Years ago, when my daughter was young, I did it. I took her to the playground and offered her a snack with peanuts in it -- a peanut butter granola bar, say -- and let her wander off. I didn't watch and I didn't pick up after her. And inevitably, I'm sure, she dropped some; maybe on the ground, maybe on a piece of playground equipment. A little peanut time bomb, lying there casually waiting for someone to pick it up.
Knowing what I know now, the memory haunts me. Did a little toddler come along and, with his penchant to put everything in his mouth, pick it up and give it a try? Did my carelessness cause an innocent child to suffer? Am I paying now, in some kind of karmic way, for my wrongs?
There's a new study out suggesting that early exposure to peanuts could actually help prevent allergies. I have a very mixed reaction to it. On the one hand, I feel vindicated: Years ago, when my daughter was born, even before this was commonly accepted, it made sense to me. When it came time to introduce her to solid foods, peanuts -- and all other allergens -- were on the menu. Other parents looked at us like we were crazy, but we saw countries around the world with low incidence of food allergies and they were all places where "allergenic" foods are routinely eaten. So we fed her Pad Thai with peanuts and shrimp and the girl has no food allergies.
Then my son came along. I was prepared to do the same with him. I ate peanuts when I was pregnant and breastfeeding and just as soon as he could start solid foods I was ready to share our versatile menu with him. But before we could even start, it happened: just an accident. A little peanut dust from a jar of nuts; it just sprinkled on his skin. Hives all over, immediately. Red eyes. Coughing. And on the way to the emergency room, the fear: what if his airways close up? No. I can't even think about that.
A few weeks later, the results of blood tests and too many pricks on my tiny baby's skin were in: my son is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts and even dairy. (This is not a lactose sensitivity, this is an allergy that has already sent us to the emergency room. This is: your kid's dropped Goldfish could kill my son.) The doctor handed me the Epipens, told me what anaphylaxis would look like, and showed me how I would have to jam a needle into his thigh and hold him down while I kept it in him for a count of ten before calling 911.
So I have a mixed reaction to this new study. If it can help other parents avoid peanut allergies, fantastic. This is not a fate I would wish on anyone. And yet: we didn't even get a chance to try it. Why did my son develop allergies so early?
Still, the questions aren't the scariest part. The reaction of other people is the scariest part. Because right there, in the comments to the article, were ideas like these: "The problem with Americans and their allergies is that a child can show a SENSITIVITY to something, and suddenly the whole school is in peanut-free lock down." Children should "take personal responsibility not to eat or have contact with their particular allergen." "It's only one percent of the entire population that has an allergy to peanuts. The problem is when the other 99 percent of the population has restrictions imposed on them."
I get it. I really do. I was that parent too. I didn't understand why my daughter couldn't bring a peanut butter sandwich to school. I gave her that peanut butter granola bar at the park. The parents of kids with allergies could worry about it, just let me do what I want.
I'm so, so sorry for that.
The fear is palpable when you have a child with food allergies. Sure, you "get used to it." You never forget your Epipen, you clean out your pantry, you adjust your family's food choices. But the fear doesn't go away: it's always there, causing every moment with your child to be tinged with a darkness lurking on the edge. Every trip to the playground is a disaster waiting to happen, because of people like those commenters. Because of people like I used to be.
I'm not a helicopter parent, but I track my son carefully. He's 18 months now and I want to let him climb and run without mommy on his tail, but I can't let him get too far. I'm always scanning the ground, watching what he picks up, watching the other kids whenever they have food. Parenthood generally is marked by a heightened state of awareness. Parenthood with food allergies is even more extreme: every crumb, every little dropped nut or goldfish is a potential killer to my son.
And he is nowhere near old enough to "take responsibility" for himself. He's noticed now that mean mommy doesn't let him share snacks with the other kids (unless I can read the ingredient list, he gets nowhere near any unknown food), but he's not old enough yet to really understand why. Until he is, those "locked down" peanut-free classrooms are saving his life.
So here's what I want you to know: I understand the "nut-free" craze might be inconvenient for you. I get that you don't want to worry about it. And the truth is, you don't have to. It really IS my job to keep an eye on my son. But if you could consider not bringing snacks with nuts in them to the park or other activities, it would make my life a little easier. And barring that, if you could at least understand my craziness when I'm scanning the ground for little peanut time bombs, I'd really appreciate it.
Yes, it may be that one child with a peanut allergy makes your whole school nut free. Isn't it worth protecting even one child? Is your kid's peanut butter sandwich really worth that much to you?