Most of us want to partake in celebrations of Christmas, Hanukah, Easter, Halloween and other family and friend based traditions such as birthdays, graduations and other religious celebrations. From these events, we gather memories that carry us through our day-to-day lives and make us feel part of a bigger picture giving us a sense of belonging and happiness.
As expected, there is a lot of work for the host to prepare a gathering--food preparation often a large part. When food allergies enter the picture, then a level of stress can surround the event for both the parents and the host. If not addressed, this stress can erupt into anger, friction or even family fights. Don’t let the event be ruined for you--there are things you can do so that your family can attend and do so safely. Attending these events is important for the social development of your child, as well as his or her happiness and emotional health, not to mention yours and your spouse's.
Unexpected, offending, allergen-laden foods can be the most difficult to handle. Here is a situation that caused one of the parents interviewed in my book a great deal of frustration. "Karen and her husband often have conflicting views on how to protect her son from an accidental ingestion of peanuts…Another example of contention is during the holiday season while at her mother-in-law’s house one relative brought a plate of peanut butter cookies. Karen asked everyone not to eat them because the crumbs could fall to the floor and Max could ingest them. Rather than agreeing, her mother-in-law said, 'We’ll just put them in the kitchen and eat them in there.' Karen was angry. Peanut could still fall to the floor in the kitchen, plus peanut traces would be on the fingers and lips of anyone who ate them and then might touch or kiss Max. She says, 'I felt unsupported by my husband as well because when I told him what his mother said, he didn’t confront her.'"
I think there are two main things you can do to ease the stress and plan for a relaxed and safer event. One of the things I have learned to do with my husband is to talk about the upcoming event as soon as I can. For instance, this past Thanksgiving we had plans to travel to my husband’s brother’s house. His wife is quite aware of food allergies as her mother had celiac disease (intolerance to gluten) for a few years before her death. So, it is easy for me to communicate with her about the menu. She advised me what she was planning and I advised her what I think the boys would eat. We also decided what foods I would bring to allow safe and familiar foods for our boys. Together, we planned the meal over email about a week before the big day.
As soon as some of these details were worked out between my sister-in-law and me, I summarized them to my husband. I also advised him that I told her it was unnecessary for her to make all foods dairy-free, egg-free as she has offered to try to do in the past. Our boys are old enough (five and six) now to know they cannot just take whatever they want. I wanted my husband to be prepared when he saw the variety of foods on Thanksgiving Day. I also discussed the upcoming holiday with our sons and made sure to ask them what they really wanted to make their Thanksgiving Day special. In this case they wanted a homemade apple pie with some vanilla soy ice cream. So I advised my sister-in-law that I would also make and bring those for everyone to share.
Previously, I tried to avoid tension by waiting until that morning or the day before to discuss the event with my husband. This tended to not leave enough time for any concerns that he may have had and so I would find myself feeling annoyed that he had any concerns at all. Over the years, I have found that his concerns are reasonable and actually helpful. But again, to address these concerns in a relaxed way, i.e. to avoid stress and any conflict between us, there must be plenty of time between the initial discussion and the event, specifically at least a week. This leaves enough time to communicate again with the host or make a trip to the grocery store as needed, or even order something safe off of the Internet if I felt too busy to make it myself, like there are some dairy-free cookies I know I can get that are yummy and fun for the boys to open since each is individually wrapped. They are a little expensive, but sometimes it is worth it to avoid problems.
Another recommendation that I have when discussing upcoming events with either your spouse or your family member is to proactively address the specific concerns that you believe they have and you have. For example, I remember how important it was for me to feel that our boys did not feel different at birthday parties. Despite the fact that they had their own cupcakes, I wanted to give them those with ease, perhaps even laughter and lightheartedness at the party. I remember the tension I could feel emanating from my husband at a particular birthday party when we found that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and cheese and crackers were being served. It was important for me that his tension didn’t affect the children’s enjoyment of the party. Since I know my husband’s mannerisms so well perhaps caused me to over react to his feelings--perhaps they were not noticeable to others, I do not know. At any rate, all went fairly smoothly, but I took something away from it.
Specifically I learned that I needed to discuss with him that I didn’t want to feel tension nor did I want the boys to feel tension during the event. So well before the next event, I would say something along the lines of, “I know how concerned you are about the boys coming into contact with allergy foods at parties. I am too. (Trying to show agreement.) But I also feel equally strong that it is important for the boys to not feel our tension at these gatherings.” Then I’d be sure to listen to him. If he had specific concerns that I could address, I would do so, and get back to him as soon as I could.
I think this strategy can work for relatives as well. For instance, I have found that many people in the grandparent generation are so unfamiliar with the relatively new onslaught of serious food allergies in our children, that they often find it unbelievable. Their beliefs then translate into actions, words, tones of voices, facial expressions, etc. that may cause us to feel that they think we are over reacting, are silly or are downright crazy. If possible, a parent might try to say something along these lines to the grandparent host of an upcoming event, “I know that you feel Johnny’s allergy might not be all that bad. But the doctor assures us that we should be very careful. My spouse and I would really appreciate it if you could not serve peanuts (or seafood or tree nuts, etc.) at your home that one day. We are really looking forward to the event. We just want to have a good time and not have to worry about Johnny. Is there anything I can do to help with organizing this?”
For instance, you could specifically offer to contact the host’s guests to request that they not bring foods that contain the allergy-ingredient. This might take the social burden and time burden off of the host. If you can get a list of phone numbers or email addresses, it may only take a short time to write a brief email explaining the allergy and how you’d appreciate it if people could help you in this way. I can’t imagine that anyone would want to knowingly harm a child, so I am sure that most people will be happy to comply. But, not addressing this beforehand and waiting for the guest to arrive with dishes in hand, creates complications and hurt feelings with which no one wants to deal. Imagine Aunt Abby walks in with fifty dollars worth of shrimp cocktail only to find out that it will be put into the backroom. Or imagine Great Uncle Bob who spends hours making his famous peanut butter cookies the day before only to learn little Johnny is severely allergic.
There are many difficult tasks in the job of being a parent. Getting up at two o’clock in the morning for months on end is one of them. Caring and worrying over a child sick with a fever, cough or pneumonia is another. Even speaking up for the sake of your child when it feels uncomfortable and unnatural is a difficult task. Know that you are not alone in the stress that you feel. Then, try to put a smile on your face and proactively talk to your spouse and relatives or friends well in advance (i.e. one or two weeks ahead of time) about the situation to address your concerns, their concerns and solutions. You can even pretend you are “at work” if that’s what it takes to remain nice and calm. It will make the event much better for your child, you, your spouse, the host and the other guests.