Damaged Goods

I became a diabetic at an age when other girls were becoming young women. I remember returning to the sixth grade after my first hospital stay, anxious to be accepted back into “the group” as if nothing had happened, and indeed, I was accepted. I still giggled with my two best girlfriends, and my supposed boyfriend still passed me notes when the teacher wasn’t looking. What I hoped my friends didn’t sense was that I felt so differently now about the body I was growing into, about what my Sunday School teachers still termed my “temple.”

First of all, “the temple” was not just any young girl’s body anymore. No, it was now a body requiring all sorts of paraphernalia in order to function at all: syringes, needles, cotton swabs, and testing supplies. Stuff. I felt possessed by a body encumbered with stuff, and not just the stuff of small-town teenage femininity: mascara, makeup, powder, blush, lip gloss, curlers, suntan lotion, or bikinis, and the like. No, my development was now never to be the so-called “normal” growth into sexuality of my small-town girlfriends. Girls who were already well on the road to marriage and motherhood.

The role of women in those days was to marry. A woman’s job was to be a good wife and a mother. In spite of being a diabetic, I persisted in aspiring to these roles. I simply didn’t know there were other options. The doctor did frighten me though when, right at the onset of what all termed “my condition,” the man tried to reassure me by remarking that, “Well, if you have children, in order to save them, we’ll just go in early and take them cesarean. Tell your mother not to worry.” Though he must have been trying to give me the impression I could have babies, I did nothing but worry from then on.

In other words, at the onset of diabetes, and thus at the end of my childhood, I began to fear. Medical personnel in general remarked that the babies of diabetics evidently grew quite large. There was talk in this corner and that, just beyond my good hearing, that there could be problems, serious problems. Evidently, it had only just been discovered that many of the babies of diabetic mothers could be saved if they were NOT “let go full term.” This recent turn in medical events must have been what stirred my doctor’s reassuring remarks.

Of course, I had the persistent, though vague idea of a much more bitter past—evidently, the babies could at one time very well have died! My impressions about having children became cemented in fear—not so much for myself as for the child. Clearly, if I tried to have a baby, it would probably die! As for the fact that I might live through it all—I cared not. I’d had a great grandmother who bore eleven babies. Only three had lived to become adults. (In my grandmother’s attic, I even discovered a photo of a baby ready for her tiny coffin.) To me, in short, pregnancy became shadowed by death.

I was presented once in high school with the example of a nearby diabetic woman who had successfully produced a living child. Of course, I also learned she’d had to lie in the hospital for weeks in order to successfully make it even to the caesarian procedure—a course unheard of in the hearty “family country” in which I grew up. Moreover, it was thought in those days, and to some extent in these, that diabetes is an inherited disease. Both of my parents, but especially my mother had claimed responsibility for passing on what the medically educated would now term the “bad gene.” Surely then, I would also pass it on—wouldn’t I?

Then I can remember, when I was nineteen and engaged, being in the university health clinic because I’d had an unfortunate bout of too low blood sugar. A male technician had come to draw blood. We talked. He mentioned this “role of inheritance” about which he’d been reading, and with an insensitivity I still find incomprehensible, said something to the effect that if I had diabetes, it was likely that my children would too. Oddly enough, I, who had let myself be swept off my feet and toward romance and the altar, was not engaged to be married for very much longer. Not that diabetes was the reason for the breakup (indeed, I never quite understood the reason for the breakup), but my self-confidence plummeted.

Also, hadn’t I read articles about the children of addicts being born addicts? As for addiction, did I not take insulin daily; much like an addict takes drugs? Would not any baby of mine then be affected just like an addict’s baby? I do not know why I did not discuss my fears in depth with a counselor or even a friend. But then, truth to tell, I never discussed my diabetes. Not with my parents, my sisters, my friends, my boyfriends much, not with anyone. I was so reserved, so proud. I simply did not want and could not accept what I interpreted as pity. Also oddly, though I was an intelligent and studious woman, I did not research such things in depth, as I obviously should have. After all, I was busy with my studies and social life; perhaps it was simpler to simply accept the affirmations of my own deepest fears. I was all too willing to accept that an inability to have children made me some freak of nature, as far as being a woman goes. This is also how I know: there is nothing more isolating than pain. Not just physical pain—mental pain is included.

In young adulthood, I was also not close to any health professional that I saw regularly. I was in college by then and visited a health clinic only occasionally, and my family doctor was way off “back home.” Meanwhile, I more or less followed my regime of one shot a day and limited meals. The doctors at college health clinics were just clinic doctors, usually retired from individual practices and the typical authoritarian males of the day. If they made no real attempt to treat or discuss my diabetes—well, I certainly did not seek special treatment or discussion, nor did I particularly welcome advice in those particularly rebellious years.

At a certain point, I did seek a prescription for birth control pills. Though I wasn’t that much of a “free lover,” I was unmarried and dating, and coming of age in the 1960s, I figured I had I better use something. After all, too many girls from high school and from my college dorm had already been through a big pregnancy scare. I’d gotten a diaphragm, but it seemed so ungainly. Perhaps the pill was the answer. Months after getting the prescription, I wondered why I kept waking up with a headache, and then going to bed again at night with the same headache. My head absolutely throbbed with every breath I took. I just knew I had a brain tumor. Then by some stroke of luck, I got a better doctor at the health clinic, one who actually read my chart and read the word “diabetic.” His recommendation for my headaches was brief: Stop taking the pill! Indeed, my headaches stopped immediately. I felt great anger at the first doctor who must have thought, diabetic or no, no need to be too careful. I must have been one more “slutty” young girl to him, his silent condemnation and too easy prescription thus endangering my life.

No matter the form of birth control, I became firm in my resolve to be very careful, more than careful about having children. I had degrees to complete. Then I learned of women’s liberation, and decided I would not be “trapped too young,” perhaps like my own mother. At least trapped like so many women from my hometown and the whole local area—trapped by early pregnancy. Also, there was a world population problem to consider. Most importantly to me, what if I did pass on diabetes in those genes somewhere down the way? Why, I was capable of passing on harm to another, while just adding yet another young person at risk into the world!

Even though medicine had advanced since I’d been diagnosed, this still became an all-important motivator for me–I did not want to pass on a disease I hated. Friends, medical personnel, and doctors perhaps thought I feared for my own health, because as time passed, they’d make remarks that in these days, they could help me; the baby could be born healthy or they could help the baby. But no sir, no ma’am, I wasn’t buying and I thought the buck finally stopped with me. No child of mine would have diabetes. No child in the world after me if I had my way. As for me, maybe there would be no children. I wouldn’t be part and parcel to passing on bad genes.

At any rate, from the beginning of my dating career, I’d begun to feel “not right.” Not good enough. I was damaged goods. Diabetes was a private pain from which I must protect future generations, the world, my friends and family, and my boyfriends in particular. In fact, in my life, I kept everyone pretty much away from diabetes. I left relationships in which offspring might become an overwhelming desire for the male, or indeed, the only reason for such a union. I kept all the diabetes paraphernalia away from various guy friends, even live-ins, as much as I could. Also, I made nothing of “my condition” in conversation or in daily life.

I became a woman who was overly sensitive to rejection, yet one who rejected and was afraid of commitment herself. I was a woman who sought out and loved children, but refused to have any, to even discuss having any really. As the years passed and I could not arrange or afford adoption, I became a human being unwilling even to dream of having a family. Still, I was filled with inexpressible longing, a longing to belong somewhere, somehow.

I did champion options I thought open to me, even approved of for me. After all, my father did not particularly want me to marry, and my mother certainly did not want me to have to depend on a man for a living. Teachers had thought I was bright and accomplished enough to be oh so much more than “just a housewife.” Though I became a girl who didn’t much care for being unmarried, I learned to wear that “single” badge proudly. I’d do something with my life, not to worry. As for my deepest desires for a husband, a family of my own—as a girl who accepted failure and rejection perhaps all too easily–well, I thought my life had to be, even should evidently be some other way of life. I thought I’d never have a husband or family, so couldn’t/shouldn’t I find something else to live for?

While in my early thirties, I finally accepted medical advice that I could have a child, that help was available, the potential father suddenly found another, even younger mate. (I guess a healthier one, anyway.) By my mid-thirties, I’d heard they had a baby. That certainly made me happy, and yes, I’m being sarcastic. After that, I seemed to be hit with one reason after another for not having a baby myself. As I worked for years in a corporation, I also learned that if I had a child, I’d still need months off to ensure a healthy birth.

Furthermore, I’d had a wonderful father, a man who wanted grandchildren, yes, but a man who also wanted a fuller life for his three daughters. I’m afraid I tend to think then that a good father in a child’s life was a wonderful thing. Not to mention, I just had never seemed to want just any man. Then in my late as my mid-thirties, I learned that my womb was tilted—no, perhaps I could not carry a baby to term. Just another nail in my “mother coffin” by that time, and there was nothing much that really touched the pain, the sense of loss I experienced by middle age.

Then I considered adoption. I poured over brochures. Still, no man in my life—not any who didn’t already have children and wanted no more or more to the point, who wanted only his own, thank you very much. I’d have to do it all alone then. Still, I thought that perhaps as a single mother then, perhaps a little girl from China might be a good match. After all, no one seemed to want the girls; I’d been told thousands were filling the orphanages. Of course, the problem then was the cost. Though I worked endless hours, I never seemed to make enough to purchase much of a decent life for myself, not to mention afford the high, high fees required for such a venture.

No, I never considered fostering children. Working for a state group home in my younger life, I’d had experience with the abused and neglected children from “undesirable” homes. Worse, I’d seen the children with whom I’d worked returned to less than desirable parents time and time again. I still am the kind of person who becomes attached (As I’ve taught off and on throughout my life, I can laugh and say—no, I definitely do not want your children, though the offer has at times been tempting.) What I try to be thankful for now is that life has given me the opportunity to have good relationships with nieces, nephews, and finally, grandchildren.

Of course, thanks to the freshness of young people, we now know that virtually every possible sexual condition or problem is now being discussed and investigated. There is also now literally more than one way to have a baby. Perhaps there is, indeed, too much talk and exploration; however, I think overall that innovation has helped heal a lot of mind sickness perhaps related to this subject—that of pregnancy and having babies. As to me, who was left without a prayer, I’ve grown somewhat normal after all. With the advent of my husband and his children’s children, grandchildren into my life, as well as thanks to my forever closeness to nieces and nephews and their children, my soul and mind are slowly, slowly being healed. Perhaps there would be power in prayers for my body too, after all.