Guest Post: Love, Fear, and Cupcakes

LST is a middle and high school girlfriend of mine and author of this guest post.  She is a lawyer, a wife, and a mother to two adorable food allergic boys. This is the story of her difficult and brave journey into new motherhood.

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When I think about my experience of the first year of my older son’s life, I think a lot about gluten-free vegan baking.  I have always had some liberal and foodie tendencies, but vegan baking, prior to 2010, seemed a hippy-dippy, earthy-crunchy bridge too far. I was more of a fake-it-til-you-make-it, doctor up the box mix kind of girl.

Until, that is, there was the possibility that my adorable baby son might not have cake or cupcakes for his first birthday unless I made them my own self. Thus is the life of an allergy mom – specialty baking mixed with a serious dose of panic.

My oldest son was diagnosed at about eight months old with a rare allergic condition called eosinophilic esophagitis.  His life up until that point had been…well…frankly, terrifying to me.

My kiddo entered the world the rarest of the rarest of the rare. His birth involved me on a gurney with a nurse on top of me, people running, and lots of screaming, “OR, STAT!” and “We have to save your baby!” He had a prolapsed cord with a true knot in it. My friend the internet tells me that those complications happen in about .23% and about .05% of pregnancies, respectively. Either complication on its own can, and often does, kill a baby. How lucky we were to have had those nurses and doctors screaming and running. How lucky to have general anesthesia and surgery so quick they cut the side of the baby’s head on the way to get him out. How traumatic it all was! After he was born, he needed stitches while I was still out cold. Due to general anesthesia, I didn’t really meet him until he was about six hours old.

Our young son’s adventures with medicine didn’t stop after his birth. He vomited blood at 24 hours old, and again at 48 hours. He was admitted to the NICU for observation for several days, and they never really found the source of the problem. “It was probably related to his traumatic birth. He’ll probably be fine,” we were told. Then he had blood in his stool at six weeks old. No explanation. Then he was “fine.” Then he vomited blood again at about eight months old. In the meantime, he grew really well, and smiled and was very social…but he never really slept. We held him and rocked him and walked him and literally read prayers from the Book of Common Prayer over him in an effort to will him to sleep. He was a sweet, wonderful little person during the day, but he nursed all. the. time. His symptoms were so non-specific, that the only response we got from the pediatrician was, “Let him cry. It’s probably time for some sleep-training.” In the meantime, while I desperately wanted sleep, I was panicked that he was going to die and I felt that it was my responsibility to watch him every minute. I mean, in all of those months – 24 hours old, 48 hours old, 6 weeks old, eight months old – he had had blood coming from *somewhere* but no one could tell us where or, more importantly, why. I had crushing guilt that I didn’t know how to help this little person whom I had *created* and for whom I had total responsibility.

In the meantime, probably because he was immune suppressed from having to deal with the underlying allergies, he was frequently sick. He had recurrent ear infections. He had recurrent croup. I lived in fear. The Christmas season when he was six months old, I had such a hard time seeing the “beauty of the season” that I wanted to shout to that young woman on the donkey, “Mary!!! Look out! That miracle child of yours dies in 33 years! DIES!!! Guard your heart! DIES! Crucifixion! Look out!!!” Like a young mother, even thousands of years ago, could guard her heart against the future, protect against the pain of losing someone whose DNA was knit into her very brain. As though knowing the outcome lessened all the amazing days in between – and this was JESUS. I wanted to warn MARY that her baby JESUS was going to DIE. Terror wreaks havoc in the brain of the first-time mother. In my mind, I refer to the overwhelming panic I felt about my son from his birth until he was about ten months old as That Dark Time.

At eight months, after vomiting blood, he was admitted to the hospital and an upper GI endoscopy with biopsy was scheduled for the next morning. They would knock our boy out with general anesthesia and send a tiny camera down his esophagus and into the first part of his stomach, taking tissue samples as they went.

A week or so later we received the results of the test. He had eosinophilic esophagitis, also called allergic esophagitis. He was allergic to some of the food proteins that were passing through my breastmilk to him. His immune system was attacking the proteins as they went down his esophagus, and this was causing visible damage to his GI tract. No wonder he couldn’t sleep. An answer. An answer that caused the specialists to apologize to us – “This is rare.” “This is a long, slow road…but at least now you’re on the road.” – but an answer, nonetheless. We embarked on a long, complicated journey to find out which foods were causing a reaction. For a while, I avoided dairy, eggs, wheat, and soy. After he had more trouble at around ten and a half months of age, we weaned him from breastmilk to hypoallergenic formula. Through allergy testing we found out that corn, wheat (gluten), dairy (cow’s millk), eggs, sesame, beef, pork, poultry, fish, shellfish, peanuts, and treenuts were probably the things causing the trouble. Once weaned to the hypoallergenic formula alone, he slept. It was like a miracle. He was still happy during the day, and now he was peaceful at night. Thank you, sweet teeny tiny baby Jesus (he who died at 33 years of age).

As it turned out, not all of my fear that something terrible would befall my tiny son had been irrational. One of his pediatric specialists or his pediatrician (I don’t remember which) told us shortly after his diagnosis, “Well, this probably doesn’t lead to cancer.” Probably. Doesn’t. Lead. To. Cancer. My son was eight months old.

Even having a diagnosis, I still felt awful. If allergies were playing a role, that also meant that genetics were playing a role. My husband and his mother have seasonal allergies. My mother and father had seasonal allergies. That meant our son had gotten “allergic genes” from both sides of his family tree. I felt like I had brought this broken person into the world, and that it was my (and my husband’s) fault he wasn’t typical, because we chose to conceive him, and we gave him our (as I saw it at that point, clearly flawed) genes.

I said something to that effect to the pediatrician once through tears as we were talking about how allergies had a genetic component: “What did we do to this child?” The pediatrician pointed out that we had also given our son some “really good [genes], too.” It took me time to see the good ways in which his genes have affected our kiddo  – now that he is funny and clever, I can see (and claim) all the good genes.  Even adorable and happy pre-verbal children can be hard to fully embrace when they don’t really sleep and everything about them makes you think that the other shoe is about to drop.

Over time, we have learned how to cook differently, bake differently, and be differently about food. And we learned, and we learned, and we learn. And our son grew and grew and grows.  Today our son is a beautiful, kind, active, silly four-year-old. He loves dinosaurs, superheroes, running/jumping/swinging, drawing, and his little brother.  He’s also grown up knowing that some foods are safe for his body, and some aren’t. He knows to ask what the “‘gredients” are before trying a food. He knows that he has special treats in the freezer of his preschool, in case someone has a birthday circle. He knows that that isn’t always a bad thing – like when your preschool has a substitute teacher one day and she gives you all four (!) special treats at once (yes!), so while all the other kids get a muffin for a snack, you get a special brownie, and a cupcake, and some fruit snacks, and a cookie. He knows that he should always wear his special allergy bracelet to remind the adults around him to check before giving him food. He knows that one simply doesn’t leave home without the Medicine Bag – containing Benadryl, Epinephrine, and an asthma rescue inhaler.  He knows that he has to drink all of his “powder milk” (hypoallergenic formula) before he can choose to drink whatever he wants with dinner (like chocolate soymilk – yum!).

The kiddo avoids foods for which he has a positive allergy test, and that seems to have done the trick. He has to have new allergy tests every so often to see if his body is able to tolerate a food it once had trouble with. Then, he can try a new food. After a few weeks on the new food, he has a new endoscopy to check for hidden damage. So far, he’s been able to add successfully into his diet wheat (gluten), sesame, milk baked into baked goods, peanuts, pork, pecan, cashew, and almond. To add in the foods in that last sentence took about two years. That sentence was hard-earned, and involved pokes, prods, a couple of rounds of general anesthesia, some frayed nerves, and countless prayers. Right now he is trying chicken. Just this last week, for the first time, we went out into the world without bringing a lunchbox. He ate a grilled chicken sandwich from Panera Bread. I almost cried. Each act of trying a food that he’s previously been told to avoid is a profoundly brave act. I can see that he has learned from the superhero stories he loves.

From his parents, to get to this healthy point it has taken many internet searches (thank you, Al Gore or whomever, for inventing the internet so that I can find safe recipes to feed my child), many special-ordered ingredients (new allergy mom, repeat after me: “Authentic Foods Superfine Brown Rice Flour”), several new cookbooks (I love you, Cybele Pascal), the gift of a Kitchenaid stand mixer, and a few breakdowns (“Why, God?! Why! I just want to doctor the cake mix like Rachael Ray says is delish! Why?!?!”).  Each birthday our homemade allergy-friendly cupcakes tasted better than they had the birthday before as we perfected our recipes and technique.

I wish I could go back and tell that mama of That Dark Time not to feel so scared and guilty, that it would all be okay, and that I was missing this amazing little person who had cheated death (twice!) before ever entering the world.

I probably needed therapy. Or a drink. Or a therapeutic drink.

The thing that released me most from my fear, other than time and the gift of experience, was when I asked the pediatric gastroenterologist, “Do you expect this child to grow up typically, except for this condition?” He said, “Yes.” It changed my life.

I am eternally grateful for the people that came to me during That Dark Time and held him and loved us – telling me, “You’re doing great. He’s growing. You’ll get there. You’re a great mom. You love him so much.” The people who held our hands before his early endoscopies will forever have my heart. The people who prayed for him (and still do) are my heroes.

I have two sons now – our amazing four-year-old and his baby brother. We are still in mystery, sleepless night, pre-verbal territory with baby brother. I do not know what lies in his future. I know that I am lucky that I have not been so terrified with him and that allows me to enjoy him more. We are different people each time a child enters our lives, so we are also different parents.

For the record, I recently found a woman in our city who makes cakes for people with special diets. For a price, she makes us vegan, corn-free baked goods. I love her. I can e-mail her even faster than I can doctor up a box mix.  Eat your heart out, Rachael Ray.

Here are the boys, dressed as the Supperheroes, their team for the FARE walk for Food Allergy.

Here are the boys, dressed as the Supperheroes, their team for the FARE walk for Food Allergy.

Update: Night Weaning

You know that scene in E.T. where Elliot and E.T. are out in the woods, watching to see if the Speak n’ Spell-Umbrella contraption really will phone home?  Well, when that fork starts moving across the teeth of that saw, Elliot cries out, “It’s working!  IT’S WORKING!”

That stunned, cautious elation is exactly how I felt when I woke up this morning.  The night weaning is working, y’all!  IT’S WORKING! Here’s the skinny on the last two nights:

Night 3: My gilded god of a husband sent me to bed early and said he would wait up for the 10:00 bottle since he had work to do anyway.  (Baby, your parking spot in Heaven will be a corner spot under a birdless tree and it will be home to your very own Top Gear Wet Dream Car of the Day.  You are that wonderful.)

We never go to bed before discussing The Plan for the night, so once we had determined that he would get the 10:00 bottle, I would take care of our boy when he woke at 1:00ish, then we would take turns getting up for him in the 4:00ish hour.  We also put the kybosh on the support parent coming into the baby’s room to help unless specifically asked.  We kept scaring the shit out of each other and really, there’s nothing a second set of hands can do to help in the great Battle of Shush.  So, if we needed help or a “tag out” we would just call for the other over the baby monitor.  Perfect. Plan made and agreed upon, I passed promptly the fuck out.

He woke at 1 or so (the details get fuzzy quickly) but I got him back down pretty easily.

Then from 3-4, he was up and down a hundred thousand times.  Literally every time my husband or I would walk back into our bedroom, Boyo got to wailing.  And a zero-to-sixty kind of wail, too.  Like he woke and remembered, “Oh, right.  I’m furious.”  Finally gave him 2 ounces of water and he slept until 5:30.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t fall back to sleep. Somewhat embarrassingly, the night wails make me sweat something fierce and so I was soggy and wired when I came back to bed.  Plus, we’d gotten some terribly disappointing financial news that day, and as always, the middle of the night is just when the brain wants to stress out the hardest about such things.

So yesterday, I felt really terrible.  The sleep deprivation manifested itself in the form of good old fashioned blues.  I had a couple of big “O! Woe is me!” cries.  Once when I spilled my coffee and the other when Boyo took 45 minutes to settle into a nap.  But that time, I turned off the monitor in my bedroom, put in my headphones and scrubbed the holy hell out of my bathroom. But I cried the cry of “How can I just ignore my baby?  What kind of mother am I?”  The kind with a bathroom as clean as a spanked ass, as it turns out.

Night 4:  Again, gilded god husband sent me to bed early and stayed up to do work and get the last bottle.  The Plan remained the same.  Well, our precious little bundle slept until 1, woke and wailed, but settled with less than two minutes of shushing and rocking.  (I also changed his diaper.) He woke again at 4:30, but settled quickly again.  When he woke at 5:15, I felt remarkably rested.  Boyo voraciously drank his full bottle, slept another hour and half and woke happily chirping to himself.  Huzzah!

I know it’s usually when things start to go right that the ground falls out from beneath you, but I’ll deal with a sinkhole if and when I get one and not go borrow trouble.  In the meantime, I will take a moment to be thankful for my husband, high five our                 stick-to-itiveness, and be beamingly proud of my boy as he grows and learns and adapts to change like a motherfuckin’ champ!

Today, I could ride my bike over the moon.  That feeling is pretty out of this world.

Here's a look at Kingdom Come for you, Baby.  You are the very best of the best. (What does make you?  A Ferrari? A Lambo?)

Here’s a look at Kingdom Come for you, Baby. You are the very best of the best. (What does make you? A Ferrari? A Lambo? The green one?)

 

 

Be Glad Your Nose is on Your Face

When I was in sixth grade, my English teacher assigned a poetry project.  We had to type out and illustrate six poems by an author of our choice.  Then we had to write and illustrate six originals poems of our own.  I chose Jack Prelutsky, because even though Shel Silverstein showed us Where the Sidewalk Ends, Jack Prelutsky gave us The New Kid on the Block and with it, the National Anthem for the United Kidhood of Students: Homework! Oh Homework!  My hero.  Anyhow, Jack Prelutsky wrote a poem called Be Glad Your Nose is on Your Face.  The first two stanzas (are they stanzas? Been a long time since sixth grade) go like this:

Be glad your nose is on your face,
not pasted on some other place,
for if it were where it is not,
you might dislike your nose a lot.

Imagine if your precious nose
were sandwiched in between your toes,
that clearly would not be a treat,
for you’d be forced to smell your feet.

When, for whatever reason, it takes effort to turn away from what’s got me down and be grateful for all my many blessings, these words still run through my head.  So it’s no surprise that I had Mr. Prelutsky whispering in my ear yesterday because yesterday was a “Sandwiched in between your toes” kind of day.  It started out wonky and just slowly unraveled all day until I was cleaning up a poop-bomb diaper and my boy kicked me in the tits.  Both heels, both tits.  I came undone.  I dove face first into Ugly Cry.  No, dove is too graceful a description.  I belly-flopped into Ugly Cry.  I mean U-G-L-Y, you ain’t go no alibi, you ugly.

But today is a new day.  I slept pretty well and my boy woke up in a grand mood.  Today, I am glad my nose is on my face.  And to counteract all the “woe is me”ing I did yesterday, I’ve been reciting, out loud, a list of things I am grateful for today.  Here are a few:

1. My husband.  I am grateful for my husband for many, many reasons, but today, I am grateful that when he came to learn of my day, he poured me a giant glass of wine and when I finished it he said, “Now go have a cry in the shower.”  He so totally gets me.

2.  My mother.  I am also very grateful for my mother for many reasons, but today I am grateful for her because there has never been a better “in the shit” listener than my mother.  I can call her at the nadir of an emotional tailspin and rail, I mean holler my guts out, and she just lets me.  She never takes anything I say in those moments personally and she knows that I just need to lance the boil of frustration.  She so totally gets me.

3.  Facebook.  Say what you will about the dark side of FB, but I will forever be grateful for Facebook firstly because it reconnected me with the childhood friend who is now my husband and secondly because it keeps me connected to a network of friends in varying degrees of closeness, most of whom who love me, support me, are interested in me and in knowing about my life.  Facebook helped me reach out to MPU, LRH, and KDU, girlfriends I haven’t seen since high school, but who answered my S.O.S. when my boy was first born and have been rooting for me ever since.  I am especially grateful for FB these days because I have yet to build or join a community since we moved to Florida.  My entire support system is long distance.  Facebook helps make that work.

4.  Amazon certified frustration-free packaging.  As I’ve mentioned before, I get wrapper-rage something fierce and I just love that Amazon understands that and helps me not throw away the thing I just bought because I can’t get it open.

5.  Southern hospitality.  Friendly strangers help ease the sting of loneliness.  I may not have local friends yet, but the ladies who work the deli counter at the grocery store (I call them the Deli Dames) always seem so happy to see me.  It helps.  Maybe it’s weird that it helps, but it does!

6. That my boy has turned a corner.  At five months, Boyo was a different baby.  At six months, he’s a peach.  Enjoying spending time with my son is an answered prayer six months in the making.  As my girlfriend KUD says, “God made seven to nine month old babies as a reward for making it that far.”

7. That my nose is on my face.  I have a wonderful life, really.  I have love, friendship, health, a beautiful home that I am proud of, a family that understands me, a sharp mind and a clever tongue, and a sun that always rises on a new, better day.

Thanks for the reminder, Mr. Prelutsky.  And for Homework! Oh, Homework!  It’s my favorite.

 

 

Somedays are like that.  Even in Australia.

 

Just Wait, a Revelation.

I started this post as kind of a vent about something that bothers me very much.  But then I had a revelation, a brilliant gift from my brain to my heart and it’s helped me reframe the way I interpret that very bothersome thing.

Here’s the vent part:

I rarely use the word “hate.”  I tend to go for the understatement-to-prove-a-point option of “do not enjoy.”  With the proper placement of punctuation you can really drive it home.  “I do NOT. Enjoy. Rachael Ray. One. Bit.”  And, since I rarely use “hate,” reserving it for things I really, seriously can’t stand makes my point quite nicely.

As in…

I hate static shock. (Nothing lets loose the expletives like seeing the spark jump from the light switch to my fingertip.  Nothing.)

I hate being tickled. (The only thing that makes me violent.  I’ll punch.  I’ll kick.  I’ll draw blood.  And I won’t be sorry.)

I hate opening packaging.  (It’s just hummus.  Why is it so goddamned hard to get into a tub of hummus? )

And I hate when people say, “Just wait.”

Man, that one really irks my liver.  When I was newly pregnant, it was “Just wait til you’re nine months.  You’ve never been so uncomfortable.”  When I was nine months pregnant it was, “Just wait ’til he’s here.  Better get your sleep now.”  When he was born it was, “You think you get no sleep now? Just wait ’til he’s teething.”  It is an endless pattern and NO ONE seems to understand how infuriating it is.  It’s just the most unhelpful thing in the world especially if it’s response to being upset.  Telling me to “just wait” for something worse that’s coming down the pike not only doesn’t help me feel better now, but it completely dismisses my present feelings as insignificant, AND paints an even darker picture about what’s to come.  It’s also terribly condescending and assumptive.  Every kid and every parent is different so what makes you so goddamn sure that my experience will be just like yours? Not to mention the very simple fact that I don’t need a reminder to wait for the future.  WE ARE ALL JUST WAITING FOR THE FUTURE!  That state of being is called the present. Why the hell do people do this?!

Then came the revelation:

When two different beloved family members gave me the “Just wait, you’ll see, you’ll feel differently” recently, I was flooded with white hot anger so quickly, it scared me.  I wanted to scream, “But I’m not writing about how I’ll feel in the future, I’m documenting my present, the here and now, and THIS is how I feel right here, right now. DON’T DISMISS ME!”

But then I actually started to think about why people do this….

What are they really saying? I have lovely friends and family who support me and root for me and want me to be happy and successful.  And still, they say it.  So it mustn’t come from a place of hostility.  Maybe it comes from a place of reminiscence.

My present is their past.  Maybe they’re not commenting on my present.  Maybe they’re reminiscing about their own past.  It’s been a long time since they had a six month old baby.  Maybe it’s hard for them to take my difficulties seriously because the soothing salve of perspective and time has worked its magic and healed their wounds from Battlefield Baby.  Maybe advice, unsolicited advice in particular, is really just nostalgia.  Maybe when they say “Just wait,” what they are really saying is, “I miss my baby.”

LIGHTBULB!  Now I have the framework to transform something that makes me very angry into an opportunity to let someone I love (or like, or tolerate, or am standing next to in the produce section) tell me something about themselves.

So when my boy starts to crawl and someone inevitably says to me, “Just wait ’til he’s walking,” I hope I don’t get angry.  I hope I can give them the gift of talking about their journey instead of feeling like I have to defend mine.  I’m going to ask, “When did your child start to walk?  Tell me about your experience.”

And then, if I ever get this fucking thing open, I’m gonna have some hummus.

 

Just wait. Someday you'll say, "Hey, I know that guy!  I watched him grow up on The Truth About Babies."

Just wait. Someday you’ll say, “Hey, I know that guy! I watched him grow up on The Truth About Babies.”