On Being a Blind Mother

Editor’s note: This is second in our series for Mother’s Day. We hope you will read and comment.

Just Like Any Other Parent

Mary Hiland

How do you explain blindness to a two-year-old? You don’t. You don’t need to. As a mother of a son and a daughter and a grandmother of five granddaughters, I have some memories pertaining to my blindness I’d like to share with you.

I don’t recall explaining why I couldn’t see to either of my children. Because they grew up with a mother with very limited sight(as a result of retinitis pigmentosa), that was the normal for them. One parent couldn’t see so well, and the other could see just fine. So when it came to reading notes from school , teaching them how to ride a bike, or driving, it was their dad who took care of that. When it came time for changing a diaper, kissing a booboo or making dinner, that was my department, and blindness was not an issue. It wasn’t even a consideration. I have my husband’s positive attitude to thank for that.

How the Children Help

One of my favorite stories to tell is about how Steve, as a 3-year-old, would make sure I knew where he was at all times. when he was outside playing, I followed him around, so I could keep an ear on him. “I’m over here Mommy,” he would call. “Now I’m over here,” he would shout as he ran to the next toy or piece of playground equipment. It was I who took him to swimming lessons, although I didn’t know how to swim myself,. But I could hold him in the water and encourage him to blow bubbles or jump off the side of the pool while I held onto him, just like all the other mothers. It was I who pulled him in the wagon on the sidewalks around our neighborhood, with my very limited vision. Although my sighted husband read to him, I looked at the books with him as he placed my hands on the pictures. When he came home from kindergarten with a picture he had drawn, he would instruct me on where to touch it, and then I’d ask him to tell me about the picture.

When Kara came along, he adopted the very important role of being a big brother. We lived in a split-level house, and when we were upstairs, and Kara was in her little walking contraption called a Hula-coop, Steve would lie on the floor at the top of the steps and proclaim, “I’ll betect her Mommy.”

As a little girl, Kara learned from her brother that when she showed something to me, she needed to put it in my hand and that pointing to something or shaking your head wasn’t going to work. Her vocabulary, like Steve’s was more advanced than her peers, because they both grew up learning to use words at all times. They both learned to read at an early age, because by the time they were of school age, I had been asking them to help me read the labels on canned goods. I particularly remember asking Kara to help me pick out a can of chicken noodle soup. At that time, I hadn’t yet learned how to be a blind person and mark my cans with braille. “What letters do you see on this can?” I would ask four-year-old Kara. “Well, there’s a stick that goes up and down with a hat on it. Then there’s a circle.” Okay, that must be tomato soup, and we’d go on to the next can. “This one has a half of a circle, and then the next one is two sticks with a line in the middle.” Aha. the chicken noodle soup.

No Excuses

Later, when I was required to attend Little League baseball games, I’d sit in a lawn chair and cheer whenever the other parents cheered, while I silently prayed I wouldn’t get hit in the head by a foul ball. Miraculously, I never did.

During one game, when Steve was nine or so, and Kara was about six, Kara wanted to go to the playground nearby. I thought we could sneak off and nobody would notice. After all, it was pretty boring for a six-year-old to watch a brother’s baseball game. But as soon as we had reached the slide and swing set, I heard Steve call from the outfield, “Hey Mom, you’re supposed to be watching me!” Oops. Busted. He didn’t care if I could see him or not. It was just important for me to be there.

And then there were Kara’s baton competitions. I sat on bleachers in gymnasiums for hours at a time, listening to taped marches and polite applause from time to time. Tap dancing and choir concerts I could appreciate, but baton twirling? It was Kara’s passion for a couple of years, and it was frustrating to me to not be able to watch her perform and compete. I had to rely on the comments from other mothers. I guess she was pretty good though, because she became a drum majorette in high school. Again, even though I couldn’t see how well she twirled, it was important for me to be there anyway.

Training to be a Human Guide

Even when Kara was only eight or so, she and I would go to events together on the para-transit. We went to the Columbus Arts Festival, and she would describe what she was seeing.

She grew up being a sighted (human) guide, and now it’s second nature for her. We laughed when she was in college, and she’d sit down at the table with her friends at a restaurant and start reading the menu aloud. She also became very aware of how insensitive the public can be about people with disabilities and especially about guide dogs. One time when we went to the Ohio State Fair together, we stopped in the restroom to give my Seeing Eye dog a drink of water. Kara had filled the bowl and was holding it for my dog. A woman came over and stood there, staring, as if she had never seen a dog drink before. Instead of saying something like, “What are you staring at?” Kara very pointedly looked up at the woman, made eye contact, and gave her a little wave..” She didn’t need to say a word, but she sent her message clearly. My daughter is now quite the competent advocate.

The Next Generation

brailled and low vision monopoly board, braille dominoes, braille dice, braille Scrabble, Chinese checkers

At this writing, I have five granddaughters, four teenagers and a two-year-old. The older girls have been taught to tell me when they are leaving the room and when they have come back, thanks to Kara’s example and instruction. They are very comfortable with having a blind grandmother, because that’s what they have known all their lives. We play games with brailled cards or game pieces, like Scrabble, Uno, and Blurt. We played a game called Caboola, which involves moving marbles from one well into another, a very tactile game that the younger girls enjoyed and that required no sighted help. Kara bought brailled children’s books, so I could read to the girls at bedtime. They learned to respect guide dogs and not to point and exclaim when they saw a person with a disability in public.

My toddler granddaughter is now learning to put things in my hands and to speak more clearly when she is addressing me.

Some Challenges

It hasn’t always been easy.

  • Just as I have to organize transportation for myself these days, I spent hours on the phone asking for rides when my children were little. Their dad wasn’t always available to take them to baseball practice, or gymnastics or ballet lessons. He did have to work after all.
  • Sometimes, I had to rely on their knowledge of colors to help them lay out their clothes for school the next day. Steve always cracked me up when I’d ask him about something that was beige. “I don’t know what that color is Mom. It’s no color,” he’d say.
  • I can remember my frustration and Kara’s too, when I tried to curl her hair. A beautician I would never be.
  • When we’d go to the baby pool, and I’d be sitting on the edge, I’d insist on their responding to me immediately when I’d call their names. I was very serious about this rule. No trying to fool Mommy. They must have played tricks on me. What kid wouldn’t? But I can’t recall a single time.

Making Me Proud

The proudest I’ve ever been was the time when Kara’s inlaws came for a visit, and they all decided to go bowling. Not wanting me to be left out, Kara tried to find a place that provided railings for blind bowlers. But finding none, she offered to be the railing herself. I knew this was a great sacrifice for her, because we would be quite the spectacle. . She’d hold my left arm and walk with me as I approached the foul line and tell me when to deliver the ball. I still wasn’t any good, but I’ll always be grateful to her for not being embarrassed, because you know, everybody in the place was probably watching us. If we’d been playing baseball, I’d say, she really “stepped up to the plate”!

From Her Point of View

I won’t say that my children and/or grandchildren were never uncomfortable or embarrassed or unsure what to do. And I’ve wondered from time to time if they ever felt cheated because of my blindness. My daughter, particularly, has a way of making me feel comfortable and not conspicuous, and she’s a natural at guiding and describing . She always tries to include me in their family activities when I’m visiting and encourages interaction with her children. One of the greatest compliments I ever received came from her husband when I had gone to help out following the birth of their first baby. On the day I was to leave, my son-in-law and my daughter came to me and asked if I could stay two more days. I must have been doing something right, because how many times does a young father ask his mother-in-law to stay longer? Perhaps one day, when she isn’t dealing with teenage drama and running after a two-year-old, she’ll tell me her side of the story.

Did you miss yesterday’s post? Check out Motherhood with Vision Loss to learn about DeAnna’s experience as a visually impaired mother.