“Are you having a hypo, mummy?” my six-year old daughter asked me the other day. This was in response to me asking her to please pick up the fifty or so books she had scattered on the floor. When I told her I didn’t believe she was reading ALL of them at once, she assumed my slightly snippy response was due to low blood sugar.
I wanted to tell her ‘Sometimes it’s not diabetes’, but instead, laughed. And told her to pick up her books.
What do our children understand about having a parent with type 1 diabetes?
I started wondering the answer to this question when my daughter was very young – less than 12 months old. Before she could even speak she knew things about mummy and diabetes. She knew that if she was looking for a feed and reached down my top, she would find a pump stashed there.
And yet if she reached down anyone else’s top – which she did, (she was always looking for a feed!), there wouldn’t be a pump. The one time that she actually did find another pump – reaching down my friend Jodie’s top – the look of complete astonishment and amazement was priceless!
As she fed, lying back contentedly, she would gently hold the pump line. Never pulling it out, just gripping on to it with her pudgy little paws.
The kidlet has always known that the jar of jelly snakes on the kitchen bench is for me and me alone, and she explains to her friends why, when they ask for one, it’s important that no one else eats them. When she was little, I referred to the jar as ‘mummy’s medicine’. Until, of course, she tasted one. Then the word ‘medicine’ was replaced with ‘hypo treatment’ and over time she came to understand what that means.
It’s a natural reaction to try to protect our children from bad stuff. I don’t want to scare my daughter, so the really nasty things get hidden. The fears and anxiety don’t get discussed around her. But I absolutely resent that diabetes intrudes into our life.
I hate that she knows that there are moments when I simply can’t read to or play with her because I am dealing with low blood sugar and right at that moment there is nothing more I can do.
And I hate that she sees me when my blood sugar is high and I am flaked out on the couch trying to keep the nausea at bay.
But I love the way she jumped at someone who said people with diabetes have an illness. ‘My mummy is not sick!’ she said indignantly. ‘She has type 1 diabetes’. And when I overheard her explaining to someone that ‘there is no cure for type 1 diabetes and there is nothing that mummy could have done to have stopped getting it’.
The other day when she asked me if she would get diabetes, I could barely breathe. I felt that my heart was being torn out of me as the terror that is hidden there made its way to the surface. I looked away to hide the tears, and wished with every cell of my being that I could promise her that of course she wouldn’t get diabetes.
Instead, I gulped in some fresh air, smiled brightly and said ‘I hope not’. And then stopped and said ‘But if you do, it won’t stop you from doing anything. And we’ll look after you to make sure that you are OK.’ And then I turned away again to blink away the tears.
Finding what and how we want to explain diabetes to children is a difficult and highly personal matter. I decided early on that I wanted to keep my diabetes away from our girl. Not because I am ashamed of living with this condition, but rather because I didn’t want to trouble her with it. But I soon realised that there are parts of living with diabetes that I do want to share with her and that there are ways to do it that are not a burden. Instead they show her my resilience and my ‘never give in’ attitude. Which is something I inherited from my mother who also lives with a chronic medical condition. I think of how proud I am of how she has lived with Lupus for the last 30 years; for the way that she hasn’t stopped doing all the things she has wanted to do and the way that she is a terrific advocate for and inspiration to people with her condition.
I want my girl to think of me with the same pride and admiration.
Our children needn’t think of us as broken because we have diabetes. For me, I want to show our daughter that diabetes is just one part of me – and to some degree makes me the person that I am. And that it doesn’t make me any less of a mother because I live with this condition.
It’s just about finding the way to explain things in an age-appropriate and relevant way. Earlier this month on Diabetes Art Day, I read the Six Until Me blog about how Kerri Morrone Sparling is using art to teacher her baby daughter about diabetes. What a perfect way to introduce the condition to her little one.
And for us, in our little home, even if the kidlet sees the bad days, she will be acutely aware that there are far more good days. And on those days, diabetes is kept in its rightful place.