I read recently about the mother of a celiac child who had discovered that her teenager had been routinely eating food that contains gluten for the last year.
Her story brought me up short because it laid bare the fear that every parent of a celiac teenager secretly lives with.
And it emphasized the unique world we mothers and fathers live in, separate even from those adults who have celiac disease and can make their own decisions. All of our specially made gluten-free pizza pies and chocolate cakes, all our knowledge about gluten in ingredients, all our pantries full of gluten-free pretzels, crackers and pasta don’t make a difference if our children choose to cheat on the diet.
Simply, we are not in control, at least not once our children start eating out of our eyesight and beyond our lovingly packed brown bag lunches. Though we may keep it to ourselves, our worries rev up when they drive off with friends for what should be an innocent lunch or dinner out.
Still, we rely on the hope and a prayer that we have taught them well about the necessity of eating gluten free. When our sons and daughters were little, we did not want to scare them or cripple them with dire predictions of what would happen if they ever succumbed to the lures of food that’s perfectly safe for everyone else, but poison to them. But now we wonder if a little fear isn’t a good thing.
All we really have is trust. And maybe a little delusion even when presented with the possibility that our children might have had the occasional slice of pizza or breaded chicken finger. But what happens when we have the facts, when they admit to us that they’ve been eating gluten frequently?
I put the question directly to my own 18-year-old daughter, a college freshman living away from home for the first time. What would she say to this worried and frightened mother whose son has been eating breaded sesame chicken two or three times every week ?
My daughter responded right away — it seemed she wanted to be helpful. “If he eats it two to three times a week he must really like the Chinese food, ” she wrote in one of her rare emails to me. “I would probably suggest finding a gluten-free version that he can eat instead.”
Beyond that, she admitted knowing what it’s like for the boy. “I can understand the pressure, especially around that age. Not that kids would try to get him to eat wheat. But once you get to the age when you can drive with your friends, if they all go out to eat, I can see how it would be easier to just eat what they have,” she explained.
And since Chinese food has always been a favorite in our family, she knows that you can order plain steamed dishes that are gluten free and suggested he try that. But she had further insight. “For boys it probably isn’t as easy to order foods that aren’t like everybody elses without feeling different. He probably is sick of dealing with the diet and finds it easier to just eat the gluten version.”
I was impressed that she was trying so hard to come up with good advice while remaining empathetic. She earnestly asked at the end of her email if she had given me the kind of answer I wanted. And she did.
But I realized there was another part that perhaps I needed. I needed for her to write that she had never purposely eaten a food she knew contained gluten (aside from the one time she tried an Oreo cookie as little girl), forget about doing so occasionally or regularly. I needed her to remind me that she knows lack of symptoms after eating gluten doesn’t mean damage isn’t being done. But she didn’t write about herself at all.
I don’t have my reassurance. I just have my trust.