Mom, do you have your ears on?
I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things.Mother Teresa
I was seven. It was a sunny Saturday around noon. Mikey, Erin and I were still in our pajamas, playing in the TV room with our babysitter. Dad and Mom went out early that morning. When they returned, Mom sat the three of us down on the blue loveseat and opened a gray jewelry case, revealing two confusing little devices. Messes of tubes and rather large beige earpieces made up her first pair of hearing aids. I am sure Mom explained to us what these would accomplish, but I do not remember understanding.
I wrote this in 2004 as a part of my Mom’s story. I’m glad I did. The memory is more faded now, though I still remember the way the light flooded the room that morning and sitting next to my brother and sister.
I’ve had hearing aids since before my kids were born, so they have only ever known “mom’s ears.” They know what’s possible when I’m wearing them and when I’m not. In the morning, they greet me with, “Mom, do you have your ears on?” and adjust their volume and gesturing accordingly. It makes me smile because it is EXACTLY what my siblings and I used to do with Mom.
This past summer, Reese (7) and Addie (then 5) started to ask more questions about my hearing aids and what I can and can’t hear. They started to notice when I would miss something. And then, without asking or planning, they started to accommodate for me. They started listening more intently in public and social situations and repeating words I missed. They would make sure I didn’t walk by someone who asked a question without responding. They started to help me hear.
Any time there was talking, laughing, screaming, warning, or crying, my brother, sisters, and I were Mom’s interpreters. We were always listening for her and a lot of children don’t listen for their parents; they don’t have to. Mom never asked us to listen but we always did. Teachers, friends, phone calls, horn honks, deliveries, teapots, doorbells, sirens, dogs barking, cashiers, anything.
Having grown up surrounded by deafness, I never thought twice about the normalcy of Mom or our life, until second grade, when a classmate questioned me: “How come you talk funny sometimes when you talk to your family? And how come your mom doesn’t say hi back when I say hi? Why doesn’t she like me?” It hit me. Mom was different and, as a family, there were things that we did differently.
Just this past Fall, I visited Reese’s second grade class to volunteer – an experience that took me out of my comfort zone. While I love school and young people, I knew walking in that there is no guarantee I would be able to hear and understand any of the other children. Children’s voices are challenging – they’re higher, faster, mumbly, unpredictable. And if I haven’t had prior practice hearing a voice, I’m unable to anticipate and layer on the context of knowing a person, her family, likes and dislikes, and what she usually talks about. Beyond my three, there are only a handful of other kids with whom I can talk easily. So a classroom full of new faces and voices – treacherous, anxiety inducing, a risky undertaking.
So I brought a secret weapon – Jimmy. I told Jimmy and Reese that they would have to help me. And they did! In the end, we were successful and exhausted. Weeks later, Reese said, “the kids in my class were asking what you wear behind your ears.” “What did you say?” “I told them you have hearing aids because it’s hard for you to hear.” “What did they think?” “That it’s different.”
I have found that kids seem accepting of difference now. While it’s not perfect by any means, we do a better job celebrating and educating around difference. Reese and Addie are in class with kids of all abilities, strengths, and challenges. From allergies to autism, our babies know what to call differences that were at best ignored or worst ridiculed when I was in elementary school. Having language to talk about things matters. Intentionally reinforcing inclusion and understanding matters. This gives me a lot of hope for the future.
Parenting is not easy. Parenting with hearing loss complicates simple things. Having my kids on my side makes the world more manageable; it makes us a team. For me, hearing is a team effort.