Braille Monitor                                                                                January 1986


To Be A Parent

Gary Wunder is a Senior Analyst Programmer in the Department of Pathology at the University of Missouri Hospital and Clinics at Columbia, Missouri. He is the President of the National Federation of the Blind of Missouri. He is totally blind. He is also the father of an adopted daughter, Melissa, who arrived at the Wunder home April 25, 1984. Gary's wife Ruthann is sighted.

Patty Rasmussen is a blind woman who lives in Orange County, California. She and her husband Brent are both employed as programmers by Rockwell International. They have been trying to adopt a child, and (as might be expected considering the attitudes of the general public about blindness) they have been having trouble with a social worker. In fact, the social worker was about to close the case and not even do a human study when California Federationists took a hand. The human study proceeded, but a letter from a successful blind parent was needed as a reinforcer.

Gary and Denise Mackenstadt live in the state of Washington, where Gary is the President of the NFB state affiliate. The Mackenstadts know the Rasmussens. They also know Gary Wunder. Late in August Patty Rasmussen and Gary talked by phone. The following letter is self-explanatory and shows the Federation in action. If we do not help ourselves and each other, who will do it?

Columbia, Missouri
August 24, 1985

Dear Patty:

Thank you very much for calling this evening to inquire about blind people adopting children. I enjoy any chance to talk about Melissa and to relive those days of anxious anticipation. I should say that those days are fonder in memory than they ever were in reality. Waiting for a child isn't pleasant, and never before have I been in a situation where I wanted something so badly and had so little power to bring it about.

My wife and I got Melissa when she was four and one-half months old. We adopted her through Family and Childrens Services of Kansas City, Inc. Should you wish to speak with someone from that agency, you may do so by calling (816) 753-5280. The Director is Ms. Margaret McCorkendale, and I am sure she will be delighted to talk with you. Margaret visited with us two times after Missy's placement with us. The worker covering this part of the state was forced to leave the agency because of possible conflicts involving her full-time employment with the state of Missouri.

My wife, Ruthann, and I both agreed to use all of our vacation time separately when Missy arrived in order to increase the time for bonding. I took off the first six weeks and Ruthann took off the next four. This was a wonderful opportunity for me, because I was able to establish a close relationship with my daughter that many fathers don't get until their child is considerably older. Since both Ruthann and I have full-time employment, we do our best to share in the care of our daughter. There are no specific duties that fall to either of us. We simply do what needs to be done.

Being a new parent was both exciting and scary. I haven't found any part of it to be difficult, but everything is so new at first that one wonders at times how the child must feel about these new people who take twice as long as the veterans. Our child came after being in the care of an experienced set of foster parents. Experienced parents make up bottles before they are needed. Experienced parents don't start changing a diaper at one end of the house and then realize that the clean diapers and wipes are at the other end. Experienced parents don't dress up a child two hours before they want to show her off, and yes, experienced parents don't seek out bargain brand diapers unless they, too, wish to change clothes frequently.

You asked whether there are any classes specifically oriented to blind parents, and I think the answer is no. The techniques I use in parenting are the same ones used by other parents in my generation, be they blind or sighted. I do, of course, transfer the techniques I use to function as a blind person so that they meet the demands of being a parent. If I want to know where Missy is, I listen rather than look. I note that disposable diapers are wonderful because they make noise each time the child moves. This is often true even if Missy just moves her arm. I find I am constantly aware of Missy's location even though I now make no conscious effort to do so.

In terms of developing a technique for diapering, I was given a doll as a joke by some friends who knew Ruthann and I were adopting. Since I had never taken care of an infant before, I thanked them and bought a box of disposable diapers for it. We had already been given some second-hand clothing and I probably spent about half an hour repeatedly dressing and undressing the toy. I suspect some of that time was spent in developing a technique, but I know a good deal of it was just in doing something that made the possibility of having a child a bit more real and tangible.

I use no special techniques in preparing bottles. We have used all kinds of formula from powder to liquid. My preference is to make up seven or eight bottles at a time simply to get the chore out of the way. When Missy first came to us we heated all her bottles in boiling water. We soon found the microwave to be every bit as good, and we never find ourselves faced with the necessity of having to cool off a bottle that got too warm because the baby had another need that she felt demanded our immediate attention.

One thing I found frustrating for a time was feeding. I found that holding the child on my lap gave me a better sense of what she was doing. The problem we had at first was that I wanted to place my finger on her cheek to see where she happened to be looking at the time I was delivering the spoon full of food. Her reaction, however, was to turn toward my finger whenever she felt my touch. I soon found that I could use this technique to assure that her mouth would always be in the right place and simply deliver the spoon to that area.

That wasn't how I planned it, but why argue with success.

I have only one other suggestion about feeding. Feed a child with him or her wearing as little clothing as possible. I found that having Missy in nothing more than a diaper was ideal. In this case, who cares about a mess? There is nothing you can do (including spilling a spoon full of baby food) that can't be repaired with a damp cloth.

Since I work for a hospital and avail myself of every opportunity to talk with classes having some bearing on blindness, I am often asked by students how I will administer medication. My technique is simply to label each bottle of medicine with a tape containing Braille. If the instructions for administering it are complex, I write them down in Braille and file them. If I have reason to believe Missy will not wish to take the medicine, I mix it with something I know she'll like, such as a bottle of warm milk or cold juice.

One thing my daughter dearly loves is movement. This is fortunate for me because I love to walk. I have found a baby carrier very helpful because it leaves both hands free. This is a real plus when one hand must be used with the cane. Missy is very fond of the closeness afforded by the carrier, and when we first got her, there were even times when she demanded to be in it while we sat at home. The only problem I can see with it is that you can't take the child for a long walk and expect her to appreciate all the time you spent entertaining her. Missy usually goes to sleep, wakes up at the conclusion of the trip, and says: "Okay, my nap time is over. Now that you've had some time off, let's play."

Now that she is a bit older, Missy often does the walking for herself. Usually we hold each other's hand but that can be tiring after a time with her reaching so far up and me bending so far down. A child's harness is very convenient. It fastens about the arms and middle of the child and has a strap long enough to easily loop around an adult's wrist. Some folks believe it is degrading to have children on a leash, but for my money it's just good sense. I know where Missy is at all times, we are both comfortable, and no one will walk away with her without my noticing.

Having failed to think of other special techniques or problems to relate, I asked Ruthann for help and she came up with some things worth writing down. First, I have one heck of a time when taking Missy to homes not accustomed to visits from small children. If a house is not baby proofed, I either have to hold Missy on my lap throughout our visit, or spend all my time following her around to see whether she is eating a plant, turning over an ashtray, or eating a paper clip that someone left on the carpet. To be sure, this is a problem for all parents, be they blind or sighted. My wife, however, can do her policing from an armchair, while I must crawl around on the floor. None of this stops us from going, but it is something to be aware of and plan for.

Ruthann notes that I often tape special events using a standard cassette recorder. This is not for Missy but for me. She snaps pictures, and I record away. Whether we will ever listen to those childish noises or not I can't say, but the fun for now is just in the doing.

Both Ruthann and I love to read and hope to stimulate an interest in Missy. I read to Missy using Twin Vision Books. These books are written in both Braille and print so I can read and she can look at the words and pictures. These books are produced and distributed without cost by the American Brotherhood for the Blind. Since the Brotherhood makes them available widely throughout the country, you should be able to get them from any library serving the blind.

I can only think of one incident thus far that was made more difficult because I am blind. Several months ago Missy was ill and obviously had a temperature. I gave her some medicine and she went to sleep, but it seemed to me that her temperature was abnormally high. After thinking about all the problems that can result from a severe fever, I decided to call the emergency room to ask their advice. They asked if she had a temperature and I replied that she did. How much, was their next question, and I couldn't say. So it was that Missy and I found ourselves in a cab heading for the hospital at three in the morning. Her temperature: 103. Medical advice: Keep doing what you were doing.

After spending fifty dollars on a trip to the emergency room, I broke down and bought a $100 audible thermometer. I thought it would be less expensive than the cabs and the doctors. To date I haven't used it once. A number of blind parents refuse to buy such devices because of their cost and because they can tell by touch whether or not the temperature elevation is sufficient to cause concern. I believe I can do the same thing now but feel better about being able to place a number on my concern.

That's about it as far as helpful advice. Feel free to ask me any specific questions I might have failed to answer. One thing that comes to mind is that there is a difference between specific concrete questions and a what if scenario. I have a friend who was terribly excited about our getting a child, but who lives in fear whenever he hears that I am alone with Missy. "What if you are carrying Missy and you fall and she falls on something sharp and you don't notice her bleeding and..." In the first place, I have never fallen when carrying Missy, the chances that Missy would land on anything besides me are slim, and the chances of her sustaining an injury serious enough to cause bleeding without my knowledge are zero. I understand that his concern is genuine, but that doesn't make it any more reasonable or worthy of worry.

Having exhausted my store of knowledge about being a blind parent, I now take this opportunity to relate my victories and defeats as a male parent. First, my daughter likes me and that, it seems to me, is a victory. Far too many fathers find themselves without friendly children until the kids are old enough to play ball.

Now my major defeat: I have a devil of a time with little girls' clothing. Dressing when you are a man is easy: all buttons go in the front, all buttons are on the right, all shirts have a label in the back so if they don't have buttons, dumb men still can wear them correctly. I can't find one rule that holds true for women. Not all Missy's clothes have labels, some button in the front while others button in the back. Some don't even have buttons. They look like something long ago discarded as a cleaning rag until they are magically tied around Missy's body, at which point they magically look like little girls' clothes. I'm becoming fonder each day of blue jeans and a simple shirt.

Please let me know if I can help in any way. Best wishes, and please keep in touch.

Gary Wunder