Food for ThoughtAug/Sep 2010 Issue

Mother's Guilt - The Limits of Love

The limits of love


Mother and Son

As a protective older mother, I sought the best for my only child. I made sure he had lots of attention, a good education, wholesome food, music lessons, swimming instructions, travel experiences—any indulgence we could afford. After all, why shouldn’t he have it all?

I passed down my traditions, explained his place on the family tree and shared jokes about our eccentric relatives. I made sure he wore a helmet when he rode his bicycle and I covered him with shin and elbow pads when he skateboarded. But as much as I wanted to protect him, I couldn't prevent him from getting celiac disease. It came with my genetic pool. Like me, he would need to be on a gluten-free diet for life.

Usually I’m a glass-half-full person, especially when it comes to the fact that I have celiac disease. I dwell on what I can have rather than what I can’t, without self-pity or remorse. But when it came to my child, I found myself peering out from the bottom of the glass. I devoted countless hours to making sure he was never singled out, that he didn’t have to compare his special-diet fare with the foods his friends were eating.

I orchestrated every food opportunity I could possibly control. His Sunday school class made braided challah so I improvised a gluten-free recipe to create stiff dough he could braid and eat with them. It meant hours of experimenting on my part. And I volunteered to teach the class so I could supervise his preparation without appearing to hover.

When his class had birthday parties, I found out what the birthday child’s mom was bringing in and made something identical (or close to it) in a gluten-free variation. I was so grateful to the parent who asked if she could make something gluten free that I brought the mix for her to use and gave her many pages of instruction.

In his teens, I really sparkled at the kids’ pizza parties. By then I had discovered that “normal” packaging could fool everyone into thinking there was no special diet. When my son was invited to a party, not only did I make a gorgeous pizza with pepperoni slices positioned just like Pizza Hut’s, I ran to the local pizza shop for a printed box. The box was a good trick that I played often. I tucked homemade cupcakes, cookies, brownies and more into the ubiquitous white baker’s box in order to get everyone’s seal of approval. Sometimes I bought boxed food in the supermarket and threw away the contents, just to get the cool packaging.

I suppose I hoped I could fool everyone, including my son, into thinking that he was eating the same things as the other kids. And perhaps I did.

When my son went off to college, I could no longer oversee his diet or his life. I could not run into New York City to bring him a gluten-free sandwich or a pizza or a cake. I had to release my grip and trust that he had the tools he needed. To my surprise, he’s ended up very well adjusted.

In the stillness of his absence, an insight has surfaced along with a morsel of regret. How much of my frenetic hovering was due to my self-blame for giving him celiac disease? My sense of culpability is absurd—but it’s there. He’s a grown man, comfortable with the gluten-free lifestyle and empowered by his disease—monitoring his diet, understanding his body, committed to his own wellness. Nevertheless, watching him from afar, I sometimes feel, deep down inside, that spot of irrational guilt…and I’m able to acknowledge it, forgive myself and move on.

Food editor Beth Hillson lives in Connecticut.


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