The Voice Of A Mother

By Lydia Denworth | January 22, 2009 | The New York Times | Topics: Hearing and Sound, Parenting and Family

I parent with my voice. Like mothers everywhere, I soothe and cajole, read and sing, teach and explain, reprimand and, though I’m not proud of it, yell. I like to think that whatever wisdom I’ve gained in 10 years of mothering my three boys is displayed in how I talk to my children, and how I answer their questions. Like a conductor, I know when to bring in the violins and when to bring in the brass. With my youngest son, Alex, who can’t hear well, I sometimes feel that I’m mothering with a tiny repertoire, that I’m limited to the drums.

If Alex had been born deaf, we would have learned sign language immediately. But we didn’t know there was a problem until he was 18 months old. At that point, the loss wasn’t as severe and hearing aids helped tremendously. When he lost his hearing entirely in the right ear, he was already launched on learning to speak and listen. We got a cochlear implant, and his progress was stunning. With his cochlear implant and the hearing aid he wears in the other ear, he can now hear quite well and his language skills are age appropriate.

But sometimes there’s too much background noise. The stockpile of books I brought to read to him on our first airplane trip across the country was useless because he couldn’t hear I word I said over the steady hum of the engines. I could yell the words or we could draw for six hours. We drew.

And sometimes he doesn’t have his equipment on. Then my regular speaking voice sounds like a whisper. When he was a baby, before we knew about his hearing loss, he never heard me when I whispered “I love you” or sang him soft lullabies.

Now that he’s five, our conversations have gotten more complicated. Like most kids, he saves the big questions for bedtime when he’s already taken off his implant. One night last September, he was settled in bed when he looked outside and saw two huge floodlights sending their beams up into the far reaches of the night sky. It was the annual September 11 memorial, visible from our Brooklyn home.

“What happened to the buildings?” he wanted to know. And then, “what happened to the people? ” I was somber, trying to answer simply. But he kept repeating: “Say it louder.” Finally, I was reduced to shouting: “THEY DIED!” And then, feeling singularly inept, I went downstairs and cried. There was nothing wise about that parenting moment. Next time, I’ll put the processor back on.

Our family begins sign-language lessons this week. Maybe this will help. But I believe the true benefit of learning sign language will be to give Alex access to the deaf community. Although signing “they died” may not have felt as harsh as shouting it, I doubt sign language would have allowed me to improve my approach. It’s not my native language, and it’s a language I will be learning along with Alex and in which it will take years and considerable effort to become fluent. It is fluency, with its attendant subtlety and nuance, that I miss.

For now, I’ve had to be humble and to remember that drums can be played quietly, too. You just have to learn how. I’ve also realized that when we’re together, I benefit as much as Alex does from less background noise. I intend to do as much mothering as I can in the quiet moments.