Andrea McDowell is a single mom to her daughter Frances. She says that single parenthood has not been as difficult as she feared:
Every day I do the dishes by hand in the kitchen sink because the new apartment that I moved to with my daughter this summer does not have a dishwasher.
My daughter sleeps upstairs in her new pink room with the red flowers I painted on the wall, her arms wrapped around a sleep-time friend, while downstairs, I put into practice those lessons from Home Ec so long ago—glass, then silverware, then dishes, then pots. I suspect I am the only one from that class to be doing so, if only because I am likely to be the only one who does not have a dishwasher.
The dishes done, the floor swept, the worst of the mud mopped from the front entryway, the toys returned to their rightful places, the school paperwork read over and dealt with appropriately, the kitchen table wiped, the counters scrubbed, and the leftovers refrigerated, I finally have 5 free minutes. Immediately, a thought intrudes; my insulin pump told me to change my infusion site 3 hours ago. Oops. I'd better do that now before I forget again.
I never forgot, before, when I was married. I never forgot to test or bolus or change my infusion site. I never went high for days on end because the time was always there to check my sugars after meals.
The infusion site is changed. Now, I have 5 free minutes. Real ones. Frances cries. I go upstairs to soothe her. So much for that.
Many things about single motherhood turned out to be surprising, mostly in good ways. For instance, it's not anywhere near as hard as I had feared. Frances is a preternaturally easy-going child who demands a lot of affection and attention but rewards this by never having thrown a temper tantrum. I had thought the separation might cause her to regress—that she would need diapers again, maybe, or become angry or sad or sullen, but no. There is a lot of work to do and it frequently takes everything I have in me to get it all done every day, but my little girl, thank the gods, seems to be handling it well.
Losing the house was also not traumatic. We have considerably less than half the space we used to and, commensurately, considerably less than half the stuff.
It's fine. I don't miss it. I never liked lawn maintenance and I'm just as happy not to have to shovel a driveway or clean snow from the car in the winter. Empty space is just an invitation to spend money to fill it, so far as I'm concerned. Here, in our new little nest, I sit on the couch with the computer and watch Frances play with her toys beside me on the floor. It's cozy, I think. I don't have cable, since I can't afford it, which gives us more time to spend together.
It's lovely to live one subway stop from my office, to know that Frances is that close when she is at school, to spend so little time commuting, to be able to walk or ride my bike when the weather is nice and get in some extra exercise. It's lovely to ride on the subway and be able to forget for weeks at a time that I even own a car. It's especially lovely, although expensive, to have a nice big bookstore right across the street. These are reasons that I chose to move us here, of course, but I hadn't expected to like them quite so much.
But then, there are surprises that can't be described as lovely, such as there is no slack when you are a single mother. Married moms can [act carelessly] in ways that you can't. You are already assumed to be screwing your kids up just because you do not have a husband; you are under more scrutiny and more suspicion, or at least, it feels like it. Things you would never have done when you were married, you do now, even though you have so much less time and energy, because you are single and you need to prove to the world that you can do this. You are not damaging the most important person in your world. He or she will be fine and you will be fine and you can handle all of this. I never mopped when I was married. I changed the sheets on a seasonal schedule when I was part of a couple; and now, it is regular as clockwork, every 2 weeks. Sometimes, when I was married, Frances would watch more than the 2 hours of television—that was our theoretical limit for a day. Now? Never. Sometimes, when I was married, her dinner was pasta from a can. Now? Every dinner she has eaten in my new home has been made by me, from scratch, except for carrot soup.
I wonder if this is why single motherhood is so much more exhausting than the partnered kind. We have no permission to slack off, ever. Not from the world, and not from ourselves.
I was not surprised to read in the only medical study I found on the subject that single mothers with diabetes have significantly worse blood sugar control than married ones. Hey, I test when I can, I eat well, I exercise almost every day, and sometimes, that's already more than I can handle.
Just now, I looked down and realized that while I'd remembered to put the new infusion site in, I'd forgotten to take the old one out, so I was sporting one on each side of my stomach. A matched set. I can keep up with the big things but the details get away from me sometimes.
There is an incongruity here—I cannot afford cable, I do not have a dishwasher, but I have an insulin pump. Yes. I have health insurance that, lucky me, covers the cost of the pump and the supplies and insulin and test strips to 80%; even so, what's left over costs more than cable would. I sometimes think of that money and what I would do with it if I didn't need to spend it on keeping myself alive. Maybe, I'd save more for my retirement. Maybe, Frances and I would travel sometimes. Maybe, I'd spend it all on books. I very likely would still not have cable. It would be a lot more fun, whatever it is, than filling out paperwork to get myself reimbursed, and sticking myself with pins.
But the money is not what gets me. I've been paying for diabetes and its associated paraphernalia since I was 17 years old, and I just assume it now; it's in the budget, along with rent and groceries. Diabetes is, I've often observed, an expensive habit. It would be nice if Canada's stated commitment to socialized health care extended to those of us with chronic illnesses, but I don't expect it to, and neither do most of my acquaintances. I pay for it, and thank the powers that be that I have health insurance to reimburse me afterwards.
It isn't even the time. Testing, refilling cartridges, changing sites—none of these are time-consuming in and of themselves. It's when the time is. It's the competition for that time with a certain small girl who needs me, because when she is here, I am the only one she has. It's the keeping track. That insulin pump vibrates all day and night to remind me of what I need to do, and still, it's not enough. I still forget. I take the vibrating pump out of my pocket, check it, make a note to follow up as soon as this next task is over with—but then that task turns into another and another and hours have passed and I've forgotten. Frances's needs won't wait, and I tell myself that diabetes will, at least for a few minutes until I get her settled again—and then.
You will tell me, of course, that I can't take care of my daughter unless I take care of my diabetes, and in the abstract, that too is absolutely correct. In reality, in the particular moment when each choice is made (to test or delay, serve juice or change a site, find a toy or eat the snack I bolused for), my daughter's needs are more vocal and insistent. My mute pancreas cannot compete. Its technological handmaiden lacks large blue eyes and emphatic hugs. It doesn't love me, obviously, even though it takes care of me.
This does not prevent the potential consequences from presenting themselves to me late at night—what if I fall into a diabetic coma while I sleep and, one morning, my daughter wakes to find me in my bed, unable to wake? What would she do? She is too young to feed herself or get a drink, or open the door, and go for help. She can't use the toilet on her own. What would she do? How can I prepare her? There isn't a friend or family member I would choose to burden with the task of being my diabetes monitor, making sure I am conscious and coma-free. Whatever we do has to be something we can do, just the two of us.
So I force myself into a standard of motherhood I never even would have attempted before. The house clean, the meals all healthy and balanced, the toys wholesome, the television limited, everything perfect and in place on the outside. Yet underneath, what you won't see are the forgotten tests, the missed boluses, the infusion sets left in for an extra day or two, the guessed carb counts for meals. Everything looks perfect, though—happy daughter, competent mother, acceptable house; all powered by a neglected medical condition.
My arms are full, and that's the problem; too many things I carry (the job, the daughter, the house) cannot be dropped, even for a moment, because I am running as hard as I can to stay in place. The job, the daughter, the house—even for healthy women, single motherhood can be overwhelming, I know, so why should it be any different for me? My arms are full, and I'm running as fast as I can. Sometimes, something drops and it's almost always the diabetes—a test, a site, a bolus. They add up, I know and it's not my intention, but if I stop to pick it up, I'll only fall behind. I keep running, and tell myself I'll go back for them later.
■ Rachel Garlinghouse says:
Ladies, it is ok to say no. Be selective in what you do in life. Decide what matters most to you and pursue it with all your heart and energy. My priorities are my health, my family, my spiritual life, and my writing. I have secondary priorities like spending time with girlfriends and teaching. Anything else that tries to steal my focus and my joy is rejected without apology. Be strong, be confident, and most of all, say no often!
That airplane advice of taking care of yourself before being able to help others is a good one. As I heard recently, if your kids are young and want your attention, you don't need to drop everything if you need to do something crucial for yourself first. They're "crying, not dying," so if you need to take a moment to test your blood sugar or suck down a juice box or glucose tabs amid the (nonemergency) crying, go ahead and don't feel guilty about it.
Enjoy every moment, it goes by so quickly. Take care of yourself as much as you take care of your baby. You want to be a happy, healthy mom for the baby you worked so hard to bring into this world.
Motherhood is difficult for any new mother, but having diabetes is not the end of the world. Just make sure you always keep snacks, juice, etc. in your diaper bag so that you can take care of yourself if need be. Use the alarms on the sensor to check your blood sugar, check if you are low/high. It is so easy to forget to eat or take insulin when you have a newborn. Just make it a part of your routine, because if you don't, you won't be around to watch that beautiful baby grow up. It may be difficult, but there are so many amazing women out there who have done this and succeeded, including me!
■ Michelle Sorensen says:
I would suggest viewing the diabetes as another child . . . a major responsibility that you have to learn to balance with newfound parental responsibilities. I firmly believe that if you put your health first, everything else will fall into place. If you lose your health, then you risk losing enjoyment of all those other things you put before your diabetes: career, family, etc. . . . However, attending to diabetes does not mean worrying about it all the time or berating yourself for the inevitable ups and downs. I try to have a short memory for my perceived failures—I learn from mistakes, correct [them], and move on. I let myself feel good about the good days, the good readings, the health changes I make . . . because positive emotions lead to more motivation and energy.
Give your children vitamin D, omega 3 fatty acids, and pro-biotics. All of these may help prevent type 1 in children. I've devoted myself to trying to figure out the environmental causes of type 1, and made a website to help other mothers in my position (who want to prevent their kids from getting type 1), www.diabetesandenvironment.org
Motherhood is one of the many adventures along the path of life. My first child was born on August 28, 2001. I tell him the story of his birth on the eve of his birthday every year, just like my mother tells me mine. I tell him how my feet were so swollen that they hurt to touch, how the sun was white and flat in the sky, and that the heat felt like Saran Wrap around my legs. I tell him how his dad and I drove to the hospital and checked ourselves in. How I spent the first night there alone and how, the next morning, I was hooked up to IVs and monitors and labored for over 2 hours. I edit the part about how the drugs, the pushing, the vacuum, and forceps couldn't get him out, how he had to be cut from my body. I tell him the part about hearing his cry, how something split apart inside of me with that sound, the sound of my child. He was here, I was a mother, and that was all that mattered.
That was almost 10 years ago and so much has changed. I am now a mother to three healthy boys. Since I became a mother, my husband hasn't reached over in the middle of the night to feel my sweaty back, to wake from the heaviness of sleep and rush to the kitchen for a glass of juice. Since I became a mother, he hasn't had to hold my head up and pour the juice into my mouth to try and bring me back. Becoming a mother has taught me how to take care of myself. It has also taught me that I am not alone.
There are other mothers, like myself, who kick their legs as they try to keep the weight of diabetes from pulling them to the murky bottom. Together, we are mothers with illnesses who bake dinners for teacher appreciation week, drive to t-ball practice, tennis lessons, arrange play-dates, drop our kids off at school, commute to work, and rock our babies until they fall back to sleep. We are mothers who test blood sugar levels, give shots, take medications, and arrange for doctor visits. Most of all, we are mothers who are caught in the familiar balancing act of work, raising a family, and finding time for ourselves and for our partners. What makes us different is the highs and lows of living with diabetes.
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