Passing on Diabetes to Children: A Mother’s Worry


Miles was drinking the bathwater again. I saw him as I walked by the open door of the bathroom, on my way to get the boy’s pajamas from their bedroom. My feet dragged. The end of our long day would be over once I completed baths, jammies, books and bed; then I could collapse onto the couch and read. I was almost there. But Miles was scooping water with a plastic bath toy, leaning his head forward and sipping from the rim of the boat. The edges of his hair were wet and sticking to his cheeks.

“What are you doing?” I asked my four-year-old, reaching to brush the wet hair from his face.

“I don’t know,” he said. His stock answer.

“Are you thirsty? Don’t drink the bathwater, it’s yucky. I’ll get you something to drink.” I walked into the kitchen, suddenly alert. With a sippy cup of chocolate milk in my hands, I wrapped Miles in a towel, handed him his milk, and watched as he gulped it down.

“Done,” he said, handing it back to me, empty.

Miles loves chocolate milk, apple juice, juice boxes, lemonade and even water. He drinks quickly and often, and it scares me.

I remember being thirsty. I remember standing under the too-bright-middle-of-the-night lights of my private school dorm bathroom and gulping water from someone else’s plastic cup. I was so thirsty that I’d been dreaming about water. So I pushed back my warm comforter and stood, weak and dizzy in the lonely darkness of adolescent girls finally, temporarily asleep, and drank another cup of water. Two days later I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes.

My younger sister had been diagnosed six months earlier, and in the stark, antiseptic hospital room, I watched her prick her fingers and pee on a test strip to see what color it was and compare it to the chart of blood sugar colors. I watched my sister learn how to stick a needle into her thigh, her arm, or her stomach. Her diagnosis was a shock to our family members, who until then had believed in the healing powers of positive thinking. Dad taught us how to imagine our white blood cells as polar bears marching through our bodies, fighting off infection. We were never sick; we were “fighting something.” Later, I watched Erin stumble out of our small town church on Christmas Eve, her blood sugar low, and fall laughing into a snow bank. I watched my parents fumble through their pockets for Lifesavers and shove them into her mouth while she yanked her head from side to side, yelling, “No!” Church members filed past, staring, and I was so glad it was her and not me.

But then I got sick too. Our family doctor told my parents that it was rare to have two kids diagnosed with diabetes in the same family. I remember the doctor said that the causes of diabetes were still unclear; they could be environmental or triggered by a virus. There seemed to be more questions than answers. Diabetes is an autoimmune disease which meant that my body was attacking itself; my polar bears had gone mad. I was only fourteen-years-old, and the workings of my body were a mystery to me. Unlike my smaller, curvier friends, I didn’t have breasts and feared that I looked like a boy; I was skinny, flat-chested and had big hands and feet. As my small, curvy friends ran across the field hockey field, it seemed unfair that my body had failed on the inside too.

I remember a conversation I had with my ob-gyn when I was pregnant with my first son, Will. I’d asked her about the chances of passing diabetes on to my children. She told me that they were slim, one in one hundred. The chances were worse for fathers, she said, one in seventeen, and I was glad I was not a man. She explained that medical advances had turned a formerly fatal illness into a chronic disease, and the advances in research had led to long term complications.

“Medical advances have eliminated the survival of the fittest,” she explained. “We’re keeping the disease alive through medicine.” Before the advances in diabetes care, women were discouraged from having children, and often had several miscarriages before giving birth to a baby. Very often, after nine months of a difficult pregnancy, many times resulting in a risky caesarean delivery, a baby born to a diabetic mother was born with a defect. My ob-gyn talked to me as if I were lucky to be living in a time when medicine made these things (giving birth to a healthy baby and living without complications) possible. But I didn’t feel lucky.

From my mother, I inherited the color of my skin, my hair, and the shape of my mouth, while my long legs, and the slope of my nose, I inherited from my dad. My children at seven and four are now losing their teeth and learning to read, but my blood is running through their bodies. Will has my nose and shoulders, and Miles looks like a younger me when his hair is long and curls around his cheeks. Will is patient, and they both have a natural athleticism like their dad and this makes me confident that they will be accepted because of the way they can run, jump and throw. I worry they will have my introverted tendencies and I can already see my bad sense of direction in Will every time he walks out the front door. I hope that they are readers and lovers of books, but what about their insides? What will they inherit from me?

The next morning, as Miles sat at the kitchen counter watching cartoons and waiting for breakfast, I reached for his hand.

“I’m going to prick your finger,” I explained. “Just like how Mommy does.” He didn’t fight me so I grabbed the tip of his pointer finger, acting quickly so he wouldn’t have time to pull away, and pinched the small, soft tip between my larger, calloused fingers. I pressed the Accu-check against his skin and looking up once to reassure him, pushed the plunger.

“Ouch!” he said.

“What are you doing, Mom?” Will climbed onto the other barstool and leaned across the counter to watch. I ignored him. Pressing below the spot where I’d pricked, I collected a small, bright red dot of blood onto a test strip. Holding the machine in my hands, I waited.

5,4,3,2,1. Miles’ blood sugar was 81.

“Ha! Look at that!” Worry evaporated from my body, and letting it go, I realized I’d been clenching my teeth.

“Oh.” Miles and Will jumped off the barstools and went to the back to play.

I want the smooth skin of my children to remain unbroken on the inside and out. I want their fingers to remain callous-free, I want their pancreases to continue to engage in a conversation with the food they put into their mouths, their beta cells to keep pumping insulin, their stomachs to remain un-punctured by needles, and I want to watch them walk steadily by the snow banks of life. I want my boys to live the kind of lucky life my ob-gyn was talking about, the kind that comes with a freedom from pain, a freedom from being different, a freedom from complications.

I don’t want my boys to be thirsty.

Originally posted on Literary Mama.

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8 years ago

I will explain to everyone here how it feels be the son who received this horrible disease from my mother. My mother is a type 1. She had 4 sons. Of the 4 children she had, I am the only one who ended up a type 1 diabetic also. I became a type 1 at 9 years old. I am now 38. The last 29 years have been a living hell. I have neuropathy in both of my feet. The left foot is far worse. It is continuously hurting, stabbing, and burning. I have 2 aneurysms in my left eye, and 1 aneurysm in my right eye. I do everything… Read more »

8 years ago

There is more than one “subtype” of autoimmune T1DM, more than one genetic disposition, and likely more than one trigger(s) based on that genetic disposition. That said, in many cases, a genetic disposition does play a role, and in some families (such as those with multuiple autoimmune diseases), the risk is much higher than others. So if that describes your family, in our current modern world where the chances of those gene(s) being triggered appear to be increasing, if you decide to have children without genetic screening (which is likely not available for your mutations), you don’t have a right… Read more »

11 years ago

I do not have any children… yet but I find myself very worried about passing diabetes onto a child.I am 27 and have had sugar for 24 years so I have grown up with it and understand how it all works but how does one “get over” this fear and enjoy this next stage in life?

Michelle S
Michelle S
11 years ago

It’s a horrible worry… one night about 6 months ago my two year old starting waking me, complaining her pull ups were wet… the second time i changed her I had the thought: “what if?”  an hour or so later she woke again and i brought her into bed to check her sugar.  it read 6.1 (we’re in Canada, using mmol)… a bit high.  too high for a non-diabetic.  i burst into tears, I was literally panic stricken.  a few minutes later i remembered that i was using a meter i generally didn’t use anymore that I heard could vary… Read more »

Jane Kokernak
11 years ago

I’ve had these fears. I’ve checked my kids’ blood sugar. I have felt that worry evaporate, as you describe, and then return. Once I discussed this with my endo, who reassured me, like your ob-gyn did you, that the probability of them developing Type 1 was small, even though my brother also has Type 1. (The endo said my other siblings actually have more of a chance developing it, which they haven’t.) “But, still,” I pressed my doctor, “what if they get it?” “Well, they will have grown up in a house where their mother takes care of her diabetes,… Read more »

Deborah Kanter
11 years ago

Thanks for sharing! My teen son eats a nice variety of foods, yet since my diagnosis with T2 I freak out when I see him downing huge portions of carbs, especially the unrefined kinds. I don’t want to nag, but I ocassionally remind him of his chances (1 in 3) of developing diabetes one day.  

11 years ago
Ted Hutchinson
11 years ago

You may be interested in the Swedish Food Revolution that is being run by doctors interested in preventing/reducing diabetes incidence.
The talk lasts about 50minutes 
 The Food Revolution – AHS 2011
During the talk the Doctor mentions a 1917 diabetes cookbook.
If you are interested in looking at it online you can find it here. 

Carolyn Ketchum
11 years ago

My youngest, the one with whom I had gestational Diabetes, loves to drink bathwater too.  And when presented with any drink, will gulp it down like there is no tomorrow.  I worry, of course, that it’s the first sign…I always will!

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