

I could be full-out Helicopter Mom in the hopes that the counselor opened her letter to the colleges with:

"In my 20 years of experience as a high school guidance counselor, I have never met a more anxious, over-involved and domineering mother than this student's mother. I am recommending strongly that you accept him at your college as a means of extracting him from this obviously unhealthy home environment."

But that would be incredibly self-centered and stupid. (Wouldn't it?)

So, I am starting the survey over, with the following Rules For Good Mothers of Food-Allergic Children displayed prominently over my monitor:

  1. I will not make it all about me. It's about him. If I get gratification from thinking of and portraying myself as a Food Allergy Wondermom who deals with more than other moms, I need to STOMP IT OUT. This is his normal. It needs to be my normal as well. There is no blue ribbon for food allergy mothering. 

  2. I will focus on facts, not emotions. My heart is saying HE COULD DIE DIE DIE DON'T LET HIM OUT OF YOUR SIGHT! My head is saying that one child died at college last year from food allergies, out of approximately 100,000 freshmen with food allergies who attended college*. My son literally has a greater chance of dying from a lightning strike (83,000 to 1), presumably even less if we prepare well. 

  3. I will not exaggerate! It's so easy to slip into full-out hyperbole. And let's be honest...the more danger there is to our kids, the more justified we can feel about our helicoptering. If death is truly not a possibility, then the protective-vs.-overprotective equation changes dramatically. (That's why so many chat boards emphasize, over and over again, food allergy deaths: because it's the only meaningful excuse for bad parenting behaviors.)
  4. I will restrict only what I must restrict for these last months before he leaves. I will not confuse more restrictions with more love or care. Avoiding foods, social situations and opportunities because of my own fear is wrong, and really bad parenting. I will deal with my own anxieties so my child can participate in every activity that is not demonstrably dangerous for him.

Such a little list. Such a hard thing to really put in practice. It's amazing how much of my own personal identity (friends, chat boards, activities, this blog) is derived from my son's health issue.

But that's what college is supposed to be about, isn't it? Stepping back and letting the child take control. If I'm honest with myself, I can see that I've made it a lot harder than it had to be, both for me and for him. And isn't that the real definition of a Helicopter Mother?

Guilty as charged.

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*6,000,000 kids with allergies in the U.S. divided by 18 years = 3333,333. 50% college attendance rate ~150,000. I reduced some because kids with allergies skew younger.


  1. Thank you for sharing your list (and for this blog that has been helping me learn to own up to my own need for such a list!)

  2. This is very timely. Thank you for saying so eloquently what I find myself THINKING ever more frequently;

    my yardstick as a parent, which was probably entirely appropriate when my child was a preschooler, needs to evolve and become more normative as she takes on more of her own management.

    I find that I have just one addition to your list, and it's my new golden rule of FA-parenting these days:

    **What skills have I turned over to my child this month, this week, this day? What has she learned to do FOR HERSELF? What have we or she DARED that we once thought unthinkable or too uncomfortable? How have we pushed the boundary on what we think is possible for her and for ourselves?**

    And do you know what? I'm doing okay there. I've surprised myself by how healthy I've actually turned out to be in parenting an adolescent. I'm *not* as overprotective as I'd always imagined (and secretly-- feared).

    I used to play this game-- the imagine-if game-- to test how much of my own identity was predicated on my child's food allergy. What would I do if I didn't need to do... well, all of this. Would I miss it? Would I have trouble walking away? Would I have other things in my life to embrace? Would I feel at sea? The answers were NEVER anything that I was afraid or ashamed of, and they always reflected a healthy sense of identity that didn't revolve around food allergy.

    Asking those questions of ourselves is CRITICAL, though.

    My personal space also involves type I diabetes, oddly enough. My first spouse died from complications of Type I diabetes, and I learned a LOT about parenting from my ex-in laws, both from their successes (communication) and their failures (dependence, learned helplessness, over-involvement in advocacy). I'm sure that I've made my own mistakes, but at least I had a guidebook of sorts. I suspect that the FAB and I are incredibly lucky in that respect. Er-- or maybe that our kids are. Maybe it's both.

  3. Thank you! Love the letter from the counselor!!!


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