I am Deaf, my partner is hearing, and we're about to have a baby

June 18 | Guest post by Jen
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Shirt available here.

I am Deaf. Yes, Deaf with a capital 'D'. This means I embrace my culture and community as my identity. I have Waardenburg Syndrome, which means I have different coloured eyes, and bits of skin discolouration along with deafness. My parents are Deaf. A lot of my family members are also Deaf. So are most of my friends. We communicate using Auslan, which is also my first language. I can also speak English fluently, thanks to years of speech therapy during childhood. My boyfriend is hearing. I am the first Deaf person he and his family and friends have been exposed to. They have all embraced me and make allowances for my deafness (e.g. facing me head-on so I can lipread, making sure there is enough light, and so on).

I am pregnant. There is a chance the baby may be deaf (I use the little 'd' because the child may not choose the capital 'D' as their identity). I have explained to my partner that I will understand if he and his family are upset if the child is born deaf. I have also explained that I will be full of fury if he and his family state that they are relieved that the child has been born hearing. This was a complex thing to explain to my partner. How could I accept that his family could grieve over deafness, but not celebrate hearing?

I spoke to my Deaf friend who has a deaf baby about this. She understood completely, I did not need to explain. Yet we spoke about this in a way to try and understand more where we were coming from. We agreed that celebrating hearing was also in a way rejecting us as Deaf individuals. It says something along the terms of "You're ok as a 'hearing-impaired' person, but this isn't something we would want for anyone." We could understand hearing people grieving deafness, because most people who have not been exposed to deafness see this as a loss. The person or baby in this case, has lost music, they had lost voices, and they had lost being a copy of their parent.

I worry that my child, if they are born deaf, will miss out on contact with their family on their father's side. Being left out of family events, as I am too, not being able to follow fast conversations around the dinner table, or understanding why a certain thing is funny. What will happen when (hearing) cousins are born — will they see their family interact differently with the other child?

I also worry that my child, if they are born hearing, will not identify with my Deaf family. I have seen cases where the hearing children of Deaf parent/s do not enjoy being with Deaf people because they are different, and for a child that does not communicate primarily in Auslan, it is difficult to completely follow a conversation in fluent Auslan. Will my child prefer to listen and obey their father who is hearing and therefore speaks, over their mother who is Deaf and will speak in either a "funny" voice or use Auslan?

I do know that I will love my child, and so will both sides of the family, Deaf and hearing, regardless of whether they are born deaf or hearing. I know that we will adapt and I will, along with the child, learn better communication with everyone. I know this child will be a joy and a terror. This child will experience love and loneliness no matter where they go in life, and I will try to teach them to embrace the good and bad, and to accept or fight against certain situations. I try to explain this to my partner, and I try not to worry.

This child, and I, will be OK.

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  1. I'm the granddaughter of Deaf (capital D) grandparents who had three hearing children, and two hearing grandchildren (my brother and I). Over the years those children and grandchildren have traveled the world, brought in new members of the family (husbands and wives), and generally built their own lives, but we all sit around the dinner table and happily banter in ASL – if someone didn't understand it, they would be the one left out of the family circle, not the other way around. I grew up MUCH closer to my Deaf grandparents than my hearing grandparents, and when we have kids (if they're hearing; I've got about a 25% chance of having deaf kids) I fully intend to teach them ASL, even if my grandparents don't live long enough for it to be very useful, because it's become a part of my family's identity.

    I say all this to explain that yes, maybe hearing children of Deaf parents might want to go their own way and identify with other cultures, but it can also be a huge, positive, loving part of their identities, and can become an enormously positive experience. I also say this because over the years a lot of hearing people have entered into my family, and they have invariably worked hard to communicate with their Deaf loved ones, learning ASL and making sure they feel included.

    I don't blame you for worrying (isn't that the whole point of being a mom?!), but having watched my mixed hearing-and-Deaf family evolve over the years I've learned that, if anything, it just brings the two sides closer together.

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    • Thank you for your comment. I do hope that this child will feel the way you do. My sister (who is hearing) has two hearing daughters. The older daughter is a year old and only knows a few signs. I don't know how much they will learn as they get older – perhaps just enough to communicate? Perhaps fluently? Who knows.

      Your grandparents are very lucky that people who have come into the family make the effort to learn ASL. This was wonderful to read.

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    • Yes, this guy is excellent. His comics are great! Although it is worth remembering that his wife is an interpreter and therefore communicates exclusively in ASL (I assume) with her husband. My partner and I speak to each other, and he is ever-so-slowly learning Auslan, which is great! Hopefully by the time our kid is as old as Cedric (the guy's kid) is, my partner will be just as fluent as the wife is!

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  2. I'm guessing that in the ebb and flow of your child's life there will be moments that they identify or listen to your husband more than you, and vice versa. I remember my mom telling me once, as a kid, that they did research on babies who listened to their mother's singing lullabies, and the children always preferred their mother to even trained singers.

    While not the same, I've had to have several talks with my husband about being supportive. As an adoptee, my son is the son of an adoptee, which means he will be effected by my adoptedness. When my husband dismissed this, I had to explain things like family tree assignments (does he do my adoptive parents, like I did as a kid? or my biological parents, who I'm now in reunion with and are his actual blood ancestors?). It took several discussions for my husband to have those lightbulb moments πŸ™‚ So make sure yours is on board and really supportive of you and your experience…I think that's what kids pick up on!

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  3. No time to comment more now, but I wanted to say I love this essay. Thanks for sharing – it gave me lots to think about!

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  4. The extended fam (aka chris and I) already love and accept the new addition. Regardless. We just hope he/she gets their looks from their mothers side xxx

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    • Thank you! πŸ™‚ We've discussed what we hope the kid gets from each side. We have agreed everything from my side, but taste in music from his side (pun intended)!

  5. Interesting post. My friend is hearing, and neither of her parents can hear. It has resulted in some interesting experiences for her, and some challenges for them all, but they are such a loving family, and I think that's what it all comes down to. Much love.

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  6. This brings up so many issues in addition to the things about deafness – things regarding expectation, and how to deal with it when a likeness to one parent or one side of the family means an unlikeness to the other parent or the other side of the family.

    I'm glad that you're working through these feelings, particularly because (at least the way you've phrased it here) your feelings about your partner's emotions put him and his family in a really hard place, something of a catch 22. I mean, relief is having an anxiety or difficulty that is lifted. So the loss and the relief are pretty much two halves of the same emotion – if I look towards a future event and see a potential loss, if that loss does not happen, it is a relief.

    I think I might have a way of phrasing this that is a little less paradoxical for your partner and his family. Basically, you need everyone to acknowledge that either the way the baby is born, whether it is deaf or hearing, is BOTH a loss and a gain. You can already see it both ways. You're positioned to very clearly and viscerally see what some people would regard as a "disability" as an advantage, but you can also understand how they could see it as a loss. You can also see how what some people would regard as "avoiding a disability" as a loss, even though you can also understand the advantages of that situation. So you're in a position to sympathize with whatever happens.

    It sounds like you're afraid, though, that your boyfriend and his family might not be able to see how a hearing baby would not be a PURE gain. It's not so much that they shouldn't celebrate it at all – I mean, surely there would be ways in which you would feel celebratory if the baby were like you in this way, and it would make sense for them to feel the same way. But you also know how you would sympathize with their loss if the baby were deaf. It sounds like you think that they'd ignore and belittle your grief and sense of loss if they celebrated, because they'd be treating it as "avoiding a disability."

    It might help if you try to think about how their celebration if the baby is like them in this way is not necessarily a rejection of you or your loss, just like your celebration if the baby were like you wouldn't be a rejection of them and their loss. Of course you would – and should – be furious if the baby was born hearing and they treated it as though it had simply avoided a terrible fate and there was no trade-off or possible loss involved. But I don't think it's fair for you to restrict them from celebrating the very same thing you would yourself celebrate from the other direction, as long as they acknowledge your losses (and the baby's), as you would theirs (and the baby's).

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    • hmm, I would say that you put some aspects of this into words very well! There's always going to be gain and loss and it's important to acknowledge these feelings.

      I'd make a difference between the loss/gain for the hearing and the Deaf people involved though, because of how they are perceived by the society overall. Hearing people don't HAVE to concern themselves with the challenges Deaf and deaf people face. These obstacles can be met as a Deaf community and be used to create an identity, but they can still be obstacles too. So, considering ability-priviledge, I'd say that I can understand that a Deaf person would feel differently about hearing family being happy about a likeness than about being unhappy about what they do not see as a lack (deafness as cannot hear) but as a community, as being Deaf, as something they HAVE.

      (Every individual needs to acknowledge their feelings and it's important to deal with them, but maybe it's also important for hearing people who love/like Deaf (or deaf) people, that sometimes they need to deal with their shit in a way that doesn't put it on the Deaf person. Deaf people deal with that shit all the time (and they'll deal with it for you, because they care about you too, but maybe they shouldn't have to?).

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  7. Thank you so much for this helpful insight into your thoughts and feelings as you await the arrival of your baby. As the mum of a deaf child, I am well aware of the 'steps' that are taken to quickly identify a deaf child and provide them with hearing aids and early intervention support from a very young age. When you are not expecting your child to be born deaf, you just jump on the early intervention train and do whatever the professionals suggest. It is often not until several months later that you have the chance to sit back and reflect upon the other options you could have pursued in assisting your child to develop their communication skills. If your child is deaf, will you be utilising hearing aids etc. early on or will you use Auslan from the outset?

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    • Yes, the often frantic steps taken in Australia for early intervention can be very aggressive and narrowly focused on making the child hear, and not so much on all alternatives (i.e. cochlear implants, aggressive speech therapy, rather than hearing aids and a bilingual approach). I think in situations where a deaf child is born to deaf parents or parents who have been exposed to deafness, they are luckier in a sense because they already are aware of how the future could look for the deaf child. For me, it would be like having a child that is born with, say, a heart defect, or Downs Syndrome, as someone who is peripherally, but not completely aware, I don't know what the future holds and what steps I can take to make sure my child is not disadvantaged.

      If my child is deaf, they will have hearing aids (as I do) and use a bilingual approach using both Auslan and English. The child's first language will probably be Auslan whether they are deaf or hearing. I, and many people within Deaf communities, strongly advocate a bilingual approach to deaf children, and seeing how the child develops as they get older. Sometimes kids prefer to speak, which is just as OK as a child who prefer to sign. As long as they have had the opportunity to communicate in both languages and therefore do not miss out on communication (especially with families), rather than missing out on either method.

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  8. Ok, so I'm teaching a CCD class with a book published in 1999. In the book, it makes a note of "Name people with disabilities as people first. Their disability can be named next, if it needs to be named at all. For example, if necessary, refer to 'a woman who cannot see' rather than 'a blind woman'." What I'm getting from this article is that the CCD book's approach would be preferential for a person who identifies as deaf but not a person who identifies as Deaf. Is this correct? And does anyone have any resources for people from various disabled communities that are more up to date when it comes to how people identify?

    • I don't know what CCD stands for! But yes, your assumption outlined above is correct. People who identify as deaf or more often hearing impaired prefer not to have their "disability" noted (I use quotation marks because Deaf people do not see their deafness as a disability). And a person who identifies as Deaf will often, but not always, use the word deaf with a capital D as an identifier.

      There are so many resources about how deaf people identify themselves, I would be happy to pass on some links. But from what I know – and bear in mind, this is limited knowledge – most other people with disabilities do not use their disabilities as an identifier. Some do. But I find that the people who do use their disabilities as part of their identity are usually advocates within the disability and wider communities. This could be because Deaf people believe we have a community and a culture that is built around this sense (or lack of sense). We have our own societies, sporting clubs, schools, and many more including our own Olympics – Deaflympics.

      In relation to your question, I follow this website which is Australian focused: http://www.abc.net.au/rampup/ and all about disabilities, and are articles written by people with disabilities. I don't know how many are about identities though. I hope I have clarified a little!

      • Yeah, that sounds like: Don't define a person in negatives. Don't define a person by a lack.

        Deaf as a identifier signifies something people HAVE, a community, deaf something they cannot do (hear).

        It sounds like always good advice, don't look for the negatives, look for the positives! (A memory of feedback groups where we were specifically instructed to mention what we LIKED pops up.)

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      • CCD stands for "Confraternity of Christian Doctrine"; basically it's a Sunday school class for Catholics. And thank for the input!

  9. I am hearing, my husband is Deaf, and we have a baby. We also know tons of other d/Deaf parents (some married to hearing folk, some not), some with hearing kids, some with deaf kids.

    Here's what I've learned:
    1) Enforce a "we ALL sign when [Deaf parent] is around" policy. I see waaaay too many kids who get away with mouthing (yes! mouthing! not even speaking!) to their Deaf parents. They know how to sign; they just would rather get away with being lazy.
    2) Expose your kids (deaf or hearing) to Deaf role models. We plan on taking Baby to a Deaf dentist practice once he's old enough to need regular dental work, for example.
    3) Make sure you find a pediatrician who will count Auslan signs as "words" for developmental purposes.
    4) We found a signing doula, and that made all the difference at Baby's birth for us.
    5) Beware hospital audiologists, if you have to encounter any! It's state law where we live that every newborn have a hearing test administered. Our experience with those audiologists was not great. They were definitely coming from the deafness-as-deficiency school. In retrospect, I would've said before they administered the test, "Just so you know, we will be happy if Baby is deaf, and happy if Baby is hearing. It doesn't matter to us." (Well, Husband would've liked a deaf baby, but his deafness is congenital, not genetic.)

    The *only* adjustments we have with Husband's deafness as parents is that when I leave for work first in the morning (we switch off days, who has to leave first), I have to get Baby out of his crib and put him in bed with Husband so that Husband won't sleep through Baby's crying. Oh, and I had to bust a lot of ass to get interpreters at the pediatric appointments, but the Americans with Disabilities Act is a wonderful thing. I won in the end!

    GOOD LUCK!! Hope you have a beautiful baby whose first sign is MAMA!!!

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    • Hello!

      It's so good to hear from a person who is in a hearing/deaf relationship. It's kind of rare in Australia. I agree with a lot of your observations, they happen here too. Especially the hearing test – it happens on day two of baby's life. And the audiologists all highly recommend cochlear implants with only spoken English. They are not educated on the alternatives here in Australia, unfortunately.

      I guess I am lucky because I have worked in advocacy for deafness-related things for years, so I know how to get what I want/need for my child whether they are deaf or hearing. Thank you for commenting! πŸ™‚

      • I took an elective class in med school on Deaf culture and German sign language at Uni. The previous year they had a ped-audiologist come in an talk at one session. The year I took the class he refused to come…. Apperantly some uncomfortable questions about the actual necessity of cochlear implants and the real successes that come from it had been asked the previous year. So I get the impression that audiologists around the word share similar attitudes.

        Not that I think cochlear implants can't be a great thing, but saying to parents who've never considered that their baby might be non-hearing that their kid is deaf, but don't worry we can fix that, is simply untrue.

        Anyways, I wish you so much happiness with your kid!

  10. Most members of my husband's family are affected by Waardenburg, too, and I just wanted to tell you that my hearing children are way closer to his side of the family than mine. All you can do is appreciate the fact that your child(ren) are loved in many languages. So awesome.

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  11. Hey, Jen!
    tks for the awsome story. I'm a brazilian journalist and my ex-husband had a Deaf boy. I learned LIBRAS (the Brazilian Deaf Language) to communicate, although he could understand me.
    We are not together anymore, but I'm so glad for this little Deaf (now a big man) and his father for their presence in my life. Differences are the best thing in live. They're hard to live with, they call for our best (and worse), but I trust at the end, they make us better humans.
    One of the most beautiful things I've seen in life was a public bus full of Deaf students talking. So silent (for me, a listener) and so full of meaning! I believe, in my heart, that Deaf persons are a blessing for the listeners they live with.
    Best from Brazil!

  12. I am late deafen (meaning l had hearing for all my childhood, teenage, and young adult life… My Husband and two older daughters are hearing as well as all our family, I had a baby 4 years after losing my hearing my biggest fear was not hearing him cry not knowing when he needed me, he is 2 and a half years old now and is also hearing he's known from a little guy just starting to walk that he needs to come get me when he needs something he doesn't cry when he and I are alone he comes and puts my hand where he hurts or comes and gets me and walks me to where he needs to go… Your baby will learn to communicate with you whether he/she can hear like daddy and he/she will have a special bond that only you two share because of the deaf/hearing or deaf/deaf it makes your mommy time that much more special !!

    Happy Baby times all will work out !!

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