Charlie Swinbourne shares the challenges and joys of being a deaf parent of hearing children
Before I tell you what’s different about being a deaf parent, let me tell you what’s the same: feeding your children, changing them, hugging them, bathing them, clothing them, playing games, reading them stories, struggling to make them eat their vegetables and persuading them that they’ve watched enough CBeebies for the day. Most things, then.
Where it gets different is when it comes to communication. My wife and I are both deaf to different degrees. We rely on lip reading as well as listening through our hearing aids to help us understand people, and we use both speech and sign language with our daughters, who are four and two.
Each of them signed long before they learned to speak. Martha, our eldest, created sign names for her closest relatives and friends – ‘grandma’ was signed as ‘necklace’, her best friend was signed as ‘dimple’ and she named her sister ‘easy’, simply because it sounded like Edie.
I’ll never forget watching my wife Joanne signing The Very Hungry Caterpillar to Martha when she was about nine months old. Martha was captivated by how Joanne’s finger became the wriggling caterpillar and by how, at the end of the story, her hands became the butterfly, fluttering away into the air.
Signing made communication more personal, and we found Martha and Edie learned words much more quickly when they were signed compared to when they were spoken. By the age of three, Martha knew the whole alphabet through fingerspelling, and Edie enjoyed signing so much that my wife and I joked that we had a deaf baby.
Both of them seem naturally deaf-aware. They find it natural to tap us to get our attention (because they’ve learned we don’t always hear them when they call) and they’ll tell us when they hear the phone ring, or someone knocking at the door.
I had to laugh one day at Edie’s nursery when I saw her trying to talk to a boy who was lying on the floor. Because she is so visual in her communication, she wouldn’t speak to him until he was looking directly at her, and she ended up leaning down until her head was directly facing his – with their noses almost touching!
Martha and Edie love having fun with signs. The sign for ‘work’ is made by tapping one hand, turned on its side, against the other hand. One day I deliberately turned my hand the wrong way and they both burst out laughing. Then they started tapping their hands in the ‘wrong’ places too, on top of their heads, on their elbows and faces, and we all collapsed in giggles – sharing a joke of our own creation for the first time.
Although they started out signing, as they’ve had more childcare, speech has caught up, so our new challenge is gently reminding them to look at us if they’re speaking, or to sign if we don’t understand. We don’t make a big thing out of it though – we don’t want to take the fun out of communication.
There are other practical considerations. We currently rent a house with an open-plan living room and kitchen, so we can see the girls while we’re cooking and make sure they’re not up to any mischief. We also have a buzzing pager that tells us if one of them wakes up crying in the night (no jokes about vibrating beds please, although it can be surprisingly soothing).
One thing that can be tricky for us is getting the right information. Around a year ago, our daughter missed out on a nursery place when we misunderstood something her pre-school teacher told us and thought (wrongly) that we could only apply to one setting. Although we eventually got her a place, we felt mortified that we’d made such a basic mistake and wondered whether we’d have worked it out if we had been able to overhear other parents outside the nursery.
The flip side of being deaf is that we’re getting to know more and more of our daughters’ friends’ parents. It’s been fun going to parties full of people with chattering lips as well as parties with people who talk with their hands.
The fact that we’re deaf has never felt like a negative for us. Our family might seem different to most people, but for us, and for our daughters, it’s just what it is. It’s normal. It’s beautiful. And we wouldn’t change a thing.