It happened at Chick-fil-et this time. As I scrambled to grab utensils and ketchup packages before our food made it’s way to the table I saw a man talking to my friend who was listening and also scanning for me. I approached the table, taking stock of the man’s hearing aids and use of sign while he spoke. He was deaf and he’d spotted my son’s implant.
I love when we see adults or kids who wear hearing aids or cochlear implants. I usually make a point to show Liam and sometimes we’ll say hello. It doesn’t bother me and I want Liam to see other people who are also deaf. As I suspected this man had seen Liam. He asked about his implant and then mentioned when he talked to Liam he’d signed and Liam hadn’t really responded. Did he know sign language?
“No, not really. He knows a few signs, we did a little when he was first learning to listen and speak, but pretty soon he didn’t need it as much.”
“Oh. You know it might be helpful to have him learn sign. You never know what might happen that would have him need to be able to communicate with sign.”
I gave a bit of a non-committal answer and commented that yes, we do hope to get him interested in sign someday. This very kind man and I chatted for a bit longer, he made a point to say he’d be working there through the summer and he’d be happy to help Liam learn sign, adding that he knows how important it is for deaf kids to have role models in deaf adults. I thanked him and made a point to mention that Liam does have some adults and peers in his life who also wear cochlear implants. Later he came back to our table to ask if we liked to watch movies. He recommended one with Marlee Matlin, a famous Deaf actress, about parents with a deaf son who were trying to decide if their son should get a cochlear implant. I hadn’t heard of the movie and told him I’d check it out. I’m willing to bet there was at least a little of an anti-cochlear implant sentiment throughout the film.
On the surface it was a pretty benign conversation with a deaf man about my deaf son. And yet, because I am aware of the intricacies of Deaf culture, the complicated feelings about cochlear implants, and the judgements some make about the decisions hearing parents make for deaf children, I knew there was a lot going on underneath this polite conversations. I knew what he wasn’t necessarily saying and he likely knew the same for me.
Interactions like this stir in me a strange combination of both defensiveness and openness. The conversation is loaded and I wonder what assumptions this person has made about our family and our decisions and my ability to parent my son. I often replay these conversations, defensive about our choices, anxiously crafting imaginary arguments and point by point rebuttals of his unspoken judgments. And yet he knows something about the world my son exists in that I will never fully know. And I can’t discredit that. I want to listen when he speaks because he has something to teach me.
I am learning the truth that white parents of black and brown children have come to understand for decades, they need to look outside themselves to help their children navigate the world. There are identity issues and challenges that require parents to reach out to others who can understand these things in a different way. Even though I carried this child in my body, we will experience the world differently and I need to be open to understanding that.
And so I try to stay open. When I feel defensiveness creep up, when I want to shout, “I’m not a bad mother! I’m making thoughtful, intentional decisions for him!” in the face of a man who is genuinely trying to offer help and perspective that only he can, I need to stop and listen. I need to receive the information and let it shape my parenting.
But before it informs how I parent, I need to sift through it, to hold it up against decisions that I know deep in my bones were the right ones. I must first ground myself confidently in what I know is true. I am confident in our decisions. I know we did the right thing for Liam. And I know we are doing our very best to surround him with other deaf adults and peers.
I don’t have to let every opinion and perspective of every well meaning stranger inform my decisions with Liam. I only have to stay open. Open and grounded. Both/and.
I suspect this may be a parenting truth for us all. To stay grounded in the decisions we have made with careful intention while staying open to the understanding that there is always a different perspective that may be helpful. If we insecurely let everyone else’s opinions on parenting sway our every decision we will be inconsistent and unmoored, our poor children constantly having to adjust to whatever new idea we’ve decided we must chase down. But if we stubbornly dig into “our way” without allowing for outside wisdom we risk missing the deeply individual needs of our children, for even those for whom the apple does not fall far from the tree still are not exact replicas of their parents.
And so maybe we’ll head back to Chick-fil-et this summer for sign language lessons. I know this second language would be good for Liam and we have always said it’s a skill he needs. But I won’t regret or second guess our decision to focus first on listening and spoken language. It was the right choice for us and I'm glad we made it.