I have become a bona fide expert at label-reading. In a few seconds flat, I can scan allergy warnings and scope out ingredient lists. I can confidently tell you if it's okay for my daughter to eat—or if it's danger disguised as a snack. And if there are ingredients on the label that I can't identify, or that have so many chemistry-laden syllables that they sound like they were concocted at Los Alamos National Laboratory, or one of those sneaky and nebulous ingredients like "flavor" or "modified food starch" (often gluten-in-disguise), then there is no way it's coming anywhere near my kid's plate.
But this confidence of mine has been hard won. There was a time not too long ago when the whole issue of food was laden with fear. When trying to eke out something resembling a healthy diet for my child seemed like an impossible, herculean task. When an innocent question, "How is your daughter doing?," would instantly cause tears to spring to my eyes and a painful lump to form in my throat as I tried to muster up a semi-normal sounding voice and say, "She's okay."
Because that wasn't actually true. She was not okay—and food had a lot to do with it. My daughter had a dietary "prescription" that had totally yanked the rug out from under me. It was a list of dos and don'ts that seemed impossible (and expensive) to accomplish: no eggs, no dairy, no nuts (especially peanuts), and most of all, absolutely no gluten.
What was I supposed to feed her? I wondered. Organic cardboard?
A growing problem
The reality of my daughter's medically-serious food intolerance left me scrambling and scared.
But I am not alone.
According to FARE (Food Allergy Research & Education), as many as 1 in 13 American kids have food allergies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the occurrence of such allergies is definitely on the rise. For some of these children, exposure to an allergen can cause life-threatening anaphylaxis. Along with allergies, medical conditions like celiac disease and severe food intolerances (such as lactose intolerance or gluten intolerance) can lead to serious digestive problems and devastating autoimmune system reactions.
When I started sharing my struggle, I discovered a whole network of people who were there too: mom-friends whose kids have life-threatening peanut allergies, women at church going through their own painful journeys with celiac disease and lyme disease, and a whole lot of other people—both adults and kids—on severely restricted diets. Encouragement began pouring in. Suggestions of books to read and cookbooks to scour abounded and helped me begin to find my bearings. I started to get a sense of hope for the practical matters we faced—and I also began to find my spiritual life buoyed. Because, to be honest, even though I've been a Christian all my life—even though I'm an author of Christian books, for goodness sake!—this whole thing rocked my faith quite a bit.
Food allergies introduced a level of fear in my life that I had preferred would just go away. Food isn't something you can avoid, and when you've got kids, you've got potentially-dangerous snacks being thrust at them constantly: snacks at Sunday school, treats at preschool, free cookies at the grocery store, munchies at a friend's house. There's a chance that someone might inadvertently give your child food that will make him or her sick, or might even threaten their life. This isn't an irrational fear that you need to just stop worrying about. It's a clear and present danger. It's tied to your God-given parental instincts.
Oh, the fear (and loads of other terrible feelings)
Emma*, whose oldest child suffers from life-threatening allergies, has struggled with "horrible anxiety issues. Really horrible, horrible, horrible anxiety." When her son was first diagnosed, she battled terrible nightmares on a regular basis. She explains, "Once you've seen your child go through an anaphylactic response, nothing ever seems the same."
Kim Gaines Eckert, an author and licensed psychologist, names "frustration, exhaustion, feeling alone, and guilt" as some of the main emotions she's had to navigate with her own kids' food issues. And, like Emma, Kim has dealt with fear. Along with an ongoing peanut allergy for one of her kids, three of Kim's children had severe milk-protein allergies in infancy. One was so sick from the resulting malnutrition that he had to be hospitalized and almost died. "My baby's health crisis brought me to my knees," Kim explains. "It was the most terrifying thing I'd ever experienced. It made me face the reality that I am not in control."
Lessons I'm learning
Like other moms with food-issue kids, I've faced my share of these tough and terrible feelings. But like them, I'm also learning some critical lessons about how to navigate this tricky issue with faith.
Face it (rather than fake it).
Somehow in Christian culture we've gotten the idea that feeling fear is bad. It's unspiritual. It's a sign of weakness. There are some legitimate reasons underlying this flawed notion, such as misunderstanding passages like "Don't be afraid, for I am with you" (Isaiah 41:10) or "Be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged" (Joshua 1:9). Passages like these need to be understood in balance with the entire testimony of Scripture in which we also find countless examples of people who experience and honestly express deep fear or profound discouragement.
The reality is that courage is not the absence of fear; it is acting in the face of fear. Being truly afraid for good reason is simply human—and the proper biblical response to fear isn't to stuff it or fake it like you feel fine. The response God calls us to is to acknowledge our real human emotions—like fear, anxiety, discouragement, confusion— and bring them to him in honesty. To cast them upon him, asking God to share our burden (1 Peter 5:7). To not let them master us, but to pray for a peace from him that defies the reality of our situation (Philippians 4:6–7; 2 Timothy 1:7). There's a paradox woven in here; we can embrace both ideas: We can both defy fear's power through our hope in God, and we can also be real with God in our ongoing acknowledgement of the emotions we face.
Connect with those who "get it."
I nearly lost it when an older woman in our church put her hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye, and asked sincerely how my daughter was doing. I could hardly hold back the tears because her empathy and concern meant so much. I realized, right then, that she got it. She just knew how much love and fear and pain and worry were wrapped up in our lives during that season. While we weren't facing cancer or some other terminal illness, we also weren't facing a "cold." It meant a lot to have someone really understand the difficulties inherent in our kiddo's medical journey. The friends, preschool teachers, and Sunday school volunteers who get it—who I know take this seriously because of their care for my child—mean the world to me.
Step back from those who don't.
But, unfortunately, not everybody is like that. "It's sad to say, but we've lost friends over this," explains Emma. "There are friends I've just had to stop hanging out with because they weren't willing to change small things like bringing peanut butter around my child."
One of the most painful things for Emma has been navigating her family's involvement in church. "It has impacted our attendance hugely," she says. "I've had many moments when I've felt, I just can't do this anymore. I can't sit in the church service with a smile on my face, while inside I'm wracked with fear the whole time while my child's in Sunday school." Because of the severity of her child's allergy, it's critical that his environment is completely free of life-threatening allergens—and that's hard to come by when a church doesn't get it. "The reality is, we're just not going to leave our son in a class if we don't feel confident that he's safe," Emma says.
Love your church enough to be a pain.
Emma has done more than just bow out of church in resignation. A friend encouraged her to challenge the status quo, saying, "You have to do this for other families—so others can feel welcome and at home at our church. It's just not going to get better unless somebody paves the way."
Despite all the pain and frustration it's caused, Emma has chosen to be an advocate—to push against established "this-is-how-we've-always-done-it" approaches in her church's children's ministry in order to make things safer for kids with food issues. "We have come a long way in our church," she reports, "But we still have a long way to go."
Be the mama bear.
If your mama-bear instincts are telling you your child might be in danger, take action. Growl if you need to. I've found that sometimes this means I intentionally use words like "serious medical issues" or, for some moms "severely life-threatening" to get others' attention. It is your job to protect your child, and sometimes that means having uncomfortable conversations; getting dirty looks (or you-are-so-pushy, you're-a-hypochondriac, or just-relax, lady! looks); or directly (and politely, of course) addressing complete strangers.
Trust that God will use this in your child's life.
It can be hard to believe that everything will work together for good (Romans 8:28) when something difficult happens to you—it's even harder when something difficult happens to your child. Yet we can choose to believe that God will use even the challenge of dealing with dangerous foods for his purposes.
"Feeling uncomfortable, misunderstood, or left out are familiar emotions for my daughter," says author and Cru staff member Vivian Mabuni of her daughter Julia. "But the food allergies Julia deals with daily have matured her. They've resulted in a depth of character not often seen in kids her age." Having repeatedly felt left out during various snack times and parties, Vivian's daughter has developed a sensitive and compassionate heart, often seeking to befriend others who may feel left out. I'm learning to have hope like Vivian's, believing that the tough stuff inherent with my daughter's food issues will be used by God to shape her character.
Embrace the faith-challenge.
"I've learned so much about trusting and relying on God through this—and it's a constant, daily choice," says writer Jen Petro, whose child has a very severe allergy. One passage that's really challenged her is Philippians 4:6: "Don't worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done." For Jen, it's not a matter of not experiencing worry, but instead of choosing how she'll respond when the inevitable worry comes. She explains, "I've had to learn hard lessons about trusting and relying on God—about handing all our problems over to him. Many times I've cried out to him in the night when I've been afraid. I've had to lean on him a lot more than I probably would have had to if we weren't facing this. And I'm learning to choose, over and over, to keep on leaning in to God."
Cook up some joy
Even though this journey has been tough—and it's not over yet—I still believe food is one of God's very-good gifts to us. I'm determined to help my daughter enjoy it, even if that means lots of recipe disasters (like flat-as-pancake muffins). Thankfully the absolutely-do-not-ever-eat list has gotten shorter as my daughter has grown and her health has improved. It's now a bit easier to manage meals, create a nutritional balance, and whip up some favorites. I'm still leaning on friends and still learning, growing in trust, and surrendering worry. . . but I believe God is up to something good. (And one surprising perk? I'm actually pretty good at making vegan, gluten-free donuts!)
* "Emma" is a pseudonym.
Kelli B. Trujillo is an author, editor, and Midwest mom of three. Her newest book is Surrender Your Guilt (Wesleyan Publishing House). Join her in conversation at KelliTrujillo.com and follow her on Twitter @kbtrujillo.