Hear, hear: my experience as a deaf parent

February 10 | Guest post by Nancy Cavillones
Love - Sign
Photo by Cindy Andrie, used with Creative Commons license.
I took it for granted that one day, I would be someone's mother. I have a lovely mother, and equally lovely siblings. We are a family that embraces partnership and eagerly anticipates the arrival of nieces, nephews, grandbabies. But for a long time, I wondered whether I should — whether it was fair to subject my children to the difficulty of having a deaf mother. I know this sentiment will surprise those close to me but there it is: my secret insecurity laid bare.

But, here I am: a mama of two (so far!). My youngest is 8 months old and my toddler is 2 and half years old. Babyhood, that is, the first year, is pretty easy as far as communication and meeting needs go, I think. It's basically, eat, sleep, poop and play — lots of navel-gazing and snuggles. Whatever fears I had about being a deaf mother were assuaged by that first year. No problem!

Then came toddlerhood, which knocked me flat on my ass. For any mother, toddlerhood is crazy-making. It's such a thrilling, exhilarating, frustrating, awe-inspiring time. My big girl is developing at light speed, right before my eyes — imitating everything I say and do, trying on personas, claiming independence, crumbling into a screaming, sobbing heap on the floor at the slightest provocation, sweetly or not-so-sweetly demanding my attention.

After every meltdown, I ask myself: could I have prevented this particular meltdown? Did it start because I heard something wrong, or answered wrong or didn't hear something at all?

But my deafness — it throws a little wrench in there. After every meltdown, I ask myself: could I have prevented this particular meltdown? Did it start because I heard something wrong, or answered wrong or didn't hear something at all? In my immediate, local circle of mamas, I am the only deaf one and one of only two with a disability.

Kids have the amazing ability to adapt to just about any situation, and this situation is no exception. Alice, my toddler, has a pretty deep understanding of what it means to have a mother who can't hear. She repeats herself at least three times, even when she doesn't have to. Daddy reminds her to talk facing me, I tell her I can't understand her when she talks with her mouth full or covers her mouth with her hand. She tells me to put my hearing aids on and notices when one or the other is missing. She gets exasperated when I don't hear her or understand what she is saying. This is, by turns, both heartbreaking and amusing.

I'm on guard. I don't want Alice to feel like she is being ignored or that I'm not listening or not hearing her. This means that I have to respond to nearly everything she says, even if it doesn't need a response. Sometimes I just repeat what she says; otherwise, I deliver the correct answer or honor requests or say "hold on a second." (Ha! Saying "hold on a second" to a toddler — a futile exercise if I ever saw one.)

I worry that she won't respect me when she's older. I worry that she'll see how condescending people can be towards me, or patronizing, and think that it's okay for her to do the same.

And I worry. Oh, do I worry. I worry that she won't respect me when she's older. I worry that she'll see how condescending people can be towards me, or patronizing, and think that it's okay for her to do the same. Sometimes, when my husband gets frustrated with me, he'll over-enunciate and his voice will be edged with annoyance. It happens, it's harmless enough, but Alice has picked up on that and tried that tone with me more than once. It kills me every time. She will see well-meaning acquaintances and strangers talk to me like I'm mentally retarded. She will see me struggle to understand an accent or a low talker. She will hear unaware strangers take a nasty tone when I'm unknowingly in their way.

And what will I do when we move into a real house instead of living in small apartments? In a small apartment, I can keep tabs on everything. In a house, will I hear the kids playing upstairs? Will I hear them crying for me? Will I notice that it's too quiet, which is never a good thing? Will I hear thumps, followed by screams?

Will my children resent me when I ask or need them to be my ears, as my ever-patient husband often is for me? I already know that I won't be able to have those heart-to-heart talks in the car with them, or talk to them in the dark, or talk to them on the phone when they leave home. (But maybe in that future, no one will talk on the phone anymore anyway — everyone will text, e-mail, Skype.)

Once, during a heated discussion about curing autism, a friend asked if I would cure my deafness, if I could. My answer was no. Without a doubt, no.

I hope that I'll be able to pass on the qualities that I've developed as a result of being deaf. Once, during a heated discussion about curing autism, a friend asked if I would cure my deafness, if I could. My answer was no. Without a doubt, no. I really and truly believe that I would be a different person if I wasn't deaf. Being deaf has forced me to be tenacious, to be a self-advocate, and has instilled in me a sense of compassion and deep empathy for others. I want my children to develop these qualities, and I've tasked myself with figuring out how to do just that.

I've spent my life straddled between two worlds, defying obvious labels. To be deaf in a hearing world, to be independent of yet so dependent on the ears of others, these are the juxtapositions my children will grow up observing and this will be their normal. But I suppose straddling is everyone's normal, isn't it? I'm not alone in seeking the balance that allows us live our lives fully, and I hope that my girls will see that courage and perseverance are all we need to strike that balance and challenge our insecurities.