Future Reflections Winter/Spring 2000, Vol. 19 No. 1
Reprinted from EnVision (August 1997) with the permission of Lighthouse International, New York.
Editor’s Note: Deborah Kendrick is a successful free-lance writer who has a column on disabilities in the Cincinnati Enquirer that has been syndicated in a number of publications. She has three children.
When I was a little girl, I loved nothing more than my dolls. Tall dolls. Short dolls. Baby dolls and fashion dolls. But my favorite doll was Tiny Tears—who smelled like a new shower curtain, could really drink from her baby bottle, and whose wet diaper needed changing. I wrapped her in a blanket, cut scraps of cloth to make extra T-shirts, and took her everywhere with me.
Even at the age of seven, I knew I was practicing to be a mother someday, and I can’t remember a time when that plan was anything less than a certainty. When I was eight, my baby brother was born, and I got a lot of practice on a real live model. As a young teen-ager, I baby-sat for my brothers and cousins, and I never heard anyone wonder if I could do the job.
No one ever told me there was any reason I couldn’t grow up to be a mommy. No one, in fact, ever told me that I couldn’t grow up to be just about anything in the world I dreamed of being.
The first time anyone ever raised the question of whether I, who had been blind since age five, could have and raise children, was when I was 26. I had three advanced degrees, three years of teaching to my credit, and had lived on my own (first single, then married) since age 21. Now, here I sat in the hospital with a pink-blanketed bundle in my arms, awestruck, wondering what I would do next.
I wanted some hands-on instruction in diapering. I told a nurse who was going off duty, and when her replacement came in, the experience was brutal. She pushed my hands away gruffly and impatiently, saying she could do it better. I felt inadequate and embarrassed. This episode shook my confidence in my ability to cope with the incredible responsibility of being a mother.
Of course, within hours, I learned that the nurse’s ignorance about blindness was the problem, not my ability to fasten a baby’s diaper! I would also learn that the attitudes of others would continue to be the most significant problem unique to parents with impaired vision.
Today, I also realize that the feelings that I experienced holding the precious package that was my firstborn daughter were the same ones shared by mothers around the world. It is a temporary terror that we are not somehow up to the task before us. We are. I was. And so is every little child, blind or sighted, who wants to be a parent.
That terror fades in the face of necessity. You have to care for this baby, and so you do. My husband and I lived hundreds of miles from any relatives. I knew there was no one to bail me out—so I’d have to figure out how to do what this baby needed.
After 20 years of parenting three children, I know now that the easy part was back in those early days! The care babies need, after all, has nothing to do with sight. Bathing, diapering, feeding, cuddling—these are all tasks performed with hands, not eyes, and most people with impaired vision develop tactile skills that are well above average.
Organization is Key
Sure, I had to make adaptations along the way—just as I had to make certain adaptations in riding a bike, climbing a tree, or going to college as a kid who couldn’t see. I read books. I talked to other mothers. I invented solutions as I went along.
Organizing objects and clearly defining spaces were two keys in the first three years. Toys, books, food—everything that needed a Braille label got one. I pinned outfits together before laundering so that my babies were color coordinated, and I always put toys away in the same place. I carried my babies first in front carriers, later in backpacks, and as toddlers, used child safety harnesses to keep them close to me in public places.
My children have all been extremely verbal, as I’ve noticed many children of parents with impaired vision to be. They have also all been early avid readers, probably a consequence of all my talking out of necessity and my obsession with being sure there were plenty of opportunities for learning.
It always amuses me that sighted people are so particularly focused on the fact that I cared for my children as babies. That was, without doubt, the easy part. A baby stays where you put her. Even when crawling or early walking, a baby is easy to keep within a defined area. It’s when they become truly mobile—and later, truly individualized with their own opinions, that parenting, with or without sight, gets most challenging.
As a blind parent I suppose I have placed more emphasis on safety than some of my sighted peers.
When walking with children, I insist on hand-holding to be sure where they are, particularly in parking lots or streets. I have also placed more emphasis on verbal communication. When called, my children have all learned from toddlerhood on to first respond verbally, and then come running. A blind parent, in other words, loses that luxury of glancing out the window or across the park to confirm that a child is swinging or climbing safely. Our verbal confirmation, then, is just one more minor adaptation.
Sure, there have been things we couldn’t do. Someone else had to kick a soccer ball around with my eight-year-old, and someone else had to teach my older kids to drive. But no parent can do it all. On the other hand, I have taught other kids to bake cookies, write stories, sing songs.
Over the years I have known many other parents who are blind and seen many styles of parenting. Why should we expect anything less? Vision impairment is an equal opportunity disability and, as such, will affect people of all temperaments and leadership capabilities.
What I know for sure is that when it comes to parenting, the same rules apply for people with impaired vision as for all others. Anyone who wants to have children should do so, and will figure out the logistics as they go along. We have loved, laughed, and lived family life to the fullest in my household, and there is no person, no professional accomplishment, no privilege I could ever cherish more than my three children.
Once, when my daughter Melinda was about six, she threw a tantrum because I wouldn’t let her stay up as late as a little girl down the street. “I wish Mrs. King was my mom,” she wailed, as I tucked her into bed. “Well, too bad,” I told her as I kissed her goodnight. “It’s one mom per customer and you got me.” Today, I smile from the inside out as I hear that same child, nearly 21 now, tell me on the phone, “I am so lucky to have you for a mom!”