Food for ThoughtJun/Jul 2011 Issue

Generation Gap: Kids and Allergies

A shared diagnosis divides and connects

Persons depicted are models.

© Vincent Hazat/PhotoAlto/Alamy.

Photo for illustrative purposes only. Persons depicted are models.

My daughter Maya and I were diagnosed with celiac disease at the same time. It came about a year after my sister and her daughter received their diagnosis. It was a gift but that’s not how my daughter saw it.

I announced the good news: “Hooray! We have celiac disease just like Aunt Lisa and Cousin Ella. We get to eat gluten-free food just like them!”

“Hooray!” Maya chimed in. In her 4-year-old mind, she was thrilled at the prospect of consuming the special treats I’d been hoarding for her cousin. It didn’t take long, however, before she realized that the diagnosis also meant she couldn’t have Cheerios, McDonald’s or eat challah on Fridays with her classmates. The cookies from her favorite bakery and her great-grandmother’s rugelach were also off limits.

She was crushed.

I was thrilled. Finally, an answer. I’d been sick all my life. When I was Maya’s age, my mom had a thousand excuses for my poor eating habits: “She has a small stomach,” “She’s a picky eater,” “She has a stomach virus again.” As a kid, I was skinny as a rail and often bent over with stomach cramps. I stopped growing at 13. I had arthritis in every joint. By the age of 25, I had undergone four endoscopies. (How could the doctors have missed it?)

For me, going gluten free meant no more stomachaches. It also meant I was free to live life like everyone else. Suddenly, I could eat almost anything I wanted. I fell in love with food. Gluten-free fajitas, tamales, chocolate chip cookies, carrot cake with cream cheese frosting, pizza with roasted vegetables. So what if it didn’t taste like Pizza Hut? So what if I had to pay twice the price? I could eat all of it and not run to the bathroom halfway through. For me, going gluten free opened the door to the wonderful world of food. For Maya, that door closed.

“Why, Mommy? Why can’t I eat wheat?” Her questions pierced through my heart.

“But now you don’t have diarrhea. No more itchy rashes and no more stomachaches! Isn’t that great?”

Needless to say, she didn’t think so. She took it really hard. She kept asking why I was punishing her: “I didn’t do anything wrong. It’s not fair!” And then: “It’s okay, Mommy. I like diarrhea!”

The diagnosis saved our lives. Because of it, Maya will never have to suffer in her childhood the way I did throughout mine. But how to convey this message to her? I wanted her to live with joy rather than resentment. And I didn’t want it to take years for her to feel good about the gluten-free lifestyle.

I stewed over ways to reframe her special diet so she could embrace it in a positive way. If only I could color the picture differently so she could see the beauty

of it.

Then one day while at the supermarket, I spotted a new gluten-free product on the shelf. “Maya, look at these cupcakes. Aren’t they cool? You could bring one to the birthday party on Saturday.”

She looked them over with an approving eye and broke into a smile.

“Maybe I can bring extras in case someone else wants to try.”

That small moment marked a first step in softening an attitude. Like most things in life, time, patience and encouragement can give birth to new perspective.

A year later, I truly believe that Maya has begun to see the picture of good health we’re painting…together.

Sharon Wanunu lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two daughters.

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