It's a word synonymous with fragile. Breakable. Delicate. Weak. Crumbling. Frail. It means "a whisper away from falling apart."I conjure to mind an antique china tea cup that's lovely as a mantle piece, but only as long as no one comes too close. It looks nice, but it's unusable, because the lightest touch might break it. The cup is still valuable - for example, it might be sold for a good deal of money, or kept as a treasured family heirloom - but unless the user disregards the cup's potential to fail, it will never again hold a piping hot cup of tea. The loss of its original days of happy use is palpable. Some who do not know how much it has been through may even find its presence on a crowded mantle place irritating, inconvenient, or downright ugly.
It's also a word that my endocrinologist used to describe me the last time I went to see him.
According to my doctor, I'm a "brittle diabetic." The word and associated concept immediately made sense to me, without any explanation, because I know that it describes me and my blood sugars. It is a term applied to a diabetic whose blood sugars are "touchy." They won't stay put, they rise and drop at the touch of a feather, and sometimes without any predictable provocation at all. They are entirely dependent on exactly the right amount of food and exactly the right amount of insulin at exactly the right time, all quantities selected by yours truly, with a wild amount of guesswork. And that's before you factor in crazy hormones.
It means that without my pump, I'd be lost. It means that if I forget to bring Gatorade with me when I leave the house, I will probably have to stop at a gas station convenience store before we get home. (And sometimes I have to stop anyway). It means that every time I exercise, I often have no idea what to predict from my blood sugars for the next few hours or days. It means that my husband has to be especially vigilant during the night, in case I wake him up with slightly manic, unintelligible nighttime utterances. It means that if I am to achieve a decent A1C, I'd better be prepared for a whole lot of low blood sugars along the way.
I have had Type I diabetes for almost 20 years. In many ways, my body is fragile. I am crumbling. I am weak. I am like an antique china tea cup that is rapidly losing its happy usefulness. This is particularly evident as a woman, bearing and caring for children. It is getting harder. Even my 2-year-old has learned what it means when my blood sugar is low, because he has to amuse himself quietly while I'm treating it. They all do. I am continually interrupted by caring for my frail body's constant needs. Poking the buttons on my insulin pump, running to the kitchen for Gatorade, gulping as much as I can in as little time as possible so that I can move on to the next diaper change. Some days, I am almost embarrassed by how ridiculous the whole charade would look to someone who doesn't understand that I can't live without it.
I am only 28. As a woman, I have many potential children to bear. And I've discovered that I like children! No, scratch that. I love children. Especially my own. I have paid dearly and sacrificed to have them, and I don't regret one single bit of it. It's true that the smallest newborn squeak, one single smile from one of my children, a peaceful nursing session in a dark room, or sitting on the couch with a cranky toddler trying to wake up from a nap, makes it more than worth it. I do not like being pregnant, but that crazy thought experiment in which I try to imagine what life would have been like if I hadn't done this is both frightening and confusing, every time. Not that I wouldn't have done something, of course. But that hypothetical woman is not me, or at least not the me that presently exists.
And not only do I like children, but I like the me that is now much better than the one that was before. Learning how to bear and care for children has made me a better woman. I am more patient, teaching and reminding and demonstrating all manner of things, more times than I think I should have to, carefully and thoroughly. I move more slowly, to make room for the little ones that cannot move otherwise. I empathize more deeply, both to know my children and to help them know themselves. People are no longer problems for me to solve, they are just people like me, even when they are little or screaming.
So how much am I like that antique china tea cup? When it comes to bearing children, am I too fragile to take the risk? What about me, woman-as-mother? What about the children? What about the children I could have, and the mother I could be?
I know that one way I am different is that even if I am not "useful" for childbearing, I will still be loved and cherished and cared for until my natural death, and not my husband nor anyone I know thinks about me in any other way. I am not an artifact, and I will not be discarded as irritating or inconvenient or downright ugly. That is not my fear.
Another way that I am not like an antique china tea cup is that we get to choose. Tea cups don't choose whether they will continue to be used at the risk of breakage, or whether they are retired to the mantle to live as a cherished heirloom. But my husband and I, we do. We look at my life, and decide how likely I am to break. We organize the details of our family life to keep me and our children, before and after birth, safe. We keep snacks handy. We don't leave the house when I'm likely to get low. If my exercise routine makes my blood sugars too unpredictable, I ditch it and do something else. My husband watches me closely and doesn't grumble when I need his help. I decide whether being pregnant is too hard, or whether I'm willing to give just a little bit more.
So yes, my diabetes is brittle. My life is fragile. I am weak. One day, I may need to retire to the mantle piece of motherhood.
But I still maintain that if my body is weakened now, it is not yet broken. I am not the sum of all the statistics ever generated about the horrible things that happen to people with diabetes. I am not destined to kidney damage, or nerve damage, or blindness. I am not destined to have unhealthy babies, children with birth defects, or preeclampsia. I am still strong to give, to persevere, to judge my own circumstances, and to sacrifice. I am not willing to enter retirement. I am a woman and a mother, I have children yet to bear, and to love, and to care for. This gift is one I want to give, more than anything in the world. It is hard work that has weakened my body but strengthened my soul. And the children! How can I explain to you that frightening, confusing blank space that arises in my mind when I think of life without them? Life is not only better with them, it is life because of them. They are the life, filling up this house and filling up our hearts. The more, the merrier! Pain and suffering are a small price to pay for the infinite goodness of a small human person.
So I will, Lord willing, have more children.* If my health continues diminished, if my endocrinologist tells me that it's too hard, or if my friends and family are confused and think I am crazy, I will tell them: I am weak, but I am not broken. God loves the weak. I am free to choose, and I choose the life of mother. I am strong in love, because He is, and that makes all the difference.
*One of our greatest obstacles to having more children is needing a minivan. If you know of a cheap one, keep a sister in mind, will you?