I doubt that anyone who knew me in my early years as a mother would have considered me to be an anxious parent. In fact, I erred more often on the side of being too trusting. I was always the mom who picked up the pacifier off the dirty ground and popped it right back in my baby’s mouth. I left my baby with friends and babysitters often, free from fear or worry. I let people hold her whenever they asked, and let her try any new food, without giving it a second thought. When my second baby was born in a foreign country, I continued in the same way. It was harder to leave her with sitters at first because she was very attached to me, but I was determined and worked hard to acclimate her to a bottle so that I could drop her off at daycare now and then.
Now, just a few years and a third baby later, I find that I struggle a bit to even recognize myself as a parent. I am hesitant to leave my little ones, even with the most trusted friends and family. I have a whole litany of questions about potential child care options. And I barely let my toddler out of my sight whenever we are around other people. Surprisingly, it isn’t our experience with a pandemic or a fear of infectious disease that has led to this change. But rather something else that happened during that fateful and memorable year of 2020 – my two younger children were diagnosed with severe food allergies.
My daughter’s earlier diagnosis of allergies to just a couple of kinds of nuts was expanded to include anaphylactic reactions to peanuts, and possibly all tree nuts. My son’s very first allergy testing experience at age one delivered the same verdict. They are both allergic to eggs, as well. When we were going in for their allergy tests, I knew these results were a possibility. But it still left me stunned. In the following days and weeks, I was quite irritable and on edge. It took me a little while to realize that I was grieving. I grieved their loss. I grieved about the future doctor’s appointments and all the times their little bodies would have to go through the miserable allergy testing. I grieved the loss of a way of life – the spontaneity of exploring food together and grabbing a bite to eat on our family adventures. I grieved losing the carefree spirit I had carried as a parent, always believing that they would be just fine.
I am still sad about these things. But, we made some changes, carried on, and found our new normal. My oldest daughter gave up her beloved peanut butter and Nutella without complaint. I switched up my shopping list to include only nut-free snacks, cereals, everything. Even a label that says “may contain nuts” or “processed in a facility that also processes nuts” carries too much risk. For now, at least, we are a completely nut-free home. Although my daughters are old enough to understand and ask us about the safety of a particular food, my toddler son is not. We miss these foods, but it is a small price to pay in exchange for the peace of mind — knowing that my children are safe.
So we became comfortable with our new normal. But now, as we have moved forward after many months of being “safer at home” due to covid-19, I am finding out just how much this has changed ME.
I am less willing to be spontaneous. The need to make sure that we have Epipens and Benadryl with us every time we leave the house does not actually require that much extra effort, but the reason behind it carries an extra weight that I can feel in my body – the knowledge that we must always be prepared for the worst.
I find myself looking over our friends’ shoulders to make sure I know what they are eating. I try not to let the kids sit too close on picnics. I need to constantly be aware of other kids on the playground, in case a friendly child decides they want to share their snack. I ask people not to bring peanut butter into our home. I require our family to rid their kitchens of it when we stay at their home. I hate this part. I hate feeling like I am policing others. It all feels too over-the-top. But I remind myself of our new reality – what other choice do I have? I know it is always worth it.
Before dropping them off at church or dance class, I double and triple-check – will there be food involved?
I hesitate before taking them out for a quick ice cream, or to a restaurant. Do I know for sure what the options are? Can I be sure there will not be any cross-contamination?
I do extra planning ahead of outings and road trips. I pack so many snacks. What if there aren’t any safe options available on the road? This requires a whole new level of planning (and I am not a detailed planner by nature) each time our military family has to relocate again. I can no longer count on a hotel’s continental breakfast.
And probably the hardest realization of all, and the thing that has been most difficult for me to name: I do not feel comfortable leaving my kids for an extended period of time, even with family. It isn’t that I don’t trust them to understand the seriousness of the situation. It is simply that I don’t feel comfortable putting that weight of responsibility on anyone else at this point. I know that accidents could happen anywhere, with or without me present. But I can’t stand to think about something happening, without me being close by.
So, here I am, trying to get used to our NEW new normal, as we venture out into the world once again. Planning ahead, asking all the questions, and keeping my kids close. My new normal still feels a bit uncomfortable and restrictive, like a jacket that has too many layers under it. But I know that after a bit more time adjusting, it will feel more natural. We will find our stride, and adventure together once again. And then one day, they won’t be little anymore. I am showing them how to advocate for and protect themselves now so that they can do the same for themselves later.
Taking the time to grieve the type of parenting style I used to have and the lifestyle our family used to enjoy has been an important step in helping me to embrace the kind of parent I must be now. It may feel a bit more foreign to me, but my present style of parenting is born out of the same things that have always driven me as a mother: a deep love for my kids and a commitment to preparing them to launch confidently out into the world one day. This process has also grown a new level of empathy in me. There is absolutely not a single right way to raise our children. I know that each mother is doing her best while struggling to find the balance between being true to herself and true to her children. Sometimes we have to cast off what feels like a part of ourselves in order to be what our children need the most. In doing so, we may begin to know our true selves at a deeper level than ever before.
Julie is a piano teacher, turned worship leader, turned aspiring writer, and full-time mom of three kids. She spends much of her time moving and traveling around the world, thanks to her husband’s career in the military. Along the way, she collects amazing friends, experiences, and stories. She believes that storytelling can help us understand each other’s unique journeys and perspectives, and will ultimately bring us closer to one another. You can learn more about her journey on Instagram at @julie_c_b.