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Planning, Parties and Pieces of Cake (Plus, a Video!)

Taylor Newman

Back when we first found out about Kaspar’s laundry list of food allergies, I remember feeling dismayed, and almost desperate, at the prospect of him not being able to eat cake at birthday parties. It wasn’t about the cake as much as about potential feelings of exclusion and isolation; I wondered, What will life be like for a kid who can only eat chicken? (Well, he can eat a few more things than chicken alone, but… not cake). Then, after hitting bottom with an ER visit, and then steadily climbing out of our scary, sleepless hole via the wonders of Chinese medicine (and chicken), we discovered that life is pretty good for a kid like that, most of the time.

(This is a "where are they now" post.)

Life is pretty normal for Kaspar when he’s not having allergic reactions. He eats what he eats, and we bring Benadryl and Epi pens wherever we go. Luckily, we’ve averted further emergency, and only experienced a handful of minor adverse reactions in the last six months (watermelon, for instance, elicited hives. Bummer. It does not pay to experiment in this realm). I’ve learned to talk myself down when Kaspar’s skin gets a little flared up, to make a rational attempt at deciphering what might be the cause, without banging my head against the wall in a state of existential crisis. I’ve learned to live with mysteries. Deep down, I hope against all hope that Kaspar will outgrow most, if not all, of his allergies… but not because of cake. Danger is the issue for me. I’m his mom. Fearing for his life is my job. I wish I didn’t have such a good reason to do that, but in the meantime, I’m learning to deal with that fear in a head-on way, and to help Kaspar to feel as ‘normal’ as possible in his everyday life (while of course reminding him constantly that he’s as super above-average awesome-tastic as they come).

It’s getting more challenging to do that lately, though. We’ve had to make some rules for ourselves. Kaspar is WAY tuned in to my conversations, both with Aaron and with other adults. And when we meet up with friends at playgrounds, or go out to eat, there’s usually a big conversation lying in wait, revolving around whether Kaspar can or can’t eat anything that the other family brought or the restaurant might be serving (can’t), what-all he’s allergic to again (let me count the ways), and oh-how-awful what we all went through (not helpful). I know these conversations come from a good place—people want to accommodate and include Kaspar, and they know they can’t just serve him without checking in. The conversations are also, to some extent, necessary (if people don’t know not to serve Kaspar, we have to tell them). But Aaron and I realized that the end result was that Kaspar was listening to, and internalizing, a pretty drawn-out description of his particular affliction, over and over again. We decided that instead of answering all the questions and getting into the details every time, we’d just say matter-of-factly that Kaspar’d eat the yummy food he’d brought, and then steer the conversation toward another topic, without allowing it to veer back. So far, our strategy has worked well. If Kaspar grows out of his food allergies, that’ll be the best thing ever. But for now, I’m thinking about ways to model for him how he can navigate this world of social eating—confidently, safely, and without feeling excluded. I count this conversation-management thing as a success in that category.  

Birthday parties have also gone well thus far, although we attended one today (Here's a fun video of Kaspar on the way there. Kid was pumped) that brought these issues of cake and conversations to the forefront once again. The parties we’ve previously been to have been with friends we know well; our good friends know all about Kaspar’s food restrictions and don’t ask questions, offer him cake, or bat an eyelash when we whip out Kaspar’s special treat (yogurt with honey). Today, though, the party was for a couple of schoolmates, and since Kaspar only started daycare this fall, we didn’t know many people there, or our hosts, very well. It was a fun party; we met some cool parents, Kaspar played happily with all of the kids, and we busted out his buffalo meat soon after we arrived. There was a ton of self-serve Mexican food (and a Margarita machine for the parents… smart hosts), so people were just eating whenever they got hungry, and Kaspar’s personally-packaged snack was no big deal. I did feel like I had to watch him pretty carefully, though, as there was food everywhere, including all over the kid-sized tables, within easy Kaspar-reach. This has been the case in the past, but today Kaspar was also everywhere—as were a ton of other kids— so keeping track of him without helicopter mom-ing it was a little tough (I didn’t know for sure that another kid, or parent, wouldn’t hand him something to eat… or that he wouldn’t ask someone to do so. He’s been curious about new foods lately). Aaron and I kind of traded off on monitoring, however, and he was fine.

Then came the cake. I’d forgotten to bring a treat for Kas, and he started saying “Eat? Eat? Cake?”  as soon as everyone gathered around to sing (he picked up on the “cake” thing because everyone was saying it in the usual birthday party round-up fashion). He was on my hip at that point, and I switched his focus to “Singing!”, and then brought his buffalo meat out again as soon as the candles were blown out. He didn’t seem thrilled— he knew something was up—but he ate a little, and then started yawning (the party was winding down).

As Aaron and I made the quick eye-contact decision that it was probably a good time to go, another mom approached me and said (deep breath): “My five year old didn’t eat any sweets until we had our younger daughter, but then it just got hard to control and now she has a taste for them and sometimes my husband promises them ice cream and I try to make it organic and I just stopped breastfeeding my youngest who’s three and once they’re in school they just learn about junk food, you know? But good for you for sticking with the healthy stuff and he probably won’t know the difference for a while and do you feed him any soy?”

Kaspar looked at this woman, and then looked at me. “Um, no. Kaspar doesn’t eat soy,” I said.

“Well it’s so great that he’s not going for the cupcakes,” she said. And as she told me about how you really can’t tell just by looking which foods are organic or not, and as Kaspar (all partied out) stared, dazed, at her talking, I realized that she really, actually thought I was giving my kid buffalo meat instead of chocolate cake for some reason other than that the cupcake could kill him… which, of course, is not something you can tell by looking, either, or something most people would think of. But rather than explain it to her—as she told me that her younger daugher’s more heavy than her older one because of her unfortunate, inadvertent junk-food exposure, and commented on how Kaspar looks just right for his size—I picked him up to go, smiled, and said, “Yep, he’s a healthy guy.”

And he is.

Maybe he’ll eat cake later in life, and maybe this will all get harder first, but right now we’re taking it a party, a holiday, a picnic at a time. And maybe Kaspar won’t always feel altogether ‘normal’, but everyone’s got their thing… Some people have crazy moms. Some people can’t eat cupcakes. But most people make it work, whatever it is.

Anyway, Halloween’s coming up. How do those of you with food-allergic kids handle this?? And, how have all of your birthday party experiences been? What gets harder, and what gets easier, as kids get bigger with allergies (or other dietary issues/restrictions) in the mix?