My Child’s Food Allergy Feels Like the World’s Biggest Mom Fail

Food Allergies Self-Care

I used to be chipper about introducing allergens. “It’s important to introduce the top allergens early and often!” I would tell my clients. “Early introduction is our best defense against the development of food allergies.”

I’m a pediatric dietitian and I teach classes on starting solids. I had used the approach I promote in my classes with my oldest daughter and, low and behold, like more than 90% of the pediatric population, she doesn’t have any allergies. Perhaps because of the security her good health provided me, it was easy for me to get a little lax about introducing allergens to my next child.

I dutifully introduced peanut butter to her younger sister around the six-month mark, but largely forgot about tree nuts. Her infancy was a crazy time in our lives, I tell myself. We had just relocated across the country and I’d just started a stressful new job. I relied on our same-old same-olds for meals and snacks. They were nutritious, sure, but a little lacking in variety. I certainly wouldn’t blame any other mom for doing the same in my position. And anyway, since my oldest has no allergies and there are none in our immediate family, really, “What are the odds that she’s even at risk?” I often thought.

“What are the odds that she’s even at risk?” I often thought.

Of course, I noticed the redness around my daughter’s mouth whenever I offered her peanut butter. Just a little contact irritation, I figured. She’d had similar reactions from bananas and avocados, so she probably just has sensitive skin. No hives, no vomiting, no respiratory distress. Still, looking back, that redness worried me. I’d go weeks without offering her peanut butter, wondering if it might not be just redness this time. “I’ll give her some when dad is home,” I’d tell myself. “That way, on the off chance that she has a serious reaction (and what are the odds, really?) I’ll have some support.” But we don’t eat much peanut butter for dinner, when my husband is home, so the scenario I imagined rarely came to pass.

Sometimes I explored the websites of new products that can be mixed into a baby’s food to provide minuscule amounts of top allergens — and then I scoffed at the cost. “Think of all the great food I could buy for that money! I can definitely handle this on my own.”

So I shuffled along, sometimes remembering to offer her peanut products and other potential allergens and sometimes not, until the day that the awful suspicion that began the first time I offered her peanut butter was confirmed with a bout of hives and subsequent allergy testing shortly after she turned a year old. Rest assured, the boon that she has thus far escaped an anaphylactic reaction is not lost on me. Surely, believing that I could or should have prevented my daughter from a near-death experience would only intensify my feelings of failure.

But what feels like a mom fail is not actually that my daughter is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. It’s that I didn’t do everything I could to give myself the confidence that at least I took all the measures in my power to prevent them.

But what feels like a mom fail is not actually that my daughter is allergic to peanuts and tree nuts. I think we all know that there is a very good chance that she would have developed her allergies no matter what I did. It’s that I didn’t do everything I could to give myself the confidence that, should she go on to develop food allergies, at least I took all the measures in my power to prevent them. In this way, it is not her health condition that I regret or feel that I personally caused. It’s my own sense of guilt; it’s the fact that I did not protect myself from these feelings of guilt and regret that I now live with.

And really, that’s what mom fails are about. A mom fail is forgetting your child’s lunch at home, putting her clothes on inside out, or showing up late for a scheduled appointment. None of these things actually endanger our children. Things that genuinely put our children at risk – not watching them while they play near the street, for example – are not mom fails but rather genuinely bad parenting. Indeed, it would be glib to laugh such dangers off as “fails.” Our mom fails are far less about our children – I would venture that they rarely even notice what we often consider to be fails – but rather the collective term we use to express our sense that a better version of ourselves would have avoided the scenario in the first place.

Our mom fails are far less about our children but rather the collective term we use to express our sense that a better version of ourselves would have avoided the scenario in the first place.

Is there a better version of myself that would have done everything right? In my head, yes. But if I have learned anything as the years go by, it is that I will never be everything I dream I should be.

I should sit down with my kids every morning to enjoy breakfast together rather than tossing them granola bars in the car. I should give 100% to my work rather than taking half an hour after I drop the kids off at school to Just. Drink. Coffee. I should remember that Show and Tell is every Friday, I should only cook homemade meals, I should be present with them and not glance at my phone, I should, I should, I should…

Every night I go to bed thinking, “Tomorrow, I will begin to do these things.” And yet I don’t. And I know I’m not the only mother who feels this way. It’s an impossible cultural standard to meet, and the more grace we can grant ourselves in our aspirations toward perfection as we stumble along in parenting, I truly believe the better parents we will be. Acknowledging as much is of course the first step.

Now, as an allergy mom, the best version of myself will never let my child be accidentally exposed to her allergens again. That is not something I am going to be able to shake any time soon, nor should I any more than I should knowingly let any other type of danger come my kids’ way. But I also know from speaking with other allergy parents that despite the protections I put in place, accidental exposure is more or less inevitable. This is a tough one to grant myself grace on. Whenever the shoe drops and her next exposure occurs, I know I will spend days running through all the possible scenarios of what I could have done better to protect her.

The best protection against all of this stress and danger is to not only take care of her, but to take care of myself.

To a degree, this is simply life as an allergy parent. There will always be more to worry about, more to remember, more to do. What I am so appreciative to have realized so early in this process is that the best protection against all of this stress and danger is to not only take care of her, but to take care of myself. Sure, I can stay up until midnight baking safe cupcakes for her class party the next day, but if I’m too bleary-eyed to check on the rest of the foods in the classroom, I haven’t done either of us any good.

That’s why I’ve started a new Facebook support group, Self Care for Allergy Moms. If you’re an allergy mom yourself, I hope you’ll join me.

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