She Drives Us Places

Ottawa, Canada food allergy mom Michelle Nel Chow shares a series of her personal stories with BAAAB. Her son, Nolan, is severely food allergic. Michelle stays strong and has self-published her own children’s book “To Be a Nut or Not“.

As I was about to empty my son’s school bag he burst past me squealing “STOP, let me! I do it, I do it!”  Beaming with pride he pulled from his backpack a large piece of purple card stock.  Laying it over his arm as a maitre d’ would a white linen serviette Nolan presented it grandly saying “Dis for you, Happy Mommies I love you Day”.   Only after having duly admired the painted art work  on the cover did I then open the card.  Inside was glued a questionnaire about ‘my mom’, each answer carefully filled in with the perfect printing of a kindergarten teacher.

My mom’s hair colour, her name, my mom’s favorite food (answered suspiciously with Nolan’s favorite treat of choice), her favorite thing to do, then …my mom’s work!  Not realizing I’d stopped reading out loud Nolan was quick to question what was wrong and didn’t I like it.   Attempting to suppress  the catch in my voice  I assured Nolan  I absolutely  LOVED IT, then sent him off with a bear hug to go play Lego  (HIS favorite thing to do).

With my son out of sight I glanced back to the card, my mom’s work – “she drives us places”.  Fair enough, like most mom’s out there I am constantly shuttling children between schools, sports, activities, play dates and more. But was this my work?  And the bigger question could this really be my son’s perception of me?

“Hey! Where my present?” Nolan would later ask pointing to the bulletin board in our kitchen.  With the resemblance of a brooding child I retrieved his card from amongst a stack of papers and yes, I shamefully admit to pinning it so as not to open.

It was the feelings evoked from just four innocent words “she drives us places” which caused me to re-evaluate who I was and what I was doing.

My revelation, there has been a substantial, yet unnoted side effect of allergy navigation. What was more profound than having adjusted what we do and eat was the significant shift from ‘option and/or choice’ to that of ‘necessity’.

As a mom I’ve spent the better part of 14+ years cooking, cleaning, organizing, being prepared with band aids, hugs, tissues and yes, there has also been much chauffeuring.   But with the title of allergy mom, it was like this became ‘who’ and not just what I did.

With the appropriate prelude of ‘Once Upon A Time’ …  I  savored the lingering smell of fresh baking… invent and create were words limited to rainy day activities or crafting  a set of miniature tepees for a social studies project  with just minutes to spare  before the school bus came.

Organizing a vacation, party or dinner out meant jotting down reminders on novelty shaped post its, no worries, if something was forgotten we’d make due.  I’d excitedly announce it was  homemade pizza night, last minute plans were no problem,  dinner was an afterthought, kissing an owie was a legitimate medicinal remedy, I’d fill my grocery cart nonchalantly tossing in items without a thought or second glance.

What happened?  Well, incumbent with the title of allergy mom  has been the necessity and requirement to maintain a level of constant vigilance some might be empathetic to yet never fully comprehend.  Before a single food purchase may be made Latin, Greek and Chemistry must be dutifully studied and deciphered with local labeling laws researched and factory production lines investigated and double checked.

My first aid kit which once held bandages and lollipops, should a scraped knee or childhood troubles ensue, now consists of my child’s life saving medication.  And in bringing this with there may never be an oversight nor forgetful moment– and should we be required to administer it – I assure you the emotional toll on both parent and child equates the physical.

The creative license I once limited to school projects and Halloween costumes became quickly utilized fashioning old crib sheets into safe linings so our son was able to safely sit in the grocery cart.  And cooking is more a scientific process requiring experimentation using none of the ingredients listed or required.  The term ‘mother of invention’, I ‘m sure whomever came up with that phrase was referring to an allergy mom.

Be it a vacation, party or a dinner out the amount of emails, phone calls , planning, preparations and safely precautions  far supersede the joy once  found  utilizing  any amount of colorful sticky notes.  Fact: in my role as an  allergy mom, I cannot afford to miss or forget anything.  This job title dictates there is no wiggle room for oversights or carelessness, ever!   Truth, the organizational aptitude and planning proficiency of an allergy mom would rival that of any military operation.

The tears once easily wiped ensuing from playground mishaps now pain deeper when resulting from the heartbreak of exclusion. Yet albeit with a mommy heart heavily afflicted, at such times I must derail any onslaught of self pity.   Gazing into his wounded brown eyes I  firmly reiterate how fortunate we must be for all we can do and not focus on the things we cannot.  Yet the sting of rejection is not as easily wiped away as the stain of a tear.

And my kitchen, it runs an assembly line of goods with an inventory labeled by want and not desire. Last fall after he’d spent days fighting off a bad case of the flu I was relieved to hear my son say he was hungry.   Curled up with his blankie, hugging his favorite stuffed beagle Nolan, with a sniffle and a wheeze quietly requested he’d like white bread.  White bread, oh no…white bread!!!    With a curse to food upon my lips I dug through the freezer frantically inspecting every container and freezer bag inside.  Rummaging through my stockpile of homemade goods I tossed aside muffins, cookies, waffles, even the one last piece of cheesecake I’d tucked in back, but white bread, not one slice.  Had this been our daughter (no allergies) such a request, any request would have been simple.  A quick trip to the store and in minutes she would have been nibbling contently.   But anaphylactic allergies and food are a mix which although not  impossible, does equally arduous complexity.  Still asking for white bread my only recourse was a quick mental calculation –  ‘prep, 1st rising, kneading, 2nd rising, baking’ –  as  an allergy mom I’ve accumulated many skills but time conquest unfortunately has not  been one of  them.    As my sadness and yes again, mom guilt swelled so did my string of quietly muttered expletives towards food and food allergies.

Needing a moment to process my thoughts I sat back and watched as Nolan contentedly constructed yet another Lego architectural feat.  It was only when my card slipped to the floor did I notice the back cover.   In blue crayon was a endearing attempt at a drawn heart, and beside that was my son’s first ‘un-traced’ written word, MOM!!!

This allergy learning curve has at times seemed insurmountable and yes the vigilance required and advocating needed is endless and truthfully, tiring.  And my purse, it is full to overflowing with endless items we do, should or might need.   I believe with fair certainty that on more than one occasion I’ve been mistaken for a traveling hoarder.    And regarding the reading, re-reading, checking and double checking of ingredients I don’t find it coincidental that in the past 5 years my eye glasses prescription has been increased not once but twice.

Yet along with Nolan’s allergies has come a greater appreciation of all things, equally the big and the small.   We focus more on ‘doing’ rather than eating. We celebrate with something homemade and we savor something home grown.  We are more aware of what equally is in our food as what is not.   We have learned to advocate and educate, and when it comes to those who accommodate, even in the smallest of ways, we are forever thankful.  So yes there are struggles and yes our patience can be tested no doubt!!   Yet although I wish every day for my son’s allergies to disappear, I also am so grateful for the special life we lead and all it has given to us.

An allergy mom may be what I am, but it is not who I am.  Just as Nolan’s allergies in no way define him, being an allergy mom, although it does fully encompass, in no way ascertains all that is ‘Michelle’.   It is not without irony that it has been my life as an allergy mom which not only re-kindled my love of writing but also brought about the passion of what to write.  This journey might have changed my direction but what I have learned is that I am still able to travel by following my own compass.

To quote a friend, “Think back to your own childhood in the car with your siblings, bonding over games like spotting licenses or car models, and creating goofy rhymes and sing-a-longs…..even the moments of whining and bonking your sister over the head are all part of learning and growing…..” (Gwen Smith, Editor of Allergic Living Magazine summer 2013)

So you know, driving (my kids) places, it’s really not such a bad thing.

By Michelle Nel Chow