“C’mon cutie pie! Drink for Mommy…!” I held the small, plastic bottle filled with Enfamil to our two-day old daughter’s tiny lips, and pleaded with her. It was early in the morning at a hospital in Southern California. It was time for John and me to leave the hospital with Savanna to meet her two older brothers, Ethan (age four) and Charlie (17 months).
The past couple of days had been like an out-of-body experience. Unlike with our boys, this “pregnancy” had been pretty close to perfect, at least from a physical perspective. I had gained no weight, drank wine throughout, and enjoyed sushi at my discretion. And the night of Savanna’s birth, instead of lying in excruciating pain on my back, I got to watch her come into this world in the same way my husband John had watched the boys arrive. Adopting a child certainly had had its perks.
But after staying the required two days in the hospital, it was time to take our new daughter away with us. The only issue was that Savanna had not been drinking her formula and from the moment of her birth, she had begun to lose weight. Although that can be quite common for newborns, it presented a particular issue for us. According to hospital policy, before any baby could leave with his or her adoptive parents, the baby was required to drink two ounces of formula given directly from either the mother or father.
Given the fact that John and I had already had two young children, giving our new daughter two ounces didn’t sound daunting. However, as I held our baby girl in my arms, it was clear to me she was rejecting the formula. It was as if her body physically couldn’t handle the liquid. I began to panic, knowing full well the implications if I couldn’t get Savanna to drink the adequate amount.
And so, I had no choice. I turned to my baby girl. Our eyes were practically face-to- face locked, and we had our first disciplinary discussion. “Savanna, this is your Mommy talking. Now listen to me. I know you don’t like this formula, but your Daddy and I need to leave here with you. There are no ifs, ands or buts to this discussion. You simply must drink this now until it is completely empty!” And with that, as if she were a five-year-old that knew that if she didn’t listen there was a time-out coming, Savanna took a deep breath, and gobbled up the Enfamil until the last drop was gone.
After we arrived home back in New Jersey with our three children, I soon learned that Savanna was allergic to dairy, eggs, soy, and all nuts.
“Does Savanna know she was adopted?” Although I don’t hear the question every day, it is something that seems to emerge sort of like a recurring dream—you don’t ever plan on having it happen but yet it pops up from time to time, unexpectedly. But the question actually makes me laugh a bit (to myself), since it never occurred to me that the subject should be something we needed to hide, nor is it something I worry about her accepting, whatsoever.
After all, Ethan and Charlie had no choice in knowing about their difference. As soon as they hit the point of self-awareness, it became a question that was easily answered. And so, practically from the start, John and I have always discussed the fact that a wonderful woman carried her in her belly until she was big and strong enough to come out to her Mommy and Daddy and brothers.
This was her difference, and after giving birth to my own condition, (twice), I was ready, willing and able to discuss this one with ease. Just like her brothers, who had their own personal road to travel, Savanna would not only know she was adopted, she would even feel proud of the fact that it was one of the things that “makes her, her.” When I thought more about it, our lives have been filled with such a multitude of differences, this felt insignificant in the scheme of it all: Born with only one finger on each hand (and similar feet)? Check. Baby born the same way? Check. Second baby born with two fingers on each hand and impacted feet? Check. Baby adopted? Check. Sometimes I think my life resembles a tennis player fending off balls fired from the automatic ball machine. Yet, in the face of it all, I feel like a pro, and I can teach my kids how to play just as well…..
Or so I thought.
Although Savanna eventually grew out of her allergy to dairy and eggs, her nut allergy remains and is severe. And so, even though we have a ten-fingered, ten-toed seemingly “perfect” daughter, she is actually the child I will worry about the most as she enters elementary school.
For the first time, Savanna will be in a school that allows children to have nuts in their lunch. The allergy scares me. I never imagined that my concerns about my daughter’s food allergy would feel more urgent or complex than my worries about how the boys would be made to feel different about their fingers. It’s like those tennis balls are flying even faster and from different angles. I’m not so confident that I can fend them off. I should be able to relax, of course, because to accommodate those children who have nut allergies, there is a special, “nut-free table” where she can eat worry-free. In truth, however, the idea of segregating my child because of her difference, even for her own safety, has felt odd and uncomfortable.
Late last month, I read a New York Times article that made my stomach do a backflip. “Kids With Food Allergies May be Targets for Bullies,” written by KJ Dell’Antonia. According to the article, “In a recent survey of 251 sets of parents and children with food allergies, roughly a third of the children reported being bullied for their allergies.” Dell’Antonia then described how many prey on the vulnerability of a child with allergies, plotting to switch a child’s lunch to see if she gets sick.
Savanna’s allergy difference is so much harder for me to grapple with as a parent who has been promoting unconditional self-acceptance. Mostly because with all of their other differences, I can teach my kids to flaunt. I can constantly remind them, “You don’t need to care what other kids think of you. If you can accept yourself, others will join you. Those that don’t accept you are not even worth knowing.” However, when it comes to this nut allergy, the goal really has nothing to do with flaunting—it has to do with managing.
I feel so excited to raise our daughter with John to feel proud of her personal birth story. Admittedly, I appreciate it might not be the smoothest of paths. Just last week Savanna asked me if the reason that her belly button was an “out-ie” rather than an “inn-ie” like her friends at camp was because she was adopted. But despite having some unique and, hopefully, helpful insights when it comes to self-acceptance, being a mom of a child with severe allergies, is unchartered territory for me. I suspect I will blog about this particular difference of Savanna’s and its impact on our lives in the future, but for now, this two-fingered Mama is stumped.