Evolve or Repeat
A flight-safety lesson in self preservation
March 19, 2021
by Jennifer Lendvai-Lintner
Photo by Calle Macarone on Unsplash
Goldfish crackers, Pirate’s Booty and PB&J are the stuff of nightmares for me. My son Bence was about a year old when a bite of a scrumptious peanut butter cookie triggered his first allergic reaction. Soon after, he was diagnosed with a long list of food allergies, which included not only peanuts, but tree nuts, wheat, dairy, eggs, and garlic. The list would grow in subsequent years to include other items, as well.
A diagnosis of food allergies is a big deal. Then and now, food allergies touch almost every aspect of our lives. Until food becomes an enemy, it’s hard to appreciate just how formidable and omnipresent it is. Food is absolutely everywhere—classrooms, dugouts, playdates, holidays, gatherings of any kind. Places like playgrounds, church, even the library became minefields. As toddlers do, mine had hands in his mouth all the time, so every surface or object he touched became a concern. Hands covered in dairy dust from a carefree snacker plundering a bag of Pirate’s Booty still make my heart race.
At the beginning, the pressure to figure out how to both nourish Bence and keep him safe was tremendous. I found dealing with food allergies to be extremely isolating as well. After the first few months, I was suffocating under the pressure. Though I didn’t exactly realize it, I was struggling for air. Much later, as a mom to a child with profound needs, I would learn the oft-referenced airline safety metaphor about first putting on your own oxygen mask before you help others put on theirs. The comparison illustrates the importance of taking care of ourselves first, so that we will be able to then effectively care for everyone else. How can you be of any help to others, after all, if you pass out from lack of oxygen?
At that stage in my life, I certainly could have used that wisdom. Every evening once I had the kids fed, bathed and tucked in, I’d also retreat to bed, my stomach absolutely on fire. I’d crawl under the covers and wait for sleep to provide escape wondering what was wrong with me. Eventually, convinced a medical problem of my own was brewing, I made an appointment with my doctor. Turns out, my always-thorough practitioner didn’t even want to run any tests. She was sneakily suspicious of my stress level.
At my doctor’s prompting, I explored ways to reduce my stress. Since I was struggling before mindfulness became mainstream, she suggested herbal tea and classical music. But intuitively, I gravitated toward a few other key actions instead. With Nóra attending preschool, I booked a series of private yoga classes during Bence’s afternoon nap—a little zen right in my own family room. Working out and participating in a women’s bible study were also important lifelines during this time, as was finding a sitter whom I could trust to handle the allergies. Though these practices afforded me some much needed breathing room, I can see looking back that the weight of managing such severe allergies continued to take its toll.
Then came our sweet Hilde. Once Hilde was born, and we learned the scope of her needs, it was clear some pretty intense turbulence lie ahead. All of the mistakes I had made with managing myself in light of Bence’s allergies could not be repeated. I knew what it felt like to be gasping, to feel choked under the weight of responsibility, so I needed to find ways to cope. In a hurry.
This time I knew professional intervention in the way of a therapist or counselor was in order. Turning to the oracle that is my local moms’ Facebook page, I learned that my county has a postpartum wellness program, which provides free therapy services to women who qualify due to certain risk factors. I didn’t feel like I fit the description of having postpartum depression, per se, but I was dealing with something really big postpartum, so I thought I’d at least give them a try. I felt funny calling and speaking to the intake representative on the phone. The conversation went something like, “Hi, I don’t think I have postpartum depression exactly, but I am a few weeks postpartum and I have a really big thing happening and I think I might be at-risk…”
It’s probably no surprise that my situation qualified me to receive these services. In the coming months, accessing this support would prove crucial. It wasn’t the only thing I did to sure myself, but it was certainly one of the most significant. The airline comparison about the oxygen mask is so true. When Bence was diagnosed, I failed to first put on my own mask. As a result, I struggled for air. Looking back, I wish I had been prompted to seek the support of a therapist or had the wherewithal to know that’s what I needed. Fortunately, though I’ve made a lot of mistakes by failing to care for myself adequately in the past, I’m learning. I’m trying hard to not merely adapt to challenges before me, but to become better because of them — choosing to evolve, so I don’t repeat. This time, when that oxygen mask dangled before me, I grabbed that sucker and strapped it the heck on because this mama needs to breathe.
Photo by Ross Parmly on Unsplash