Emotional Aspects of Food Allergies on Marriage

Food allergies comprise much more than just a physical component. The emotional aspects of managing a child’s food allergies challenge even the best of marriages. In this ongoing series about the Emotional Aspects of Food Allergies, this month’s article focuses on the difficulties and the joys of managing your child’s food allergies while supporting your marriage. My husband, Bob, will offer his experience, along with myself and how food allergies have given us opportunities in our marriage to support each other and our son.

Nicole: When our son, Morgan, was 18 months old and diagnosed with multiple food allergies I was a stay-at-home Mom with a 6 year old daughter in first grade. I walked out of the allergist’s office scared and confused and tried to explain to my husband everything that was shared with me about reading ingredient labels, administrating the EpiPen Jr. and purchasing a MedicAlert bracelet. I became the teacher and he became the student. The Internet in 1997 wasn’t populated with the information about food allergies the way it is now, and I’m sure I didn’t get all the information accurate because I was so shocked and saddened by Morgan’s diagnosis. I became the vicious mother bear looking out for my cub against all enemies, and woefully my husband was sometimes viewed as one of those opponents. I monitored what food allergens my husband ate and how well he cleaned up afterward. I used shocking statements like “He could die!” in order to really push the point. I hadn’t learned that my husband and I could unite with the purpose of finding a way to manage Morgan’s food allergies in our household.

Bob: When we first discovered Morgan’s food allergies, my wife was extremely protective, overly so as if I would risk Morgan’s life. I did not fully understand the entire breadth of what a food allergy was, because we were both learning.  Over time I learned how to properly read ingredient labels, I learned about cross contamination, cleaning plates and being very careful with food. I fully understood the ramifications however I am not sure my wife understood that “I got it”. She was amazing however, in getting the right information and I really would listen.  I even searched the Internet on my own to learn more. Regardless, I felt left out at a certain level because it always seemed she always knew more about food allergies than I did and somehow, anything I did was never good enough. That caused some emotional distance and upset.  It never deterred me however, from insuring Morgan stayed safe when we were together in Boy Scouts or on a “Guy” trip, or even camping in the high Rockies. I knew what he could eat and I knew how and when to use the EpiPen. While traveling I knew exactly what to ask restaurants…and when to leave and not take any chances. Over time, Nicole and I have become a united front and we share ideas together as to what works for us.

Nicole: As Morgan aged, I found that I was very apprehensive to let him experience “normal boy” activities. I was overly protective, and Bob and I would have disagreements as to what was safe for Morgan to attend. Birthday parties, sleepovers, Boy Scouts and camping trips consumed our conversations. It was so important to find a balance between being cavalier (making assumptions that everything would be fine) and being unwilling to allow Morgan to attend out of fear.

It was necessary to become prepared by finding out what food would be served, who would be trained on the EpiPen, and how to manage food allergies by a campfire! One teenage boy at the last FAAN Teen Summit said something like, “If I listened to my Dad, I’d be dead today. That’s why I always listen to my Mom.” I want to present a united front about food allergies to Morgan, and it requires that both Bob and I be educated and able to take care of him – in preparation for activities and in case of emergency.

Bob:  I take our kids camping a lot. My wife, Nicole considers camping a Hyatt Regency without room service. So with that being said, I am the parent that does all the outdoor, high adventure fun! On camping trips, we always bring at least 2 EpiPens and Benadryl as a precautionary measure. Six years ago, we were camping near Lake City, CO at about 11,000 feet, when after a full day of fishing, I showed the kids how to cook trout the right way over a campfire. Upon taking a bite of the trout Morgan started to daze off with a glassy eyed look, my daughter Michaela got the Benadryl but to no avail as to any change.  Morgan was starting a severe allergic reaction and complained about having trouble breathing,  even though I knew he had tested negative for fish at the allergist’s office. I knew something was severely wrong as he was quiet so I took his EpiPen and punched it in his upper right thigh…after a yell or two, he then threw up the fish and I got him into the Landcruiser with his sister in the back with him. We raced down a very steep and long 4 wheel drive trail to the Lake City, Colorado Hospital. Thankfully he was fine after the one EpiPen, and we continued our camping for the rest of the week.

My adrenaline was pumping through the whole thing and I managed it as if I had been doing this every day.  I did not lose it till later; realizing just how close having a child with severe food allergies is to death.  Knowing I had the training with the EpiPen, the knowledge it might need to be administered again, and being an avid outdoorsman trained in first aid, I know all helped to keep Morgan safe and alive. We found out through a subsequent allergy test that Morgan is allergic to fish! Needless to say, we found lots of other things to do other than fishing when we go camping.

I’m so grateful that I learned the details about food allergies and what to do to keep Morgan safe in daily activities and also in case of an emergency. Both my wife and I are educated about food allergies; however in many families I have learned, if I just relied on her to take care of things, this situation could have been disastrous.

Nicole: I was home when I received Bob’s call from the Lake City hospital telling me all that transpired. It was really difficult for me to allow them to continue camping, but after talking with Morgan who told me, “I’m fine and I want to stay camping,” I knew there was no other choice but to trust Bob to watch for a biphasic reaction – which thankfully never occurred. Bob did stay up most of the night watching for that reaction after administering Prednisone to Morgan. What a Dad!

When Morgan was 14 years old, he went to the Boy Scout National Jamboree with 42,000 other Boy Scouts in Virginia. Once again, I was challenged to let go and allow him to experience high adventure fun! I’ve learned to view these types of opportunities with an attitude of “how can Morgan participate in this activity?” instead of an immediate “No, you can’t go!” I learned to do that from my husband, who has that positive attitude. Sometimes it is exhausting in trying to control all the aspects of a child’s life to ensure safety with food allergies. And out of that exhaustion I am more apt to decline opportunities. That’s where it’s great to have a spouse who is willing to take on an adventure like this. Bob was willing to travel out to Virginia and rent a hotel with a small kitchen. He shopped and then prepared all of Morgan’s food for the 10 days of the Jamboree. Bob also got to participate in the Jamboree as an adult Scoutmaster, which was a great experience too. Morgan had the time of his life at this event, which made all the work worthwhile!

Had I not learned how to let go and trust my husband, Morgan would have never had this opportunity.

Bob:  As Nicole mentioned earlier, my son Morgan and I attended the 2010 National Boy Scout Jamboree at Fort AP Hill, in Virginia. Before going, I was in contact with the Food Director of the event and we discuss various issues that may arise. He had assured me that I would be able to store safe food for Morgan in their central refrigerator unit they use for the Jamboree adult leadership. He also conveyed to me that all I had to do was call him upon my arrival at Fort AP Hill, in Virginia. I researched for a Condo-hotel that had a full kitchen as I knew I was going to cook Morgan meals for 10 days. I also knew I needed a way to protect the cooked food from cross contamination, knowing it would be stored with others, and to mark it with his name and unit number. I made a complete menu before I left which included breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks.  Upon my arrival in Virginia, I purchased all the food, Ziploc bags with a white label to mark his name and unit number, ice and purchased a large 30 gallon cooler with wheels, knowing it would take me an hour’s drive to the Jamboree event and an hour to the central refrigeration area. It was 90 degrees outside. I labeled all the bags with a permanent marker, and froze what I knew were his dinners and breakfast. I packed 5 days worth of meals which is all that would fit in a 30 gallon cooler with ice, and took off to the Jamboree.

Imagine my surprise when I arrived at the central refrigeration area and they told me, they had no idea what I was talking about. I was told I could not use their facility as it was against Virginia health laws to place outside food in their facility from a non-certified vendor. I tried to keep my cool, explaining the issues once again that Morgan had to eat safe food and he was arriving tomorrow and was scheduled to be there for 10 days. I was rebuffed once more, this time by the director of food services, with an apology.

Not one to give up easy, I went to the Scoutmasters’ area and explained the situation, and once again was told I needed approval from the Food Director. Imagine the panic I felt, knowing Morgan had to eat safe food, and I had no way to provide him with such. I was preparing to buy a refrigerator. I then called Jamboree Headquarters and ask to speak with the event quarter master, and discovered they had special refrigerator units at each of the campsites that held 3 days of food for 2,000 people. I took off to the campsite that Morgan would be at, and found these huge military walk in refrigerator units in the middle of the woods. I unloaded his first 5 days of food into the unit. As a Scoutmaster, I made friends with the on-site camp quartermaster and explained Morgan’s food allergies in detail and why this was important. I also explained to him that Morgan would know what he was eating and gave the quartermaster a copy of his menus. I also shared with him about Morgan’s scouting achievements. He was very interested in helping.

Even with a 90 degree temperature and 90 percent humidity, I was beyond relief.  I sat down on an old tree stump at the camp and was emotionally spent, but knowing now in my heart that Morgan would be safe and would now be able to have the time of his life, made all the difference in the world. Also knowing I would not give up with a couple of “No’s” along with dealing with a few stubborn people, told me any father dealing with food allergies may face the very same situations and they too need to stand up for the well being of their child. The only way we can do this is to really take the time to understand food allergies and how it impacts our kids, our wife and ourselves. With this knowledge you too will know what to do in any situation and more importantly, why!

Nicole: We talked as a family what it would take for Morgan to attend the Jamboree safely, and what kind of financial commitments we were willing to take on for Bob to attend also to ensure Morgan’s safety. There can be a lot of financial stresses on a marriage with food allergies! And not just the cost of medication and doctor appointments – it’s also the cost of a parent attending events such as this to ensure safety.

It certainly would have caused a lot of embarrassment if I, as Mom, had been the one carting in the food for Morgan. It was okay that it was Dad, and in fact, Bob made so many good looking and tasting meals that other boys lined up to eat any leftovers Morgan had! I was so grateful that in the middle of all the turmoil that Bob was able to resolve any issue that came forward.

We’ve found that it’s really important for parents to present a united front when it comes to any issue – and not just those surrounding food allergies. I’ve had to give up a little of my over-active worrying; and Bob has taken on many of the responsibilities of ensuring safety for Morgan to be able to participate in “normal boy” activities. Together our marriage has grown in a united front to provide as much of a normal childhood for Morgan.

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