A Daughter’s Narrative
24-11-24. A somewhat amusing date, my mother thought. Mum never explained her amusement of 2 4 bookending 1 1, she just considered it an odd sequence to be born into. Mum was amused by many things in life, and would often amuse others with her dry sense of humour. She loved to be the ‘class clown’ even in her 80’s, yet few saw her torment, her fears, utter loneliness, living in a world that few of us could know or fully understand.
I have been reflecting on my family lately, the family I was born into and the dynamics between my parents, my brothers and myself.
I reflected upon my parent’s relationship and the difficulties they had in their marriage due to their own traumatic histories. As I dug deeper into my family history, the more I pondered my mother’s disability, the effects of which were unseen, yet scarred her psychologically, affecting how she perceived herself to be and the ripple effect this caused in her relationships with others.
This article is about the effects of her disability on herself. I will leave other personal matters to the archives of family history. Though she died four years ago, she had enough grief in her life that some stories are best left unwritten.
Did I say, “disability”? Mum, in fact, had two disabilities. One was being born a left-hander. Ouch, being left-handed was considered evil up until the 1970’s. Left-handed kids were discriminated against, forced to use their right-hand in written and creative tasks. Though mum struggled as a child with this new form of learning, she went on to become a remarkable ambidextrous ‘celebrity’ in her workplace as an adult, doing almost twice as much work efficiently as her right-handed peers. Yay, mum, you showed them.
Mum’s other disability had a much more overwhelming effect on her life. She was a profoundly deaf person from age four after contracting pertussis, otherwise known as whooping cough. This highly infectious disease was prevalent in the late 1920’s, early 1930’s, in Australia, prior to the advent of a vaccine to prevent this contagious disease.
Whooping cough is marked by a hacking cough. Mum believed that the constant hacking contributed to her profound deafness. I have since discovered that the pertussis bacteria caused her deafness.
In primary school, mum had three mastoidectomies. This is an operation to remove part of a bone behind the ear due to an infection. In the 1930’s, this would have been a difficult operation. She missed a chunk of school learning, yet succeeded in education during her primary and high school years.
Common Assumptions about Invisible Disabilities
Her developmental years, and into her adult years, were marked with prejudice. People who did not know my mother or her deafness assumed she was not bright because she could not hear well. She was considered dumb, stupid, an idiot, you get my drift. Her disability was an invisible disability. If she were on crutches or wore an eye-patch, people would be more understanding and accepting.
Deafness is hidden, concealed, undetected by others. Mum did not have a hearing aid as a child or young adult, hence the assumptions from uninformed people. Words sting. Even if comments are not directed at you, many of us can sense a rebuff from others. Negative words, unacceptance, not belonging, have a huge impact on a young child trying to work out who they are, where they fit in with the world around them.
Mum’s dream was to be a draftsperson, one who does technical drawings, usually in conjunction with an architect. Mum excelled in maths, unlike her only daughter who must have missed out on that genetic code!
Her dream job would have been perfect for her, with one exception – her dad. He would not accept the idea of a young woman attending a technical college (now called TAFE), or university. Mum had often commented that in “her day”, children listened to their parents. So she obeyed her father and was sent to secretarial school, as many young women were to do.
At secretarial college, women were taught to take written instructions from their boss, then type it on a typewriter. Mum showed prowess as the fastest typist whiz in her future employment but the drawback was that she could not hear her boss’ instructions. So she was delegated to the clerical and typing office jobs.
Adults would misunderstand her, sometimes thinking she was rude because she often would not respond when asked a question. So they yelled at her. Yelling at a deaf person doesn’t help a situation. In fact it makes the yeller more frustrated. There were times when I wondered if mum could sometimes hear a person but deliberately did not respond just to frustrate the enquirer.
Mum finally acquired a hearing aid after almost 40 years of profound deafness. The hearing aid was not as modern as aids are today nor as advanced as the cochlear implant. But it opened a new reality for her. Voices were clearer, though it was easier to hear a man’s deep voice as opposed to a woman’s higher pitch. She could hear birds, the clatter of garbage bins, and hear the neighbour’s arguing, which dissolved some of the boredom of housework, so that was a bonus.
The Shadows of Childhood
But the taunts from her childhood shadowed her. She was like a Jekyll and Hyde character, sometimes a helpful, caring person. Other times, overly critical of others. She could be the funny clown who ‘holds court’ when in a group setting. Other times, she could be very negative and judgemental of others. Our past impacts us significantly in the present unless we make a choice to change.
As a teen, mum asked me a heartfelt question that still haunts me today: “If there was a choice, of all your senses, which one could you do without?” Not thinking too deeply about the question, I replied, “I guess, losing my hearing, as I like to look out and see the sky, the birds, colour.” Mum replied that of all the senses that one may lose, it is hearing that has the biggest impact if you were to lose it.
Loss of hearing equals loss of communication which equals loss of community. A profoundly deaf person has great difficulty interacting with others unless they have a fantastic hearing aid or implant. Trying to hear a person talking while there is clatter in the background can be annoying for most of us. It is aggravating for the hearing impaired person.
Mum learned to lip-read and once again, showed she had dexterity at learning new skills. As my three brothers and I realised, we needed to be very careful in what we said around mum. She had eagle-eyes and could lip-read at twenty paces.
Fears of the Hearing Impaired
When mum was called on to be a babysitter for my first child when I needed to go out, mum sat outside my daughter’s bedroom to ensure that she could hear if my daughter cried or was unsettled. If she didn’t hear anything, mum would open the bedroom door, tip toe in and peer at my daughter to ensure she was still breathing. It was very stressful for mum, and stressful for me too, so mum did not volunteer too often to be a sitter.
As she got older, her hearing loss became a huge issue. Adults would be angry with her, questioning why she didn’t have her hearing aids in place. Few people realised that her hearing aids no longer worked for her. A device was installed on her phone for mum so that she and others could talk to each other and the message would be in written form. This led to some humourous interactions, as the written form could be skewed and all I could hear were fits of laughter from mum. This device, though, alleviated some of mum’s isolation.
Mum also felt very strongly about vaccinations. After each of my children were born, she discussed with me the importance of vaccination and wanted my assurance that they would be vaccinated. There was no question about this. Growing up with a profoundly deaf mother, seeing the impacts this disability had on her, hearing stories of her private pain, I could not ignore vaccinating my kids.
She knew that an infection had robbed her of a better life and there was no control over this circumstance. Her parents had no control over whether their child picked up this disease, and mum had no control over this situation either – it was random.
Though others allocated labels to mum as a girl, then a young woman, of being unintelligent or slow of mind, mum proved again and again her tremendous determination not to allow her disability to define her totally. Mum lived till she was 91 years young, surpassing many friends and family.
I found a short note she had written in her later years questioning some of the condemnation she had received during her life, ending with the question, “Am I not beautiful?” Yes, mum, you were beautiful throughout your life, and I pray you rest peacefully in the arms of God.
Janice Williams is a professional Counsellor and specialises in mother-daughter relationship counselling.
Janice offers in-person counselling, as well as online and phone counselling across Australia. Online counselling is available worldwide.