I have always loved parties. I didn’t even realize there are people out there who don’t enjoy parties until I met my husband. We are proof positive that opposites attract. I would party for pretty much any reason at all. Don’t believe me? I once threw a surprise birthday party for my Mom’s artificial hip. The signs proclaimed ‘Hip’py Birthday and I posted before/after photos everywhere like the ones below!!!! Truth!
Parties have changed dramatically for me since Elena’s diagnosis. I no longer get excited about going to parties. Parties are a great source of anxiety. I want my kids to have a love and excitement for parties that I used to have and I want to shield them from the anxiety. I do get excited for them and for the possibility of the fun they will have, but the fear overrides the excitement for me.
We always bring Elena’s food to parties and I try to get it as close to what the others will be having as possible. So far, we have gotten away with packing Olivia’s food as well so it will be like Elena’s. I think this is good for Elena because she has a buddy, but eventually Olivia might decide she doesn’t want to follow Elena’s restrictions at parties. We will just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.
I’m usually worried that I have missed something when we are heading to a party. Even though I always ask about the food, changes happen and the host cannot always be expected to contact me about last minute adjustments. I can bring Elena a safe cupcake or safe ice cream, but only if I know the cupcakes and ice cream will be served. It’s heartbreaking to watch her sit and look around at the others enjoying treats while she has nothing.
Even more scary than her feeling excluded is the possibility of a reaction. Kids, and sometimes parents, just don’t understand how easily it can happen. If another child touches her plate or cup with icing on their hands, she could have a very serious reaction. I try to monitor her every move while she is eating without her really knowing I’m doing it. I don’t want her to be afraid to go to parties or to eat her food because of what is around her, but I want her to be safe.
We went to a party recently and the birthday girl’s mother had communicated very well with me about the food that would be served. Elena had comparable food for the meal and a cupcake for dessert. I was not prepared for ice cream to come out, but it did. I just watched Elena quietly as a grown up offered her ice cream. She said no thank you and that was that. It couldn’t have gone better. She was sitting at the table eating her safe cupcake, when the ice cream started being passed around. A gentleman literally carried the ice cream over, set his bowl beside Elena, then started scooping the ice cream into his bowl. I scooted her chair towards me as discretely as I could, but a drop of ice cream fell right on her hand. I quickly wiped it off and he gave us both a disgusted look, patted her on the arm and said, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s not going to hurt you”. I just scooped her up and grabbed her cupcake, making our way into the next room. There was nowhere for us to go. Allergens were everywhere and I just couldn’t see past them. I found my husband, who was chatting with another dad and shoved Elena and her cupcake at him. He could tell I was about to lose it and I had to get out quick. I made it out the front door and around the side of the house where I completely broke down into sobs. I couldn’t believe a simple birthday party could go so wrong so fast and I was so disappointed in myself. How could I lose control like that and what if Justin hadn’t been there to take Elena before she saw me crumble. I just kept thinking that it shouldn’t be this hard to take my daughter to a birthday party. She shouldn’t have to be faced with people splashing around her allergens and telling her they can’t hurt her. What if that had landed on her cupcake instead of her hand and what if it had been in a moment when I wasn’t watching her like a hawk? No matter what I do, I cannot guarantee her safety and parties are very high risk for her.
Luckily, Elena never knew what had happened. She just thought we were wandering around for a few minutes and then she went with Daddy and started playing with friends. Since he wasn’t sure what had happened, Justin didn’t give her the rest of her cupcake, but she didn’t seem to mind. As far as she was concerned, the party went very well and she had a blast.
People tell me I go overboard with birthday parties for my own kids. We celebrate in a big way, even when we keep it small. It’s never outlandish or overly expensive, but I do a lot of work to make sure the activities, food, and cakes are special and safe. Part of the reason I do this is because it’s the only time I know Elena can just have fun and let loose at a party. She can enjoy herself completely and not even think about what she is eating or what others around her are eating. I can let her run off and play with her friends without having to wonder if any of them brought a handful of their food with them. Even if they did, I know it’s all “Elena safe”. She can sit at the table and eat a piece of the big cake, just like everyone else. I do it because I want her to have as many opportunities as she can to have anxiety free fun at a party with friends. She can be part of the celebration, rather than having to lurk on the fringes with her food substitutions. I want her to enjoy herself in the same way your nonallergic child does every time he attends a birthday party, school celebration, family gathering, or church potluck. If that means I have to throw the party, well then there are at least three opportunities a year for me to make it happen (four if you count her Grammie’s hip).
This past weekend we celebrated Olivia turning two. We had snacks and cake and bubbles galore. To everyone else, it was just a party, but to us, it was a “safe” party. The day was all about Olivia, but for me, it’s always a little bit about Elena too. Throwing safe parties makes me remember why I used to love celebrating anything and everything with a blow out.
I would like to add that we are lucky enough to have several friends and family members who are dedicated to making the events they plan completely or mostly “Elena safe” or keeping me informed of every detail regarding unsafe treats so I can prepare accordingly. Every food allergy family should be so fortunate.