For Allergy Families, Here's the Real Scoop on "Fun" Birthday Parties

Because the more we share, the more you can empathize

Birthday party for kids with allergies

Birthday parties for most families are all about fun games, delicious treats, and loot bags. For a family whose children suffer from food allergies, birthday parties are a potential deathtrap. I can control what we bring into our house and what I send to school, but I cannot control every environment into which I send my kids, and this gives a parent of an allergic child great anxiety. I subtly pull my kids aside and point out all the items that they absolutely cannot touch, let alone eat. And yet without fail, at some point during the event someone ends up with a rashy face and itchy eyes at best, or a trip to emergency in an ambulance after an Epi-pen is administered at worse. 

And there is nothing I can do to prevent this, besides annoyingly asking for the menu of what will be served, providing a detailed list of their allergens along with a grocery list of where they are hidden (“Hello parent I barely know, please remember that besides in the obvious, there is egg in mayonnaise, creamy dressings, fried foods, some pasta and cake icings all of which can throw my child into an allergic frenzy”). And these are the easy years when it is okay for their mommy to stay at the party and subtly hover over the food table. There I can secretly watch as each person dips a celery stick into the hummus bowl so I can diligently wipe away any drips from the table.  Then hold my breath as I witness them bury their hand into a bowl of popcorn. All I can do at that point is pray that the kernel of popcorn my kid eats has not been tainted by someone’s hummus-ed hands. 

For families who do not have allergic kids, there is no way of understanding what this stress feels like.  Even with all the media awareness, parents (luckily) will never feel the absolute silent panic that consumes a parent with allergic children.  So I am sharing our latest birthday party experience to give some insight into this reality and hone in on your empathy for the next time you are asked to not send certain foods to school or serve specific items at an event.  

Today we went to celebrate the 6th birthday of my daughter’s good friend.  They have accommodated our food limitations and considerately put out a spread of innocuous fruits, vegetables, and popcorn.  They even decided to serve ice cream sandwiches in lieu of birthday cake.  All of which they let me know at the start of the party to put me at ease.  But there it was: at the other end of the table…hummus.  Among my son’s many food allergies, are chickpea and sesame (which is also a culprit for my daughter).  Without fail, I immediately am on guard for the duration of the party and take my place casually manning the food table like a bouncer at a swanky club making sure my kids do not cross the velvet, hummus rope.  So I do the usual sweep of the table with them pointing out the “absolutely stay away from zone”.  And they know.  And they do.  Until…

About an hour into the party, my son turns to me with his tongue hanging out of his mouth and there it is: a smear of a creamy substance the size of a dime.  I hear the words creep out of my mouth as in disbelief “that…. is…. hummus.”  In my head of course it sounds more like “OH. MY. GOD, THAT IS POISON. MY CHILD IS ABOUT TO DIE.”  So, how then with all the precautions could this possibly happen?  My food-loving son saw a dollop of a yummy looking substance on his buddy’s shirt and decided to taste it (yes weird, but that is not the point of the story).  After all, it wasn’t in that container Mommy said he can’t touch.  So that is when he started to make funny noises to indicate his tongue felt weird.  That is when the red rash appeared all over his face. And that is when his lips started to swell.

I always travel, at a minimum, with 3 epi-pens and 4 Benadryl pills.  And yet on this day, I left the house with one.  I remember specifically having a conversation in my head as I left the house.  “I only have one epi-pen today.  Rosette, relax; they won’t BOTH react to something.  Don’t be so extreme.” At the party this inner conversation turns to “F*%!.  Me. Why. Today.” 

As usual, I go back and forth with the same question, to epi-pen or not.  As I watch his lips swell, the fear in his eyes grow and his face turn red, I hesitate no longer.  As he wails and begs me not to stab him, I inject my one epi-pen into his upper thigh.  I don’t notice the parents and children watching in disbelief because I am in a bubble that includes just myself and what I begin to imagine is my child who could die if I don’t act fast enough, if I don’t hold it in long enough, if it malfunctions. Sure enough, he jumps back so I only get to hold it for 3 seconds instead of 10.  Panic.  When I pull it back, the needle is bent so I actually have no idea if he received any of the dose.  Panic. 

So I grab my son, and plan to head straight to the hospital emergency room.  I turn to the wonderful hosts (who are feeling horribly at this point despite their planning around our needs) and even though I am asking, my voice is pretty much letting them know I am leaving my daughter behind until my husband can come pick her up.  Then it dawns on me.  My daughter, who is also allergic to sesame, is now at (what I can only see as) a hummus party with no epi-pen and no allergy bouncer to protect her.  But I can’t think about that now.  So as I head towards the car, my panic takes over, I imagine every worst-case scenario and I calmly ask the host to call 9-1-1 instead.

All this time, my poor son is wailing; partly from the pain of the faulty epi-pen, partly from all the drama, but mostly because his tongue feels terribly weird and he is itchy as hell.    

So we get in the ambulance, review this whole story with the paramedic and then head to the nearest hospital.  We quickly get admitted, see the triage nurse and immediately get put in a room.  My son’s vitals are taken and after we are assured he is and will be okay…I finally breath. I stop seeing red. I call my husband and furiously tell him to never tell me I am over reacting, that I give too many allergy related instructions, that I over pack food or am overly paranoid again (all of which is true but as today confirms, with reason). 

All I can think is that most kids come home from parties to rummage through their loot bags, while my son is lying on a hospital gurney, with stick-on monitors on his little chest and finger, fighting the urge to scratch the hummus out of his body. Four hours later, we are released after making sure there is no secondary reaction.  And then that is when I cry. 

So if you do ever invite us to a party, please don’t think I am being rude or overbearing when I ask what you are serving, suggest an alternate option and ask you to leave out specific foods.  Please know I already feel annoying asking and recognize that this is not your problem.  When you make accommodations for us without making it into a big deal, I am beyond grateful. And please don’t get annoyed when your child can’t bring hummus (or lentils, or kiwi, or whatever else the culprit may be) to school because they won’t die if they don’t eat it, while my child could die if they do (insert my husband saying “Rosie, you are overreacting”). 

 RELATED: Food Allergy Versus Food Intolerance

With a background in fine arts, and my qualifications as an elementary teacher,  I spent several years marrying my passion for the Arts with my love of working with children in both the classroom and gallery setting.  Since having my third child, I have begun to reevaluate my true passion in life and what I wanted to spend my days doing.  So I now balance my time between managing the home front, child rearing, and freelance art projects.