Today’s post is part of the From Left to Write online book club. The idea of this book club is not to write a book review, per se, but rather to write a post in which the blogger connects that month’s book to an experience from his or her own life. September’s book is the memoir Cowboy and Wills, by non-fiction writer Monica Holloway.
When you have a child who is different in some way, you inevitably receive mounds of unsolicited advice and more than a few hurtful comments.
As I have written before, my seven-year-old daughter Zuzu has multiple food allergies. Although we have had some recent gains, for the first six years of Zuzu’s life, my husband and I carefully monitored every bite of food that went into our little girl’s mouth. When we ate in restaurants or traveled or were guests in someone’s home, we either had to bring our own food with us, ask our host to purchase and prepare special food for us, or interrogate the chef and waitstaff about the ingredients of every dish we ordered. Certainly, we felt self-conscious at times, but of course, our priority was keeping our daughter safe from harm, while at the same time making her childhood as normal as possible.
For years, our family and friends have gone above and beyond the call of duty in accommodating Zuzu’s allergies, and for that I will always be grateful. I will never forget my sister-in-law — who, like many Manhattanites, doesn’t exactly cook — making and decorating a tray of dairy-free Rice Krispie treats for Zuzu’s second birthday, after she realized how hard it was to find a wheat, dairy and egg-free cake. Although we always provided a safe snack for Zuzu at preschool and on play dates, many of the other moms we met made a special effort to find snacks that were Zuzu-friendly, such as plain popcorn or fresh fruit.
But while we have been lucky to have such thoughtful friends and relatives, we know many families with allergic kids who have experienced unsympathetic or disbelieving attitudes from other parents. There is unquestionably a backlash against the movement to make schools, day care centers and other public places nut and peanut-free. (Recently, the Chicago Cubs decided to make one of the luxury skyboxes at Wrigley Field peanut-free for exactly one game so that young Cub fans with severe peanut allergies could come to the ballpark. Sounds like a nice thing to do for these kids, doesn’t it? Well, people reacted by either making fun of these kids’ “made-up” allergies or with outrage that the tradition of eating peanuts at the ball game might be somehow curtailed. How’s that for a backlash?)
I too have heard my share of hurtful and insensitive comments about Zuzu’s allergies. One particular instance has stayed with me for years: We were on vacation with my parents and my mother and I were standing in line with Zuzu, who was then only about two years old, at a local bakery hoping to find something that she could eat. The woman in front of me suggested that we buy Zuzu one of the bakery’s popular doughnut holes. I thanked the woman for her suggestion but explained that Zuzu had many allergies and sadly could not eat a doughnut. The woman said, “Oh, too bad you didn’t breastfeed her. That prevents food allergies.” My mother and I looked at each other in disbelief. What business was it of this stranger’s whether or not I had breastfed my child? And how dare she suggest that Zuzu’s food allergies were somehow my fault? (I would say that Zuzu could have been adopted for all that lady knew, except that the child looks exactly like me.) Moreover, this judgmental stranger was dead wrong. I had breastfed Zuzu for a year and it hadn’t prevented anything. So there.
There are many myths and misconceptions about food allergies swarming around out there, and in this regard, it is similar to autism, another — albeit very different — medical condition that seems to be far more prevalent these days than it was a generation ago. Cowboy and Wills is the story of author Monica Holloway’s son Wills, who was diagnosed at 3 with autistic spectrum disorder, and his menagerie of pets, most notably, an irrepressible golden retriever named Cowboy.
Holloway writes in detail about Wills’s difficult adjustment to school and the paralyzing anxiety he felt in social situations. The teachers and administrators at the nurturing private school that Wills attended knew of his diagnosis, but it seems that many of the parents did not. Holloway writes of one mother in particular who accosted her after school and demanded to know what was “going on” with Wills. Rather than reveal her son’s condition, Holloway mumbled something about Wills having a difficult transition to school. The woman then suggested that perhaps Wills was not getting enough love at home and recommended that Holloway seek professional help, which, of course, Holloway and her husband were already doing in spades.
Holloway and I were both on the receiving end of cruel, insensitive and thoughtless comments about our children’s respective conditions, conditions for which we were not responsible — except perhaps on a genetic level — and that we both strove to manage as best as we could. But as I read I noticed that there was a difference between what Holloway and I chose to share with the world regarding our children’s conditions. I never once hesitated to tell another parent, or even a stranger, that Zuzu has food allergies. The misconceptions about food allergies, whatever they are, are not so significant that I found myself wanting to keep Zuzu’s allergies secret. Not so for Holloway. Although she does not explain why, it is plain from reading Cowboy and Wills that Holloway at times deliberately concealed Wills’s diagnosis. I imagine that she did so to prevent other parents from jumping to conclusions about Wills, and what he was capable of, based on what they believed “autistic” to mean. Maybe it would have been better if Holloway had been upfront about why Wills was struggling so much in school; maybe not. I don’t know. But I do know that it is hard enough to have a child who is different without having to conceal the nature of that difficulty.
A “From Left to Write” Book Club post. In conjunction with the book club, I received a free copy of Cowboy and Wills: A Love Story by Monica Holloway. Although I am not an animal lover and I am a cold-hearted cynic when it comes to inspiring stories of kids overcoming the odds, I actually enjoyed Cowboy and Wills, which is a funny, candid and engaging look at some of the challenges and rewards of parenting a child with high-functioning autism. You can find more bloggers’ reactions to Cowboy and Wills on the From Left to Write website. Follow From Left to Write on Twitter here.