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Peanut Allergies and Belonging

My daughter, Amelia, like so many other kids, is allergic to peanuts. I’ve been fearful and frustrated in the three years since we found out, but I’ve had one consolation: she didn’t seem fazed at all. She never complained when she couldn’t eat the birthday cake -- a few Oreos or Chips Ahoy were fine, too. She showed remarkable maturity about the whole thing from the age of four, politely informing each playdate parent that “I’m allergic to peanuts, but don’t worry: I brought my own snack.” She asks everyone, including my husband and I, “Is this safe for me?” when handed any baked good or anything packaged. Before we went to a family party or a restaurant, she’d remind us: “Got my Epipen?”

When she went to kindergarten, I worried, of course, but everything was OK. They arranged her seating in the cafeteria from day to day based on who was and wasn’t eating peanut butter, but that was OK with her. She met a lot of new kids that way, actually.

So, as much as I routinely curse the packaged food companies because of their confusing, conflicting warnings that smack of legal protection rather than anything to do with the actual ingredients, at least it wasn’t bothering Amelia.

My luck ran out last week. Now in first grade, Amelia came home in tears, announcing, of all things, that she wanted to be home-schooled! She explained that the four “peanut kids” had to stand against a wall at lunchtime. I couldn’t quite get the chain of events...the words were coming in fits and starts, between coughing and sobbing, and finally I had to pretend I got it because her frustration at trying to make me understand was making things worse. Something about another table and going outside for recess...

She went on all evening about this perceived humiliation...the kids were all looking at her, and she felt so stupid, and she never wants to go back to school again. I’m sure the lunchroom staff had a logical reason for asking what they asked, and I would much prefer Amelia have to stand against a wall for a few minutes than have an allergic reaction. But gone was the savvy, well-spoken kid who wore her allergy like a sweater on a chilly day, something she would rather have left at home, but accepted and moved on. Now she was just a 6-year-old who in a flash understood she was different, and no longer wanted to understand anything else. “WHY DO I HAVE TO BE ALLERGIC TO PEANUTS?” she wailed.

She rattled off all her best friends...”SARAH, AND JULIE, AND EVELYN, AND CHRISTOPHER.... MAKE ME LIKE THEM.”

“I HATE THIS. I WISH I COULD THROW OUT MY EPIPEN.”

This was Friday. We calmed her down, and the first hot, sunny weekend of the season distracted her, and she went to school this morning without much fuss. But now I can’t help but think ahead to the teenage years, which, I’ve read, is the timeframe when most of the food-allergy-related deaths occur. Teens want to be independent, take risks, and be like everyone else...and those qualities too often translate into eating what everyone else is eating and leaving your epipen at home because you don’t want to look like a dork with it in your pocket.

I got a glimpse of that attitude on Friday, and it frightened me. If she’d been 13 instead of 6, instead of just saying she wishes she could throw out the Epipen, would she have actually done it after I’d gone to bed?

What now? Has anyone else been through this?

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