Then Came the Guilt by Elizabeth Greenleaf

Illustration by Sydney Varajon

Being a Mom is hard. Very hard. Looking back, I don’t know what I would have done differently to prepare myself for caring for a tiny, helpless, adorable human being. I tried not to overwhelm myself by reading article after article. I tried to trust what my doctors told me, both in the quality and type of information they told me. I tried my best. But was it good enough?

My child has the triple threat – we’re not talking Broadway: She has eczema, asthma, and allergies. We didn’t learn these things all at once. Her allergies to specific foods appeared as skin problems. And coughing. Frustrated with the lack of answers from our pediatrician, I began taking my own notes, turning my child into a science experiment. There was an ebb and flow to the rashes. And the coughing through all hours of the night. Some days, some weeks, some hours were better than others. Why?

A 2 AM frustrated, exhausted, desperate trip to the hospital yielded the  much needed result: an immediate appointment with a highly-qualified dermatologist less than 36 hours later. Finally, we started to get some answers with a diagnosis of eczema and, more importantly, a plan. Next came the allergy testing and the list of serious food allergies. And months after that, when colds were never just colds and nebulizer breathing treatments became part of our daily routine with the onset of a runny nose, came the asthma.

At times, I moved through darkness, completely unaware of my actions, fumbling to find answers. I didn’t understand the causes or the resolutions. I kept a log of health issues with dates and suggested treatments from various doctors. I looked for answers, solutions, preventative care, and anything else that would help her in any way. I joined online groups for food allergy parents, mailing lists for Asthma Research Groups.

Then came the guilt.

What sounded like simple questions posted to discussion boards and email lists or in conversations with other parents became heavy sledge hammers breaking apart granite, jagged slabs of guilt:

What prenatal vitamin did you use? Did you have folic acid or folate? Too much or not enough? Turns out some people might be unable to break down folic acid, who knew?

Did you breastfeed? Loaded enough.

Did you do Vitamin D drops? Everyone should do Vitamin D drops. Since when?

Was your little one born in the winter or the summer months? Exposure to sunlight may have a large impact on your child’s immune system. So everyone should plan their pregnancies in the summer months? Because that will go according to plan….

Did you moisturize your child every day? A protective barrier and skin hydration might help prevent eczema from ever forming. Putting lotion on a baby was just a nice thing to do, right? How was I supposed to know it was medically necessary?

Did you let your child play in the dirt enough?  I can let them play in the dirt and messses and they only get the good germs, right?

Did you eat your child’s food allergies while pregnant? You shouldn’t, actually you’re supposed to, actually you aren’t. Who can keep track of what you’re supposed or not supposed to do?

Did you introduce peanuts before age 1? NO? It’s ALL YOUR FAULT.

Every day there is a new idea about what causes food allergies, a latest and greatest cream to try for eczema, a different physical activity recommendation for asthma. I try to balance the information waterfall but have to sift through the bad to get to the good.

Science helps me make sense of the world. I have faith in the science that developed the inhalers, lotions, and life-saving Epi-Pen. I have hope that a cure for food allergies will be developed in the future; if not in my child’s lifetime, sometime soon after. I’ve been able to approach my child’s care with a rational lens, but for some reason I’m unable to apply that same logic to how my child ended up with these issues in the first place.

In the meantime, I constantly feel as though a huge portion of my mental focus and energy is on keeping her safe 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It never shuts off. When we first learned of the food allergies, it felt manageable. We’ve since learned more about the severity and extreme sensitivity through both blood tests and personal experiences, which has upped the intensity level of our awareness of her surroundings and dietary planning. My brain can’t get a break from the day-to-day diligence of both attending to the child and the researching to gain a better understanding.

I know there are much more challenging situations, but I can’t help feeling guilty that something I did or didn’t do caused this. I keep thinking that it’s because of me my daughter won’t be safe when she goes to restaurants, birthday party treats, and even eating lunch at school.

On days when the feeling of guilt is strong, I remind myself that I’m doing everything I can to help her stay as healthy and happy as possible. I try to see the good in the small moments and take a few deep breaths. I hope to be free of the guilt one day, but it’s going to be a long journey until that release occurs. In the meantime, I am honored to be the mother of a wonderful, increasingly less-dependent three-year-old and adorable human being.

Elizabeth Greenleaf shares a home with her husband and two children in New England. She enjoys being outside with her family, reading, and having a quiet moment to herself whenever possible. Although cooking is not her favorite thing, she’s come to appreciate how a variety of modern kitchen appliances make it look like she knows what she’s doing.

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