In our local playground, my four-year-old son scrambles from one activity to the next. He knows I can”t see him properly, my vision faded years before he was born but he still calls out, “Watch me, Mummy. I’m over here.”
I turn my head to face the direction of his chirpy voice.
“There! Now, don’t move your head. You’re looking straight at me.”
I praise his climbing ability, listening intently while praying, “Please don’t fall off.” The hands on my Braille watch tell me it is time to move on. I am relieved from blind-patrol duties in the playground. My son skips beside me and we walk towards the Kindergarten.
“Can we play I spy with my little eye?” He asks. I love his passion for play, and how he can ignore my vision-impairment. I wish I could.
“Ok. You first,” I say, hiding my feelings of inadequacy and dread.
“I spy with my little eye,” he trills, “something that is…green.”
After a few guesses, we thankfully arrive at our destination and he helps me locate the special handle to open the child-security gate.
He bounces happily into the Kinder playground, but I feel anxious trying to follow his disappearing trail. I can’t distinguish my son from the other children running past me. Which blonde-haired child is mine? Was that his voice calling, “Mum, come and push me on the swing!”
A couple of the other mothers know I am sight-impaired and kindly watch Michael on my behalf, keeping me informed with running commentary on his changing activities. I appreciate their thoughtfulness, but my motherly reality is struck by a sense of sadness, not to be able to watch out for my own child.
To compensate for this lack of sight on my part, I find other ways to locate my child in a busy place – by dressing my son in bright contrasting clothing. Today, I look out for him in his green and white striped t-shirt, dark navy shorts. Yesterday, it was chilli-red top and light grey trousers. I can relax a little, as my eyes travel around the yard to spot his bobbing yellow cap or flashing white runners. These things I do see. At other times, Michael springs up from behind and touches my hand, “I’m going over there now. Ok?”
On some days, we sit together on tiny wooden chairs, at the round table, following his teacher’s creative instructions. Today, she is showing the little people how to fold and bend paper to make a paper plane. Michael asks me for sighted guidance but I have no idea how to advise him. We persevere together, awkwardly turning the paper this way and that. If only I could see enough to help my son complete this task…
“Now, just fold along this line, then turn the paper over this way and then…” the teacher holds up her paper plane. The children sound impressed.
“Which way, Mummy?” Michael asks. “Is this right?”
I reply as if none of this is bothering me at all.
“What do you think, darling? Does it look like your teacher’s plane?”
He seems happy enough to persist with the folding of paper unaware of his mother’s pain, holding back tears of deep frustration. Finally, the teacher comes over to guide him through the process. She touches my shoulder, my heart trips with gratitude as she kindly tells Michael, “Clever boy. That’s nearly right.”
Back in the comfort of our home, and away from scrutinizing eyes, I feel I can help my son more effectively in his education. We collect birthday cards and cut out magazine pictures, chatting about the images, pasting them into our own large scrapbooks, remembering the scenes on each page. I sing funny songs and tell stories and make up rhymes to spark his imagination as he learns about the world around us.
We share a tactile communication: through puzzle play, clay moulding, Lego building, baking cookies. Michael learns to bypass my lack of sight by tracing shapes onto my open palm, knowing that when he does this, mummy can ‘see’ the object by drawing it. His little fingers tickle my palm and I hold back tears of love for his thoughtfulness.
And, as I struggle to read one of his favourite Mr Men books at bedtime, I put down the magnifying glass and sigh, “Oh dear, this is very slow, isn’t it?”
He jumps up from under the doona, flings his warm arms around my neck, and says, “That’s ok, Mummy. Don’t ever give up. Tell me one of your stories.”
“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*
I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves – thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.
* Gloria Steinem