I have three young children and I have a different bond with each of them. A lot of parents I chat to feel the same way. While our love for our children is equal, we bond over different things. Sometimes it comes down to their personalities and personal interests. Sometimes it’s about whether they’re the firstborn, middle child or baby. And sometimes the bond is differentiated by the experiences we’ve shared together.
The bond I share with Charlie is very different to the bond I share with his younger siblings, Arnold and Evelyn. Why? Because Charlie has multiple life-threatening food allergies.
The reality of living with food allergies
From the start of his life, Charlie has shouldered the heavy burden of food allergies with bravery, intuition and maturity way beyond his years. He is allergic to 4 out of the 10 most common food allergens in Australia – dairy, egg, peanuts and tree nuts (cashew, pistachio, walnuts, pecan, hazelnut). This means he needs to carry medication with him wherever he goes in case of a severe allergic reaction called anaphylaxis.
Living with food allergies is emotionally tough. You worry every single day that you’ll be exposed to your food allergens because no matter how vigilant you are, mistakes can and do happen. If you accidentally touch, ingest or simply inhale something you shouldn’t, you could end up in hospital or worse. Dealing with the physical reaction is hard but the rollercoaster of emotions keeps going long after the symptoms disappear.
Facing the fear as a team
Over the last seven years, Charlie has had many ‘near misses’, multiple mild allergic reactions and three anaphylactic reactions resulting in ambulance rides and hospital stays. He’s endured endless appointments with allergists, skin prick tests and blood tests. And he’s had to deal with feelings of exclusion and isolation during many occasions including birthday parties and school events. Charlie and I have faced all of this as a team which has built a strong and unwavering bond between us.
During these experiences, I’ve acted as Charlie’s advocate and risk assessor, ensuring his food, drinks and overall environment are safe. Over the years, we have become completely in tune with each other. For example, I can notice the smallest change in Charlie’s physical appearance, body language and personality which indicates the start of an allergic reaction. And Charlie can instantly pick up a change in my body language, facial expression or tone of voice when I’ve assessed that he’s in danger. We trust one another completely and that trust enables us to live as peacefully as possible within the constraints of food allergies.
Having the difficult but necessary conversations
Charlie and I often have deep and meaningful conversations about life. Typically, this is at bedtime when his questions, confusion, worries or fears tend to rise to the surface and he has my undivided attention.
A few years back, Charlie went through a period where he was constantly fearful of death. This might be a common topic for preschooler who is trying to make sense of the world, but for Charlie the issue was deeper and more complex than his peers.
Charlie was worried about his own death because he knew that taking one bite of the wrong food could have fatal consequences. He was also worried about my death. While most children fear their parents dying at some stage, Charlie’s fear was exacerbated because he sees me as his protector, fighting the daily battle against foods which could kill him. He questioned how he would live if I wasn’t there to protect him. Instead of deflecting the conversation, we talked at length and Charlie found comfort in discussing what is on the other side of death.
These days our bedtime conversations are mostly about AFL - Who won the game? Who was best on ground? Who will win the grand final? One thing that has remained consistent is that Charlie loves to chat with me about whatever is going on in his heart and mind.
A powerful partnership
I have mixed feelings about my unique bond with Charlie. While I love that we are so trusting and in tune with one another, I am sad about the circumstances and experiences that led us to this point. The strong bond we have is a common trait between children with severe food allergies and their primary care giver. I guess that’s because it’s based on necessity. It’s a bond that saves lives. And it’s a bond that says, “You don’t have to face this scary world alone. You’ve got me and I’ve got you, always.”
Have you developed a unique bond with your child? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.