One of my most frightening moments as a parent happened when my son was six months old.
When it was time to introduce solid foods, I was so excited. We were cautious, adding one item at a time, but he was a pro, devouring oatmeal, squash, carrots, and more. One Sunday, we decided to try some puréed peas for the first time. His eyes widened as he explored the new taste, smacking his lips and exclaiming, “Ah ah ah” for more. After a few spoonfuls, however, a bright red rash started to spread across his neck, and his lips swelled.
We rushed him to the ER. When we checked in, I vividly remember him lying in the pediatric hospital bed — everything in the room oddly small, my wife gently stroking his head as he slept, while I checked that his chest was still rising and falling beneath his grey bear-print onesie. I felt overwhelmed by fear and helplessness, doing everything we could and waiting anxiously that everything would be okay.
Thankfully, after Benadryl, steroids, rest, and with lots of reassurance from the hospital staff, both he and his frazzled parents recovered quickly. We took him for allergy testing right away and discovered that, in addition to peas, he was highly sensitive to apples. I had never heard of an apple allergy before and soon realized that all of the “healthy” sugar-free baby food and snacks contained apple as a sweetener.
I became one of “those parents,” meticulously studying every label. But instead of worrying about corn syrup, food dyes, and parabens, I was now on the lookout for this dreaded ingredient put in by food manufacturers as a personal attack on my child. During our little COVID bubble, it was relatively easy to keep things under control. Apples were quarantined like the rest of us. My wife and I started making our own purées and my son’s favorite frozen veggie popsicles.
When it was time to start daycare, we faced a whole new set of challenges. We had to fill out allergy forms and constantly check in with the teachers and other parents whenever there were treats for birthdays or special activities. Thankfully, everyone was very understanding.
The biggest battle for us came around the Jewish New Year. A significant part of the tradition involves eating apples dipped in honey, which meant that for a whole week, the school would be immersed in apple arts and crafts, apple snacks, and other apple related deathtraps for our child.
We went into overdrive, reminding his teachers and packing alternate fruits every day. Throughout the week, we saw pictures of the other kids enthusiastically participating in their apple projects while our son sat at a separate table with his banana and pears. I was grateful that they were keeping him safe, but it broke my heart a little to see him missing out on being part of the group.
Now, at four years old, my son can protect himself to a degree. He makes a big show of pretending to read the labels on new foods, saying, “Are there any apples in here? Yes? No? Let me see…” I have to admit I’ve fibbed a few times to him, saying yes, especially when that particular food was some sweet treat we didn’t really need.
This year, we were prepared for the holiday, with a backpack filled with pears and some gentle reminders to his teachers. I was expecting another week of pictures of my son alone, but what we saw was truly special. All the classes had made charts where the kids tallied up votes for their favorite apple: red, yellow, or green. In my son’s class, they had added an extra column just for him with a green pear. It was such a small gesture, but the feeling of inclusion brought me immense joy. My son was thrilled too. It was all he could talk about on the way home.
Parenting is full of fears and pitfalls. Often, it’s the things that make our children unique that intensify those fears. Raising a child in Florida has its own concerns, with our governor and conservative legislators specifically targeting gay and transgender youth. The way they censor teachers and deprive some of the most vulnerable children of important role models and support is needlessly cruel.
What would it mean for some of these kids to see a teacher’s same-sex partner in a family photo? What does it mean for teachers to be forced to remove their “safe space” signs signaling that they can be an ally in a crisis?
I can’t help but imagine another round of radical legislation that mandates teachers no longer accommodate certain food allergies. Limiting peanuts is understandable, but banning apples? That’s simply un-American!
It takes a great deal of empathy and understanding to be a parent, and I sometimes struggle to comprehend why particular differences seem to undermine that in others. Anyone who has negotiated bedtime with a four-year-old or wiped tears from a face because they wanted purple frosting instead of blue should know that you don’t have to understand a feeling to validate it.
Our greatest test of empathy doesn’t just come from understanding those who share our issues but also from showing kindness to those who don’t share our experiences. Our laws should reflect that and not single out vulnerable groups for political advantage.
I am incredibly grateful for the teachers in my son’s life. The way their creativity and care create a safe space for my child to grow. I wish every child could receive the same sort of care, whether they have special needs, medical issues, or belong to the LGBTQ+ community or any other group.
Even the smallest gesture of inclusion can have a lasting impact.