Life as a Deaf Mother

By Dawn Colclasure
Issue 123, March/April 2004

The author with her daughter JenniferWhen I learned I was pregnant, I was filled with joy: Finally, I was going to be a mother. Yet it wasn’t long before the joy was replaced by a pervading fear as I was forced to ask myself: How will I manage being a mother if I can’t hear anything?

Some deaf parents-to-be are lucky—they live with someone who can hear. In some families, only one parent is deaf; having a partner who can hear gives the deaf parent the peace of mind of knowing they won’t miss out on anything, such as the baby waking up in the middle of the night for a feeding. My husband and I don’t have this advantage: We’re both deaf.

Most mothers and mothers-to-be who can hear don’t realize how scary becoming a mother can be for a deaf woman. We already face the constant struggle of earning a living in a hearing world; add the demands that accompany parenthood, and not being able to hear can cause problems. It’s not impossible to be deaf parents, though it can be frustrating. We can never hear our baby crying, or saying “Mama” or “Dada.” And while I’ve heard that a hearing dog would alert us to any crying the baby makes, we can’t afford one.

My husband and I have had to rely on modern technology almost our entire lives to let us know when the phone rings, if someone is at the door, and what is being said on TV. Now we have had to renew our view of parenthood and adjust how we live it, with the assistance of technological devices for the deaf and hard-of-hearing.

A search on the Internet led me to www.codie.org, the website of the Center On Deafness—Inland Empire (CODIE), based in Riverside, California. They referred us to a local company that sells the Baby Crier Monitor. The Crier has two parts: a main clock that acts as the sound-alert system, with an attached vibrating rod that goes under the parents’ mattress; and a small sound sensor, to be placed near where the baby sleeps. When the baby cries, the sound-alert system activates the rod to alert the sleeping parents. An option is available by which it can be set to vibrate, or flash lights (a lamp will be needed), or both.

While the Baby Crier has allowed us to sleep better at night, knowing we won’t miss our baby’s cries, the drawback is that one of us must be in the same room as the alarm clock to know when it goes off. Otherwise, we’d have to stop whatever it is one of us is doing to occasionally check on the baby during the day. (Another company that provides equipment to the deaf and hard-of-hearing is Hear-More, of Farmingdale, New York; www.hearmore.com.)

But what has worked best for me, as a deaf mother, is the simple, cost-friendly act of keeping a close eye on the baby. You don’t need to hear to see with your eyes that a baby is crying. Usually, a baby cries because she is hungry or tired, needs a diaper changed, or wants to be held. It’s just a matter of being vigilant in keeping an eye on the baby—and if you’re deaf, you must keep your eye on the baby constantly.

While new, compact cameras are available that can show deaf parents an image of their baby from another room, no device will ever replace putting a hand on the baby’s chest to ensure that she is still breathing or, when she has a cold, if her breathing is raspy. Being with the baby also allows me to be there should she put something in her mouth, reach for something she’s not allowed to have, or starts coughing too heavily. Because I can’t hear my baby with my own two ears, I must see her with my own two eyes to know that she is safe and comfortable.

This is especially true when we go out with the baby. We can’t leave her anywhere, such as in the next aisle at the store or alone in a bathroom, or take our eyes off her for too long. Even when my eyes are not on her, as I look at something or watch for someone, my hand is on her to know that she is still there, and that she isn’t crying.

Having someone around to help watch and care for the baby is something every deaf parent should have, even if that other person, too, is deaf. But there are times when both of us need to do something we can’t do while holding the baby or keeping her in the playpen—for example, when one of us is cooking and the other is working on the car. At such times, to keep an eye on her, one of us puts the baby in a walker or in a safe part of the same area we’re working in.

Another important factor is to baby-proof your home as best as possible. We use shelves, baby gates, outlet covers, and drawer guards to ensure that our young daughter is safe. I can now rest easily as I let her explore her home, knowing that it’s okay to look away for a brief minute without her climbing onto something, knocking something over, or putting in her mouth anything she can choke on. No doors are left open when she’s walking around, and we’ve put locks on the doors she’s managed to open.

I have had to reorganize my daily schedule to accommodate motherhood. Having a routine has been a great help to me; knowing that it’s time for a nap after my daughter eats lunch gives me the peace of mind of knowing that she will eventually go to sleep, and the Baby Crier allows me to nap along with her. While it’s possible to transport the Crier should we have to go out, a routine gives me the opportunity to schedule appointments and outings around the baby’s naptime, should we be unable to take her somewhere where she can sleep.

I also get up early the next morning before the baby does to do what I need to do: check e-mail, surf the Web, type a manuscript on the computer, etc. And my baby’s fascination with shows such as Blue’s Clues and Dora the Explorer allows me the precious free time I need to get some writing done, make a phone call, exercise, make a quick snack, or feed the dogs.

One thing I have to constantly remind myself of, though, is that while my husband and I can’t hear, our daughter can. She can hear things we can’t—such as a knock at the door—and should be allowed to enjoy things we can’t, such as music. For this reason, I put the music channel on TV every day so that she can hear music, I read and sing to her as often as possible, and I make sure the volume on the TV is loud enough for her to hear.

I have heard that hearing children of deaf parents benefit by learning to read early, thanks to the closed captions on TV, and by learning to sign to communicate with their parents. My daughter is not yet old enough to let me know if she is enjoying these benefits, though she has started to “sign” to us in her own way.

Someday, my daughter will understand that Mommy and Daddy can’t hear—that we can’t hear her at all. We will never know what her voice or her laughter sounds like. We will never be able to hear her call us “Mama” and “Dada,” though we may be able to read her lips when she does. I have come to accept this, just as I accepted that someone else would hear her speak her first word. At least she will know that we will use and do whatever we can to help us be good parents to her, and that we love her very much. After all, love is the greatest sound we can share.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Organizations
Center on Deafness-Inland Empire (CODIE: www.codie.org/codie/.

SayWhatClub: www.saywhatclub.com/.

Websites
Deafbase: www.deafbase.com/index.php.

DeafNotes: www.deafnotes.com/cgi-bin/Ultimate.cgi.

For more information about parenting and disabilities, see the following article in a past issue of Mothering: “When People See Us Together, They Smile: A Day in the Life of Some Exceptional Mothers and Fathers” no.92.

Deaf for more than 15 years, Dawn Colclasure is a freelance writer, poet, and book reviewer. She is the author of the novel November’s Child and of the poetry chapbooks Take My Hand and Topiary Dreams. Her website is dmcwriter.tripod.com. She lives with her husband and their daughter, Jennifer (2), in California.

Photo by Jason Wilson.