“My Daddy is Death.”
It’s a sentence all three of my kids have blurted out to random strangers while we are grocery shopping or hanging out at a playground. I shrug off, with an awkward chuckle, the baffled expressions I get from anyone who hears those words.
My older two children have since learned that the proper word is Deaf, not Death, but our younger boy is still inadvertently passing me off as the Grim Reaper. I don’t correct him yet, because I find it amusing still. Soon I’ll make it clear that he’s using the wrong word. I don’t blame kids for this tiny error. It’s an easy mistake. When my older brother and I were little deaf kids, we’d tell people, “We are Death.” Even I, as an adult, have had a slip of the tongue and accidentally said “services for the Death.”
All three of our children came to us through Foster Care because we choose to build our family through adoption. They are our little blessings, tantrums and all. Each child suddenly was faced with the interesting puzzle of having a dad who could not hear. Each child continues to learn what that means, how to deal with the challenges, and why it can be beneficial to have a deaf parent.
I remember when we first explained to our children, one at a time, about my being deaf. These times were two years apart, but essentially the same. Confusion, wary glances, and questions about why I was signing. What did it mean that I was moving my hands when I talked? “What does this mean?” one would ask, flapping his hands randomly.
Each time we added to our family there was, inevitably, a period where I’d be called by my kids and I wouldn’t turn around. Understanding that I really could not hear was a lesson that took a little time to sink in and accept. Once they did, we could really see improvement with communication. They learned to face me instead of stay in the other room. They learned to tap my shoulder to get my attention. They learned that signing what they need to express is always the best way, though laziness still pushes that lesson out of their minds quite often.
I become a broken record. Sign, please. Use your signs.
I always felt some fear, in the beginning of each adoption journey, that their foster care caseworkers would decide my being deaf was a reason to not place these children with us. I worried they would think I was incapable of parenting effectively. This fear comes easily after a lifetime of being perceived in ways that did not truly match who I am. Deaf parents are fully able to be good parents. We can be excellent as well, or terrible, just like someone with normal hearing can be. We are all different.
I’d go into those first meetings and right off the bat I’d feel compelled to express that it wouldn’t take me long to establish communication. I shouldn’t have to feel that need to justify myself in this way, but society is not yet where it needs to be as far as how we are perceived. So I explained. It got easier after the first child, because then I had a clear example of how it all works out.
With the first two children, I always felt relieved with how they never protested having to sign to me. They may get lazy at times and frustrated with being unclear, but never did they complain about it being necessary. I can lipread, but it takes so much effort and is unreliable. With our third child, there’s an interesting combination of reluctance to sign with having definite skills for clarity. He signs his sentences more completely, but doesn’t have a natural desire to learn more.
I resort to bribery, in the form of chewing gum, to expand their vocabularies. A desire to communicate with me simply isn’t always enough. Even though my middle child has at times mumbled through his tears, “I just want to be able to communicate with you,” he remains the one who signs the least. Instead, he tends to give me a string of fingerspelled letters that resemble a round of Wheel of Fortune, and the occasional sloppy sign.
Despite the challenges, I am determined. Being able to understand my kids is so important, that I know I would miss out on the richest aspects of who they are if I do not know what they say.
I have reached a point with all three that I can understand them fairly well. Our oldest, my daughter Ladybug*, is capable of deep and meaningful conversations entirely in sign language. Our middle child, Cricket, is the master of having to repeat what he says, and I can usually understand him on the second round if I didn’t on the first. It helps that I am good at guessing puzzles on Wheel of Fortune. Our youngest, Monkey, enunciates clearly enough that I can lipread him excellently at this point. This means that I don’t really need him to sign most of the time, but I still want him to learn. As his written and verbal vocabulary grows, it’ll become more difficult for me to lipread him, so I cannot rely on that.
If I am asked what it’s like to be a deaf dad, the easy answer is: it’s like being a dad. I love my children and I try to raise them, with my wife, as best as I can. I teach, I discipline, I praise, I commit the bulk of my free time toward my children. This is parenthood. Yet my parenthood has the unique qualities that come with being deaf. There are frustrations, to be sure, on both my part and the kids’ parts. Actually, there is frustration for my wife as well since — guess what? — she’s the one who needs to listen to the endless cacophony that comes with having three young children while I sit quietly and read my book. There are constant challenges for which solutions must be found, but I am always ready and willing to adapt.
There are also unexpected benefits for my children, both serious and silly. The silent conversations we can have in crowded restaurants or in the early morning hours when everyone else is asleep, or the free reign to use a toy megaphone-like thing that blasts out rude fart noises that would annoy any hearing adult. The communication from afar with little messages in sign language, such as when they’re up on stage ready to belt out Christmas songs with their class. The indulgent showing off signs that they know to their friends, celebrating their bilingualism with big smiles on their faces.
It’s not necessary to hear in order to be a caring parent. We just need to pay attention, however we are able.
*Nicknames are being used in this post to protect their identities.