gael hannan hearing loss advocate

Gael Hannan: Parenting with hearing loss

By Gael Hannan

Being a mom has been the most wonderful relationship in my life but, in many ways, the most challenging. 

As I waited for my son to be born, I felt that my role as a mother was to give him three things: love, safety, and the communication skills to help him make the most of life’s opportunities. 

I knew I would absolutely succeed in the first one; I already loved him with a mother’s fierce intensity – to the moon and back. But I worried that my severe hearing loss would cause problems in the other two areas, safety and communication. 

How would I hear him crying in the night? What if I couldn’t hear him burp – would he blow up? These and other practical concerns made me reach out for the first time to other people with hearing loss. At a hearing loss conference, I met a woman with a severe hearing loss similar to mine. As she held her six-month-old baby in her arms, she told me that I could do this. Having hearing loss didn’t have to mean danger for my child. She convinced me because her child seemed to be thriving – and this was her fourth.

My nerves came from the fact that, for the first time in my life, I was going to be responsible for another person’s well-being. I had to think outside myself. And I had already lived many years with the challenges of hearing loss. As Joel grew up, my concerns proved valid – not being able to hear him cry from another room was just the start of the many challenges of parenting with hearing loss. Luckily for me, I had support from several areas:

  • My partner, the Hearing Husband
  • An explosion of assistive technology that seemed to be born at the same time as Joel
  • A renewed passion to communicate better, using any available tools, so that my son would be loved, secure, and thriving

Ask any mom and she will tell you that love and good intentions are not enough to protect you from the reality of raising a child; being a parent means dodging bullets, putting out fires, and dealing with situations you’d never dreamed about or prepared for. In return for all this, you get what I call the mummy-tummy that keeps you awake at night: “Why did I yell at him?” “Will he still love me?”  “Where is he now?” “Why isn’t he studying harder?” “Is he doing drugs?”

But when Joel arrived, I used new resources from the hearing loss community that helped bring about profound life changes that are still in place today, even though the boy is 24 and living in another city. 

The first is that I embraced technology. Joel was born in 1995, so the big change for me was a master visual alerting system beside my bed that told me whether the doorbell or phone was ringing, if it was time to get up – and if the baby was crying in his room. It worked almost as well as the Hearing Husband jabbing me in the ribs to tell me that Joel was wailing. It was the start of a new life with technology.

The second change was a shift in my self-view as a person with hearing loss. Exposure to the larger hearing loss community helped remove a silent, secret shame about a disability that caused me to struggle in many situations. A huge weight lifted from me, one that I hadn’t even realized was pushing me down. Joel’s birth introduced me to the greater world of hearing loss; my concerns for my child’s well-being ignited a passion for hearing loss advocacy that still exists 25 years later. 

There were many challenges through the years. More than other moms, I needed to keep my baby-turned-toddler within sight at all times; a hearing parent hears warning sounds that a parent with hearing loss does not. When Joel was six months old and new to sitting up, he was on the living room floor jabbering away to the cats. My friend and I went to the kitchen to refresh our coffee, leaving Joel momentarily out of sight. “Joel!” Carol said suddenly. We rushed in to find that Joel, in trying to reach the cat, had keeled forward. His face was buried in the carpet and he was still babbling, “bldgmmp-dmfdmf!” I hadn’t heard the change in his speech and, although I suppose he was in no real danger, I still think of that incident with a pang of mummy-tummy.

Not being able to understand what your toddler is trying to express can be frustrating. With hearing loss, the frustration multiplies, so I made sure Joel understood from an early age that I sometimes couldn’t understand him because of my hearing (this can be dangerous information in the hands of a prankster teenager). Joel learned that if he didn’t get my attention, he might not get what he wanted. If Mommy didn’t respond right away, she may not have heard you (but guess what, darling child? When you’re older, sometimes she may be ignoring you). If she says things that don’t make sense, it’s not because she’s silly or not smart or trying to embarrass you in front of your friends, but because she may not have heard you correctly. Joel also learned that my most precious physical possessions were my hearing aids, which he called my “hearrings.” Without them, I was deaf and possibly unresponsive. 

One of the major challenges of hearing loss is localization, being able to tell where the sound is coming from. In my book, The Way I Hear It, I shared the frustration of trying to find a small voice coming from somewhere in the house.

Mommee-ee! Comeeerr!
OK, sweetie, where are you?
(Pause) Here!
Where here, dear?
Here, where I am. In the room!
But what room, Joel, your bedroom?
(Thinking) No…
The bathroom?
Yes, Mommy, I’m in the baff-room! Comeeerr!
But which bathroom, Joel?
This one, Mommy!

During this exchange I’m running up and downstairs, cursing myself as a bad mommy who should never have been allowed to bear children.

Joel has always understood and respected my hearing loss, even though there was frustration and frequent eye-rolls and laughs at my mis-hears. (“Mom, I’m going over Adam’s house.” “No thanks honey, I have enough”). As he grew older, the wonderful inventions of texting and FaceTime helped both of us survive. He was proud of my work in hearing loss and I’m proud that I’ve helped raise a man who is one of the best communicators I know. In fact, if we are talking and I turn away briefly, he will wait until I turn back to him (unlike the Hearing Husband).

Hearing loss causes communication challenges in the parent-child relationship. But, like any roadblock, they can be managed and overcome when there’s enough love, patience, support and communication strategies in place.