Filling the chambers of my heart

LOVEmimisager image
The author, with her four children.

A peanut butter cookie at a family Shabbat dinner caused my son's first allergy attack when he was 20 months old. Caleb took one bite and declared he didn't like it, but the damage was already done. A few minutes later he fell down, vomited, and developed a rash on his thighs.

Still, I thought he had a stomach bug, which had gone through our playgroup that week. The pediatrician wanted to test him for a peanut allergy anyway.

"I doubt it's that, but it's best to make sure," she said.

The blood test was traumatic for both Caleb and me as they stuck a gigantic needle into his tiny arm and drew multiple vials of blood; however, I figured it would be a one-time-only ordeal. Boy was I wrong.

Our doctor called to tell me his levels came back indicating he was severely allergic to peanuts. The news surprised me, but I also felt fortunate. I had heard horror stories about anaphylactic shock and was grateful Caleb's reaction didn't require an EpiPen, something we lacked at the time.

Right after that phone call, though, EpiPens became ubiquitous for us. I carried them in my diaper bag, created a special place for them at home, and gave my mom a couple for her house.

The painful blood tests became a yearly ritual, and Caleb learned to avoid peanuts at all costs due to his life-threatening allergy. While I did my best to be protective without being overly anxious, I sensed an ever-growing concern inside my son about what could happen if he accidentally ingested peanut.

The Talmud tells Jewish parents that one of our main obligations to our children is to teach them how to swim. This instruction is both literal and metaphorical, conveying that it's our duty to ensure our kids know how to survive in the world without us.

At the start of this past school year, I decided it was time to give my son a new set of strokes for life. Instead of navigating the peanut allergy waters, I made him jump into a different stream entirely. He would no longer avoid peanuts. Instead, he would learn how to tolerate them through a pioneering desensitization process called Oral Immunotherapy. During the course of many months, he would receive small doses of peanut, first in liquid form, then powder form and finally peanuts themselves.

Caleb was not initially excited by the whole ordeal, but once we got going, he took full ownership. He taught himself how to take the different doses each week and stay on top of their daily timing, which was specific in order to attain results. The process is ongoing, but already we see a difference in how he can tolerate peanuts and in his overall outlook about the allergy.

My other three children are fortunate to not have food allergies, yet I still must teach them how to navigate the waters of life. It's not only my obligation as a mother, but a big part of the way I show my love for them.

While I do my best to give my kids equivalent time in teaching them the strokes they require for their own paths, I know they have their moments when they feel they are not getting as much as their siblings. My two younger children recently engaged in a contest of sorts to see which one of them I love more. But every time they asked, I repeated the same mantra:

""I don't love any of you most. I love you all the same amount. My heart has four chambers, one for each of you. But all of you have my whole heart."

Yet even though I love my children unconditionally and equally, my approach to loving each of them varies. As Wendy Mogel writes in Blessing of a Skinned Knee : "The Jewish message is consistent: Every child is unique. Don't treat all the children the same way, or you will not reach them."

Getting to know our children, attending to their different needs and desires, and providing a toolbox filled with life skills are what Jewish parents have faced throughout our history. Today's dynamic world makes modern-day parenting all the more challenging with so many new opportunities, but also so many potential threats.

I know that I cannot predict when my children will have to swim upstream as they go through life, nor can I always be there to tell them when to tread water or when to just float. But I hope they always know that with each stroke they take, my whole heart is swimming alongside of them.

Mimi Sager Yoskowitz is a Chicago-area freelance writer, mother of four, and former CNN producer. Her work has been featured on various sites including Kveller, Brain, Child Magazine, and in the anthology, "So Glad They Told Me." Connect with her at 

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