I cannot seem to get a new post finished this holiday season. I have quite a few at different stages but nothing really presentable yet. So here’s another re-post. This was originally published in The Human Ecologist, HEAL’s quarterly journal, in the Fall of 2008.
Parenting with MCS
My health crisis almost a decade ago lead to a reclusive lifestyle. Various medical treatments, a loving support network and patience allowed me to slowly push those physical limitations. I realized the importance of a safe home to let my body recover and careful planning when I would venture out. My life became wider and fuller the healthier I got but only because I was making careful decisions with my health as the primary goal at all times. Being healthy enough to have children was a huge milestone and a scary leap into the unknown for many reasons. Mainly because the essence of parenting is putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own.
That does not mean my needs are ignored. Of course my children are best served by having a healthy mom but like all families cooperation and compromise are our basic survival tools. My husband was with me throughout my health crisis and without his understanding and support I would never have considered becoming a parent. My children have never known me without chemical sensitivities; my physical limitations are just part of our life. The fact that my husband and children have never had to go through an adjustment period has probably made it easier. However becoming a parent has required many adjustments from me. I am fortunate enough to have the option of being a stay at home mom, which I love. But as their lives take them out into the world I go too. Thus the MCS problem solving begins. Where can I go and what can come into my house such that my health is maintained and children do not feel unnecessarily burdened or constrained?
It’s good for the planet and me
The most frequent solution to our myriad problems is the mainstreaming of the green movement. Any product that is safe for me, usually fragrance free and low VOC, is also better for the environment. There are a lot of readily available green choices from products like children’s shampoos to policies like integrated pest management (IPM). These “alternative” choices are not as rare as they used to be and my health limitations don’t seem nearly as odd as they did 5 years ago.
More people are now familiar with environmental illness; sometimes as a friend that also has MCS or as simple as a fragrance allergy. And informing others of my needs and limitations is not as awkward a process. When meeting people for the first time I try to arrange for a safe neutral setting so that accommodating me is not part of our first exchange. Initial play dates, for example, are always at a playground. If people continue to be a part of our lives I have gotten very comfortable asking “have you had any recent renovations to your home” or “can you please not wear your normal perfume to my house for the play date”. Explaining my health condition to a beauracracy like the medical field or a pesticide treatment company can be difficult but every fellow parent has been sympathetic and ready to help.
I have also benefited from living in a warm climate. So many child-centered activities can be done outside thus minimizing my problems with personal products and indoor air quality. We can play, eat at restaurants with decks, do art projects or group sports year round without worrying about my health. Conversely the tropical climate also leads to extensive pesticide applications. Fortunately my state has a pesticide notification registry that allows us to avoid dangerous areas when we need to.
Our local elementary school was recently re-built with a focus on green choices. The result is a setting that is healthy for all the children and safe enough for me to volunteer in the classroom, as long as the project doesn’t involve too much glue or paint. My daughter’s preschool is an older building with suspicious carpets. But the staff have been very accommodating whenever they can. They have happily removed a variety of scented objects at my request and continually run a portable HEPA filter that we loaned them.
But there is a long list of places I cannot take the children. The local YMCA, some pediatrician offices, preschools and museums have air quality problems that I cannot overcome. In many cases I have looked elsewhere and found suitable options, like the preschool or pediatrician. I have been fortunate in finding a small studio/dojo for dance and karate classes that accommodates us all. I rely on friends to take my children to certain museums. But sometimes I cannot find a way around the problem. Our local community center, conveniently located a few blocks away, was recently rebuilt and the result is not an indoor air quality that I find healthy for anyone. I continue to discuss the problem with other concerned members but in the meantime we have been able to take advantage of their outdoor sport programs like soccer and baseball. One of my most heartbreaking parenting moments occurred when they rescheduled the soccer awards banquet last minute to a date when my husband was unavailable to take our son to the event. I was willing to let him be in the smelly building for a while if another parent would take him but my shy son refused. Though my son may be the only 6 year old that understands the term “out gassing” this was the first time he felt the consequences.
One of the most challenging aspects of parenting with MCS is all the stuff children acquire, from birthday toys to freshly painted school projects. A well-defined airing out process is important. We have space devoted to this in our carport. Some things never come inside and instead become outside toys. We love art projects but we have two boxes of supplies, one that is safe for inside use and one that must be used on the big table outside on the deck. We have a fan stationed nearby to direct any fumes away and a clothesline for newly painted items to dry.
At Christmas we send out reminder emails to friends and family listing items that absolutely will not make it inside the house, items that should be removed from the original wrapping at the givers house in advance to outgas, and preferred items that can make it straight into the house. We encourage re-using gift bags since wrapping paper can be a real problem. We try to recycle as many toys out as we get in using younger friends, cousins, goodwill or shops – an uphill battle that many parents engage in to minimize the overflowing closets. These precautions that support my health do not conflict with my children’s needs. Instead we find that a keen awareness of what we acquire fosters a responsible decision-making process, teaching the children lessons on materialism and gratitude.
Our shopping needs are met by a variety of methods. I can do the grocery shopping as long as I avoid certain aisles. All the clothes shopping and more is done online. If I lose some time or money when exchanging a wrong sized item, at least I have avoided the exposure problems I would have had in a department store. My husband makes a trip to some large mart type store about once a month on the family’s behalf. But I cannot acquire a baseball mitt or pink leotard last minute. Although very helpful family and friends have done some infrequent emergency shopping for us, advanced planning is the key element for us.
In writing this article I have been reminded of just how lucky I am. I have friends and family that are remarkably understanding and helpful. I have been fortunate that many of the factors beyond my control are working for me and not against me. In some instances I can even credit MCS with improving my parenting skills. I learned the importance of informed choice when dealing with the medical profession and my children’s health is better for it. My temperament became more patient and calm through my health crisis, a key approach with small children. And the clarity I gained concerning my priorities keeps our life at an enjoyable pace. My health condition is the impetus for conscious deliberation with many choices in our life but it leads us to savor the opportunities we do pursue. We may not go as many places or do as many extracurricular activities but it is a life filled with joy and gratitude.