Parenting is hard enough on relationships, but add food allergies or other chronic illnesses to the picture, and even spouses with a solid partnership and seamless communication style will face challenges.
Oftentimes, parents are required to be so focused on the day-to-day logistics of managing food allergies, that residual impacts to their relationship aren’t noticed until they become impossible to ignore.
Here are three common ways marriages/relationships may be affected by food allergies and solutions to navigate them:
DWINDLING DATE NIGHTS
When food allergies are a factor, your pool of babysitter options may be more shallow due to increased safety protocols, especially when your child is still very young. Maybe you don’t have sitters you feel comfortable leaving your child with, or you don’t have family members that will follow the food rules. Maybe you’re just not ready to trust that someone else will be able to recognize a reaction and enforce the emergency action plan if you’re not there to help. Whatever the reason, the lack of alone time with your significant other can easy dwindle until it’s non-existent.
What You Can Do:
🔷 Not having a sitter shouldn’t be the reason date nights don’t happen, so get creative! Take turns planning date nights at home -- dinners, movies, or other activities. Get out an old photo album and reminisce together. Have a game marathon. The goal is to have fun, connect, and get your minds off of food allergies and back onto your relationship.
🔷 Take advantages of opportunities to “turn towards each other”, or notice and appreciate one another. Even if you’re only able to have a quiet night together once a month, these little gestures go a long way and can help you reconnect in the meantime.
🔶 Nurturing what connects you and your relationship directly impacts how you will navigate the tough times together. The more connected you feel, the more likely you’ll work as a team during stressful situations. Make each other a priority again!
ELEVATED STRESS LEVELS
Computers have a constant antivirus software running in the background to ward off any surprise attacks. Similarly, parents managing food allergies are always on - preparing ahead of time, surveying situations, and being on high alert just in case. Let’s call it what it is - STRESSFUL! Cumulative stress can dramatically impact and change individuals, and therefore, it can directly affect the relationship between you and your significant other. Before you know it, you might be standing face-to-face, but barely recognize one another due to how much you’ve both changed from the stress.
What You Can Do:
🔷 Self-care needs to be a priority for you both. Much of your time and energy is spent focusing on your child’s safety, so your own self-care may quickly drop to the bottom of the priority list (which can be true for all parents in general). But remember that computer analogy? If we don’t turn off or reboot the machine from time to time, eventually it doesn’t run as effectively. The same is true of parents. Try and turn your hypervigilance off when you can and focus on your own needs, even if it’s only for mere minutes a day.
🔷 Another way to help manage stress is to be more mindful. Being mindful is “having the ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we are doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us.” By the very nature of food allergies, emotions tend to run high and reactivity is always prepared in case it’s called into action. Take an inventory of which situations cause the most stress, and share that list with your significant other. If you’re aware of each other’s triggers ahead of time, it may help you both stay present and better navigate the stress together, as opposed to letting stress lead the way and cause chaos in your relationship.
🔶 Plain and simple, there will be stressors associated with managing food allergies. The key is to not let the emotions become so overwhelming that it infiltrates your relationship and drives a wedge between you.
CAUTION LEVELS DIFFER
When your child is initially diagnosed with a food allergy, caution levels tend to be at an all-time high. However, after some time and distance from the diagnosis, especially if there hasn’t been a reaction, some individuals tend to lower their guards when it comes to the food rules. If one of you sticks to the rules consistently, but the other doesn’t, it can cause fights and resentments, leaving you feeling like you’re the one that must be hypervigilant for your child’s safety.
What You Can Do:
🔷 If you’re not on the same page with food rules, it’s time to hit the pause button and do some wondering. Why is your significant other feeling comfortable veering from the plan? Has anything changed - any new results from allergy appointments? Is it possible that the initial guidelines should be revisited and re-evaluated?
🔷 In order to get to the core reasons, and therefore a solution, you and your significant other will have to explore this topic together. Emotions will likely be high, so try and remain calm and focused on finding a solution that is best for your child’s safety and that you both can be successful with.
🔷 The goal is to understand what risk level you each feel most comfortable with, as well as what non-negotiable food rule items you both have. Revisit the food rules, making sure to incorporate each of your non-negotiable items first, and then layer in the other preferred rules.
🔷 If you find you’re at an impasse and can’t agree on what guidelines need to be in place, it’s best to reach out to your allergist or an evidenced-based support network to determine which guidelines are necessary and which ones may not be needed.
🔶 Safety and precautions are the name of the game. However, the logistics of the game may need to be revisited if you and your significant other aren’t seeing eye-to-eye about them. Rather than argue about it, take a solution-focused, team approach. Remember, it’s not about who’s right or wrong; it’s about both of you succeeding with safety goals for your child’s sake.
Chronic illnesses, such as food allergies, may impact marriages and relationships, but they don’t have to derail them. Being aware of what affects yours, staying connected, and using clear and calm communication when issues do arise can help you troubleshoot even the toughest of times - as a team.
As a parent, there are days that are etched in your mind forever. The days your children were born. Their first words. Their first steps. Their first days of school. But when you’re the parent of a child with food allergies, you’ve got another memory etched in your mind - the day that you received the food allergy diagnosis. In an instant, it feels as though your world has been turned upside down, and that everything you envisioned for your child’s future is no longer possible. You imagine that every “first” from that point on will be ruined now that food allergies are complicating life. No matter how positive of a person you are, that moment in time shakes you to your core.
For our family, that diagnosis day came when our youngest son was three years old. While he had a moderate anaphylactic reaction after two bites of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich just days before, I was still living in denial. I didn't feel that I could handle the reality of what my gut knew was true. That all changed with one phone call, which I received while we were on a family outing to a Thomas the Train event. I can look back at pictures from that day and still feel the exact emotions I had when the doctor said “Your son is allergic to peanuts.” In that moment, it didn’t matter that I was a licensed clinical professional counselor, trained in helping others cope with their feelings; these emotions were too raw for me to process.
With such a life-altering diagnosis, it’s hard for parents to rise above the mutiny of negative emotions. After the reality of food allergies sinks in, waves of sadness, anger, grief, and even trauma come crashing in, making it hard to see straight. As is the case with all families managing food allergies, just when I thought I had the hang of living with this unwanted guest, those waves would come crashing in with every new “first”, knocking me back each time to what felt like square one. By the time I was finally starting to feel confident in managing my son’s food allergy at preschool, it was time for him to transition to Kindergarten, where a new routine was needed. Crash! There was that next wave, which in reality translated to me crying uncontrollably the night before the first day at his new school. That pattern seemed to play out in variety of “first” scenarios: the first sports team he joined (Will the team accommodate his allergy?), the first drop-off birthday party (Will he remember to eat the cupcake I brought?), the first time he went to a friend’s house for the afternoon (Will he truly only eat approved snacks)?
However, somewhere along the way, my goal to just emotionally survive became a goal to teach my son that he could be resilient with this disease, even at such a young age. I couldn’t imagine our family being an emotional slave to this disease our whole lives. But just like the safety instructions on airplanes, I had to help myself before I could help my child. I needed to create a survival raft built from acceptance, knowledge, and resilience to help me keep my head above water before I could help my son build his. I began working towards altering my own internal food allergy narrative so I could find some way to accept what I couldn’t change. My mind had been stuck in a space filled with negativity and fear, and the battle to save myself from it was intense. The first step was to write down the fears that kept me up at night: my son being left out socially, severe limitations in life, and of course the biggest one, death, just to name a few. Next, I found sources of reputable, evidenced-based food allergy information so I could cut straight to the facts without adding more fear. And finally, craving support and finally being calm enough to accept it, I reached out to those further along this path and asked them how they handled a life with food allergies.
This new empowerment made me feel strong enough to better navigate new “firsts”. I was ready to teach my son how to change his internal food allergy narrative to a resilient one so that he could do the same. By this point, my son was nearing first grade, a time when school lunch became a factor. All of those negative, scary emotions started rushing back in, but instead of allowing them to completely knock me over, my raft was already becoming quite strong and actually helped me stay afloat. I researched 504 plans, became involved with the PTO to help shape policies, and created colorful outlines of our emergency action plan for our school epipen kits in order to make them fool-proof. Over time, our family more confidently talked about how to handle food allergy-related situations, and even practiced scenarios at home so my son felt prepared with knowledge, too. Together, we learned not to let our fears lead the way. We started to become less panicked and felt more capable of navigating life with food allergies. We had created a family raft and our narrative was on the path to resilience.
While those waves still crash in and challenge our resilience today, they seem more manageable thanks to our rafts. The reality of food allergies is that they will affect daily life in some way, and many will be persistent throughout life. Those are overwhelming thoughts that can overtake us if we let them. All of us have our own internal food allergy narratives, which guides how we cope with the impacts that food allergies have on us, and also helps determine how resilient our rafts will be. If we want our kids to learn to be resilient while living with food allergies, just as with any parenting task we are faced with, it’s up to us to pave the way towards a healthier internal narrative so that our kids learn that narrative, too.
Below are five resilience-focused tips that I use and that I suggest to parents when they need help managing the emotional aspects of food allergies. These tips can help you and your kids begin to build a food allergy narrative that is focused on acceptance, knowledge, and resilience, which in turns aids in the creation of the rafts that will keep you afloat when the waves hit.
Each family has its own food allergy journey and timeline through it, even though they all share similar emotions. Decide what the goal of your journey is so that you can create resilient food allergy narratives to achieve that goal and free yourself from that fear-based narrative. I look forward to seeing you on this path!
(Article also shared on the Food Allergy & Anaphylaxis Connection Team blog on 6/18/18)
(Article also shared on Scary Mommy website on 7/11/18)
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