Parenting with diabetes is not an art or a science; it’s a puzzle. Unfortunately, there is no rulebook for how much or how little your diabetes is allowed to interfere in your family’s dynamics.
Parents with pre-existing diabetes work very hard to prepare their physical and mental health for the challenges of parenthood. Others who faced a diagnosis after the birth of their children were blindsided with this new complex reality.
Regardless of how diabetes came to you, as you nurture your family diabetes is something that your children often learn to accept as they would another sibling. Perhaps they resent it. Or they might see it as just a part of their parent’s personality.
My five-year-old daughter thinks diabetes is something she will have when she’s a mom. Like me, she’ll write stories, have brown hair, have two kids, and have diabetes. Diabetes often needs my attention just like her little brother does. And sometimes diabetes takes priority over both of them. And I resent that.
Being the mother of two young children and the custodian of an impossible chronic disease, I try to strike a balance. My children’s earliest vocabulary included lingo like “insulin,” “Dexcom,” “pump,” “diabetes,” “check my number.” They know the sounds and colors of my data. When I’m particularly edgy from a high blood sugar, we have conversations like this:
“I’m sorry that I yelled, baby. Mommy’s number is high. When my number is high, I feel sick and…”
“And you yell a lot.”
“Yes, I do. And I’m really sorry.”
“It’s okay, Mom. Use your pump and you’ll feel better soon.”
Oh, the shame that colors my cheeks during those moments.
But I don’t shy away from those moments either. This is the life and struggle that my children watch me walk with. From me, they will learn coping skills. They will learn the value of self-care. They will learn empathy for people’s struggles. They will see apologies in practice, problem solving, trial and error, and they will see strength.
I can’t sugarcoat this damn disease, but I always try to turn it toward accomplishing something positive. I’d rather diabetes fortify something in my parenting than undermine it. And while I am inarguably cranky with a high blood glucose level, it’s the lows that I find to be the hardest daily challenge. With two very little ones in my charge, the eldest of whom has always had a tendency to bolt in public and disappear, a hypo can be more than crippling. It can be terrifying.
I must take precautions going out into the world with diabetes anyway, but especially with children in my charge. In the diaper bag, there are bottles of glucose tablets, extra snacks, and a charged cell phone. Before I go out, I reduce my basal rate, check my continuous glucose monitor, and wear my Pebble watch that relays Nightscout (cloud-reporting software) data. My glove compartment, my stroller, my purse, the kids’ backpacks… they’re all full of diabetes supplies. I feel like a Hobbit setting out on a great journey just to hit the corner grocery store.
But, I own my fear. I do not let it keep me from going out with my children. I take precautions, like wearing their names on my medical ID. I am prepared for that worst-case scenario when I might be unresponsive and someone has to bend down and talk to them. Really talk to them. I want that Good Samaritan or first responder to know their names. I need someone to know that I might be with two children and that one may have run off from me, and that they should call for her.
Beyond the short-term guilt over a tone that was too sharp due to a high blood sugar, or the immediate fear over whether we’ll be caught at the park without what I need to treat a hypo, there are the concerns that a long life with a chronic disease present for a parent. Will diabetes or its complications take me from them too soon? What could we provide for them if we weren’t spending so much of our resources on my care? Will the management of my diabetes become a burden to my children as I age into my golden years? Just as with the fears in the moment, I cannot be consumed by unknowns. We can take precautions, make plans, and we can hope.
Diabetes is challenging. We all know this. Parenting is challenging. Parents know this. Combining the two is a skill you will practice each and every day. There are days when one need has to take a backseat to the other, but that’s true of so many aspects of parenting. I will continue to show my kids how I roll with the punches that diabetes throws. I admit to them when diabetes is hard for me. I address their concerns, teach them how best to care for me, and don’t bullshit them. Nobody will ever know me like my children. So, I want them to know this part of me, too.
“My number is high right now, honey.”
“You should take some insulin,” says my five-year-old.
“Thanks, kiddo. That’s a great idea.”