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.
- Immerse babies in words. Because babies lack a comprehensible vocabulary, we may be disinclined to speak to them. But 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, echoing the sounds they utter encourages them to talk early.”
- Make the first floor of a house a modern version of the playpen, a pack-n-play. 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.
- 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.
- Build habits of pick-up and delivery. Because I needed uncluttered space for walking, I asked my kids and their friends to help in cleaning up their toys and returning them to the right places. Starting this practice early seemed to minimize the resistance.
- Good fences can be neighborly. I used a corral gate, the equivalent of a play den today, outside, and 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.
- 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 hated to ask for help. I wanted taking and giving to be equal. But we all need support. A friend offers me a ride; I bake her bread.
- Remember that every sense is an art. Not being able to see my kids was (is) a huge deprivation. So I focused on my remaining senses and relished them. Babies sound, feel, and smell (usually) delicious.
- Encourage listening skills. Because my parenting occurred thirty years ago, the many visual electronics 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.
- Model the animals. 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.
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.