Tips from a Blind Mom

by Sally Hobart Alexander

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 kids blind is unique in several ways.

To keep track of my kids’ movements inside our house and out, for instance, I placed bells on their shoes to hear where they were. Of course, when they got older, they sneaked off their shoes so I’d have trouble finding them. I cleaned their bottoms like a countertop or any surface, moving systematically right to left, top to bottom, often wiping twice. 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. When my kids ventured off to other 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.

When they graduated from backpacks 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. I pinned Braille metal tags on the labels of their clothes to determine the colors. Still, when they wanted to express their independence, they dressed in preposterous combinations, and I wondered what the neighbors thought. Finally, when my kids’ toddler friends came over, I placed an extra bell on them, too. I could always identify my children from any others, simply by touch. When my children’s guests grew older, I didn’t use the bells anymore. My kids translated for me. “He’s nodding, Mom,” Joel would say, or “He’s pointing to grape juice.”

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, saying that her children had grown up in the middle of the city and had never once taken a bus. “I chauffeured them everywhere.”

And then she 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.”

I resolved to do that, then, but never found the time. Now thirty years later, I finally have that time, as well as the motivation to make that list for my favorite new mother. But also for all parents, disabled and non-. With soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, we are entering an age of disability. Vets return every day with lost limbs and lost senses. Many of those young men and women are or will be parents, and they need strategies and hope. So here are my tips for parents of all abilities. I hope some will be useful.

List done. Now I’ll begin to child-proof my house, plan some spoiling techniques, increase my mileage with my guide dog, and up my laps in the pool. I have a substantial hearing loss now, so deaf-blind grand-parenting will prove at least as challenging as blind parenting, and I want to be physically strong and healthy for my new little charge.

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