Wednesday, October 31, 2012

"I Got a Rock" - Charlie Brown

It's Halloween.  That magical time of year when the last vestiges of colored leaves cling to the trees, and if you live in the Pacific Northwest the rain returns.  I've always found joy handing out goodies to all the little ghouls and goblins screaming "trick or treat" at our door.    That is, until food allergies entered our lives.  Suddenly, those peanut butter cups that we used to hand out because secretly we kept a stash for ourselves (Shh!  Don't tell the kids that adults love the sugary debauchery just as much as the kids!), evoked a most visceral response.  The thought of eating a peanut butter cup literally makes me ill - so I don't.  It's a waste of calories if it can't be enjoyed.  By the way, please don't feel bad if you are a parent to a food-allergic child who can still enjoy eating your child's allergen!  I honestly have a really hard time with it, though :(. 

This year is perhaps the most challenging year yet on this food allergy journey.  JR is now 4.5 years old, and it is clear that on some level he "gets" his allergies and that he understands he is different from most other children his age.  His level of maturity regarding his allergies has repeatedly shocked me over the last 6 months.  When a friend offered JR a cookie, he replied, "I can't eat that.  I'm allergic."  Comments like this infuse pride because my son is learning to navigate an allergen-infested world, and yet deep inside, my core aches for my son.  When did JR grow into a little boy, who is advocating for himself?!  Perhaps what makes me so sad is that no  4 year old child should have to deal with issues this big - matters of life or death, and yet, here JR is exhibiting a maturity level well beyond his 4.5 years.

Halloween is an absolute mine-field for us.  Because JR is allergic to corn (yup, it's in EVERYTHING in the U.S.), peanuts, many tree nuts, soy, and several fruits (among others), I have yet to find commonly available products on the market that may not contain nuts, corn, soy, or fruit-derived sweeteners, most commonly apple.  Believe me, I have tried.  Last year, I left Target practically in tears after looking at what seemed like nutrition labels for practically every bag of candy.

Well, tonight, my heart broke into even more pieces.  Last year, we began the inaugural Halloween tradition of watching It's the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.  Last night, we carried on the annual tradition.  If you haven't seen this holiday classic for some time, here is a brief recap.  All the kiddos are out Trick or Treating in their holiday garb.  Poor Charlie Brown is constantly mocked for having the strange ghost costume with eye holes cut all over his sheet.  Several scenes show all the kids stopping after visiting a house to share what each of them got from the house.  All the kids besides Charlie Brown excitedly proclaimed, "I got two (or three! or more!) pieces of candy!"  Like they were competing with each other for the best Halloween spoils.  Then, Charlie Brown would take his turn last and whimper, "I got a rock."

"I got a rock" - Charlie Brown
My heart has always gone out to Charlie Brown, but this scene suddenly took on new meaning when JR stated ever so matter-of-factly, "Charlie Brown has allergies like me.  That's why he kept getting rocks."  My husband and I looked at each other in complete disbelief.  We just let the comment sit like dead weight in the room.  Usually, we try to explain things when JR makes comments trying to understand how the world works, but for some reason, we did not have the heart to tell him the real reason Charlie Brown got rocks.  JR moved on and was chipper as could be for a boy on the eve of Halloween.  However, this comment from a 4.5 year old boy continues to linger deep in my soul and probably will for sometime.  Another example that the world is unfair and even cruel at times.  Even though I know the real reason Charlie Brown got rocks, it is my hope that for a moment, JR feels a bit of comraderie with another little boy who has allergies just like him, even if that little boy didn't really have allergies.  

Those are just a few thoughts from a Mom navigating the perilous food allergy road on a food-oriented holiday. By the way, it is not all doom and gloom!  JR had a blast at a school harvest festival yesterday, and we will be trick-or-treating tonight.  We have chosen to do a candy exchange (we have found a few safe things that I don't have to hand-make!), so he will get a combination of candy and non-food based Halloween goodies.  All-in-all, exciting times for a 4.5 year old boy!  May your Halloween be safe and fun!  And to all the food allergy parents out there, stay strong!  Maybe Charlie Brown is a little boy with food allergies who absolutely adores rocks.

Sheriff Woody enjoyed decorating safe Halloween cupcakes with his school friends.  Vegan pumpkin muffins were decked out by Woody with chocolate chips (from Enjoy Life) in the shape of a pumpkin!

Monday, October 8, 2012

Moms - A Force to be Reckoned With?

Photo: Joy of Mom

This week, I feel truly blessed to be a part of a community of Moms, inspired by love, to use our talents to make the world a better place for our food allergy kiddos.  Food Allergy Sleuth is nominated as a Top 25 blog for food allergies by the Circle of Moms!  By the way, this will be my only attempt throughout the remainder of the blog post at "shameless" self promotion.  If you like what I do, follow the link and click the big yellow 'thumbs up' for Food Allergy Sleuth once every 24 hours until Oct 17  :).

Thanks to the community at Circle of Moms, my eyes have truly been opened to the number of Mom bloggers out there. It has been an absolute joy to read through so many other family's experiences in dealing with food allergies and to even connect with a few of the other Mom's individually!  I encourage you to take a gander at the excellent work of some of these amazing women.

Image source
Since this is a "science" blog and I am a scientist at heart, I can't help but notice one glaring trait of most food allergy bloggers - a distinct lack of male food allergy bloggers (not that I was expecting many men to show up in a top 25 list for Food Allergy Moms!).  In general, though, throughout my experiences becoming more entrenched in the food allergy community, I've noticed a distinct lack of men who are blogger-vocal about food allergies.  Or is it an overwhelming abundance of women?  Is the glass half empty or half full?  (Hint - judging by the cartoon at the side, I may fall into the "realist" camp!).

In a little "test" to explore this observation further, I opened Google and searched "food allergy blog" this morning.  My reasoning is that by searching "food allergy blog," Google should return hits regardless of whether they are authored by a Mom, a Dad, an allergy-sufferer, friend, foe, alien, one-eyed, one-horned, flying purple people eater. (You can thank me later for getting this song stuck in your head :).  I selected the first 25 "hits" that were personal blogs (e.g. not organizations like FAAN), visited their site, and determined whether they were male or female, a food allergy parent, and/or a food allergy sufferer (as self-reported, of course).  What I found was shocking!  In my sample of 25, only 8% of food allergy bloggers were men, which means 92% of food allergy bloggers were women!  84% were a parent to a food-allergic child, while 16% were food-allergic adults who did not specify if they also had a food allergic child.  Interestingly, 24% all bloggers were food allergy sufferers, meaning that there are a few food-allergic adult bloggers out there who are raising food-allergic children!  If I tease the data out of the two factors 1) gender and 2) whether the individual is a parent to a food-allergic child, 80% of food allergy bloggers are Moms to food-allergic children!
Of course, my little "study," is by no means scientifically rigorous (e.g. the error of the sample may be quite large and the google search method may be flawed - I'll explain later), but I think it starts to get at a couple of really interesting key points.  There are distinct biological differences between men and women (besides the obvious, folks!), and women just may be a social force to be reckoned with.

I am a neuroscientist (a scientist who studies the brain) by training.  Even though it is not my area of expertise, differences between the male and female brain is truly fascinating.  It is clear from many years of research that there are profound differences in how male and female brains are wired (for more information, see this excellent, relatively easy to understand summary by the Dana Foundation). So, what does this mean?

If women's brains are indeed wired differently, it means that women observe and engage with the world differently than men.  Something that has likely been obvious to most human-beings since Adam and Eve :).  For awhile, there has been a "movement" that women are essentially the same as men, mentally.  Scientific evidence suggests otherwise.  In fact, testosterone that is made by a male fetus (genetically X-Y) early in prenatal development (before birth ), appears to be critical in establishing male brain pathways.  Interestingly, once testosterone reaches the boy brain, it gets converted to estrogen (link to a review research article)!  Yes, this is not a typo.  In order for a little boy to be a little boy, he needs to have his testosterone converted to the "female" hormone, estrogen!  Now, who is the better sex? Is it evidence that our bodies convert the "toxin" also known as testosterone into a more manageable substance (Ha ha - I'm being humorous here.  No, I don't think testosterone is actually poison!). There is no way I'm weighing in which sex is the better sex, but I'll leave you with this little blast from the past from Annie Get Your Gun.

So if men and women truly are different from one another, perhaps my little "study" on the gender prevalence among food allergy bloggers reflects a much grander observation.  Perhaps women banding together may in fact truly be vehicles of social awareness and change.  I come full circle back to one possible flaw in my "study" using a Google search for the terms "food allergy blog."  You see, Google and search engines like Google, use mathematical algorithms (complex formulas) to return the most "relevant" items first.  How search engines define what is "relevant" to a human relies heavily on how well webpages are referenced by other webpages.  So let's say that women are indeed better than men at connecting with one another to deal with issues and promote social change simply because our brains our wired to do so.  This means women's blogs will tend to reference other women's blogs, and thus Google may inflate the percentage of food allergy bloggers who are women.  I would be interested to know if there is a different way to search for blogs that doesn't rely on the "relevancy" criteria and if the results would be different than the Google search.

Many examples from history suggest that women banding together are powerful forces for social awareness and change (think of the women's suffrage movement or even heaven forbid prohibition).  This is only anecdotal in nature, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that food allergy Mom's are moving heaven and earth to raise awareness to an uneducated public, while simultaneously keeping our kiddos safe, and giving them the most that life has to offer in spite of an uphill food battle.  Most importantly, we seem to get together and want to share our knowledge with others!  Here is my tip of the hat to all my fellow food allergy Mom's out there making a difference in any way that we know how, whether it be great or small.

Sidenote:  I'd love to hear from any food allergy men and Dad's out there!  I am a huge believer that the more diverse we are in our thinking, the more ideas for solutions and change are possible.  Here is a shout-out to two of the blogs authored by men who made the Google search, top 25 list.