Just this week I became a grandmother of a seven-and-a-half-pound baby girl, which, of course, made me think of my own motherhood. I faced the challenges that all new moms face, the disrupted sleep, the baby’s inconsolable crying, the attempts to nurse discreetly, the uninvited well-wishers who drop by.
And yet my motherhood wasn’t entirely typical because I have been blind since the age of twenty-six. Raising my two kids was unique in several ways.
For instance, as early as four months, my daughter learned to make noise so that I would find her. Other babies simply smiled at their sighted mothers; Leslie chirped, and automatically I walked to her. Later, when the kids would get off to different parts of the house from where I was located, they made a sound, which I repeated. They couldn’t make eye contact with me for reassurance, so we connected by voice. I also placed bells on their shoes to hear where they were, and when their friends came over, I placed an extra bell on them, too (which worked wonders until they got older and they’d sneak off their shoes). When my children’s guests grew older, I didn’t use the bells anymore. My kids translated for me. “He’s nodding, Mom,” my son Joel would say, or “He’s pointing to grape juice.”
Other “simple” tasks I learned to adapt to: when they were little, I’d clean their bottoms like a countertop or any surface, moving systematically right to left, top to bottom, often wiping twice. I also pinned Braille metal tags on the labels of their clothes to determine the colors. Still, when they got older and wanted to express their independence, they dressed in preposterous combinations, and I wondered what the neighbors thought.
I could always identify my children from any others, simply by touch. When my kids graduated from baby carriers to walking on their own, I put a child’s harness and leash on them to feel where they were. Leslie wanted no part of the leash, but agreed always to hold my hand. Once a friend saw me at a bus stop with Leslie in a backpack, Joel’s leash in my right hand, and my guide dog’s leash and harness in my left. She asked me later how in the world I could “manage it all.” I explained that in most daily tasks, except for driving a car, my remaining senses substituted for the lost sight.
She laughed then, and said what so many other people had said to me over the years, “You should write about your parenting experience. Maybe there would be tips for all parents.”
Now thirty years later, I finally have the time to do that. I’m writing this list for a few people-my favorite new mother, obviously, but also and especially the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, who come back with lost limbs and lost senses. Many of these young men and women will be parents, and they need strategies and hope. So here are my tips for parents of all abilities:
Immerse babies in words
Because babies lack a comprehensible vocabulary, we may be disinclined to speak to them. Yet since I couldn’t wait for a baby’s smile, I repeated the sounds my kids made as infants and felt rewarded when they repeated the noise. After a while, all of us parents begin to recognize a particular sound as the baby’s name for something. “Aku” was Leslie’s word for apple juice. I think bathing kids in words, and echoing the sounds they utter, encourages them to speak early on.
Make the first floor of a house a modern version of the playpen. Without sight, I vacuumed every morning to pick up pennies, paper clips, or anything unsafe. I put away both things that they could hurt and things that could hurt them. I cushioned sharp edges on furniture with soft, rubber covers.
Take this idea outdoors, too: I used a corral gate, outside. While Leslie was napping, I touched every spot of grass to free it from harmful rocks, pebbles, or twigs. When she awoke, I placed her and her toys inside. Our double lot was fenced in, so Joel and his friends played freely without heading into the street.
Minimize the search and retrieval
I tied my kids’ rattles and stuffed animals to their baby seats and high chairs. The kids tossed them, and I easily found them. When the kids were old enough to help clean themselves, I asked my kids and their friends to help in cleaning up their toys and returning them to the right places because I needed uncluttered space for walking. Starting this practice early seemed to minimize the resistance.
Employ babysitters creatively
I hired sitters to stain-stick my laundry and wipe fingerprints from walls. I occasionally asked them to sit while I made dinner or eked out writing time.
Don’t forget – even Super Mom needs help
Since becoming blind, I’ve hated to ask for help. I wanted taking and giving to be equal. But we all need support. When a friend offered me a ride; I baked her bread.
Remember that every sense allows you to be with your family
Not being able to see my kids was – and is – a huge deprivation. So I focused on my remaining senses and relished them. Babies sound, feel, and (usually) smell delicious.
Encourage listening skills
Because my parenting occurred thirty years ago, the many visual electronics we have today weren’t available. My kids had cassette-tape recorders with books on tape. There was no printed, illustrated book accompanying it. Well into their teens we listened to books on tape, and I think the practice stimulated their imaginations and made them good listeners.
Use slings and backpacks
Because I’m blind, I couldn’t push my kids in strollers or baby carriages. Not knowing the condition of the path ahead, I, at best, could pull them. Instead, I carried my kids, which also freed me to do housework and other tasks. Which leads to my next point :
Model the animal world
Psychologists say human babies are the most dependent of all primates at birth. They need physical contact in sustained, interactive ways. Think of a mama cat nuzzling her kittens, or a mama dog snuggling with her pups. As my model, I used the mama chimp. She goes through daily life intertwined with her baby. And a more mutually gratifying practice for parent and child, for the sighted or the blind, I can’t imagine.