By Rosabel O. Agbayani, MPH
“If you want to change the world, go home and love your family.” -Mother Theresa
Sometimes we think that in order to make change we have to make a lot of noise. What I have learned from my experience of raising my children, and especially raising my deaf child, is that you have to be able to drown out the noise and listen to your heart.
We found out my son was deaf in September 2010. I’m not sure why I was so shocked because after almost six months of testing we finally had an answer. But I still remember that feeling when I heard the words “Your son has a hearing loss.” My heart sank, tears fell, and this overwhelming feeling of shock took over. The Audiologist had many well-meaning things to say. But I felt like I was in the scene of a Charlie Brown cartoon when the adults talking sound like jibberish. All I could focus on was “What was my son’s life going to be like?” “What is our family’s life going to be like?”
We came home from that appointment and I felt defeated. But with a six-month old infant, a teenager, and now a Deaf child, I had no time to feel sorry for myself. So I spent most of my time on the internet looking to find every answer to calm the worries in my head. We asked for second opinions, I went through parent training modules, but there was no place in the internet that reassured me that everything was going to be okay.
Reaching out to family had challenges of its own. Those closest to me felt pity for our circumstance. Pity was not going to help me, so I found myself getting angry with them and frustrated having to explain what I was trying to do for my child.
To further complicate the issue, in my culture and within the community of family, disabilities is not something to be discussed. Filipinos have a tendency not to share, for fear that if others realize our weakness then we, ourselves are perceived as weak and therefore bring shame to a family. So even in my own family I felt lost and out of place.
In fact, we lost a lot of friends and family along the way. Well-meaning individuals who would minimalize his hearing loss, or say things like “Well just get a set of Rosetta Stone and he will learn language like normal.” One of the most hurtful things I witnessed was at a family party when my nephews were playing a game of “Can you hear me now?” They would walk around my son asking him if he could hear them. Because my son is the playful type, he innocently went along with the game while they laughed at his expense. It was then that I realized the true meaning of “You must learn to walk away from the things that no longer serve you.” It was a painful but necessary lesson. Their noise was clouding my vision.
The first time I ever felt “normal” again was in February of 2011. We had just fought and won our first battle to get our son into the only non-public oral deaf school in our area (a story I will leave for rainy day). I remember clearly his first day, walking through the gates of Oralingua School for the Deaf in San Marcos, California. We were all welcomed and greeted by mothers who were so excited to see another child admitted to the program. There were only six children at the time and my son made the 7th student at the school.
I finally felt at home with our new community. When our kids were busy learning, the parents (we proudly referred to ourselves as the “Parking Lot Moms”) would gather at the local coffee shop and share our stories, retell how our children were diagnosed, explain how they got to the school, and their journey. With each story I heard, my heart felt at ease. Finally, I met another parent who understood me. I didn’t have to speak but just listen. Every word healed my soul. Till this day, these mothers are like my sisters and our children are like siblings from another mother.
I realized early on how important it was to have this kind of network when you are going through something unique and unfamiliar to you. Parents can benefit when we learn from each other. When we can listen and share the choices we have made with each other. We learn to open our minds to new ways that we can help shape our children’s future.
At the time when my son was diagnosed, I only knew three people who were Deaf. My Uncle (my mother’s youngest brother) who had been deaf since he was an infant, an Uncle who was late deafened as an adult, and a friend I met later in life. I asked so many questions at the time. I wanted to know what their lives were like, what challenges they had to overcome and how they got to be who they were today. Deaf adults have a significant role in our understanding as parents. I learned that they have something I cannot give to my child, an insight to the Deaf experience that was critical for my own understanding.
I especially remember talking to my friend and asking her about her hearing aids and school. I was so focused on the technical aspects and she kindly responded to all of my questions. She shared about her experiences growing up in the United States when her parents found out she was deaf. Her mother sacrificed everything she had, left her husband and their life in the Philippines, and brought her and her sister to the United States so she could have a better life. John Tracy Clinic had an international program at the time and she had the opportunity attend the school. It was then that I started to think that maybe our problems were not necessarily about my son’s hearing (I can never change that), but about giving our deaf child opportunities so that he can be the person he is meant to be.
As a parent of a child with special needs, you go through many cycles of joy, pain, confusion, and brief moments of clarity. Some days you just lose it, it comes with the territory. It doesn’t have to be anything significant that happens but some days are just tough.
I remember one day, it was just like most days. I was carrying my twelve-month old in my arms, dropped off my eldest at high school, and went to the hospital for one of my son’s many appointments. I must have been very exhausted because after one of my son’s back to back appointments I just sat in my car and cried. The emotions I held in my heart just suddenly overwhelmed me. Beaten and broken, I wanted my faith to show me a sign, anything to help me understand why life had to be so hard. I was never angry that my son was deaf but I was frustrated because I didn’t know if what I was doing was ever going to be enough.
Suddenly, my three year old deaf son (who had just learned how to put 2-3 word utterances together) looked at me, wiped the tears from my eyes, and said “Mom, why cry?” His sentiments made me smile. I just gave him a big hug. It was what I needed at just the right time. From that moment on I realized, there was NOTHING wrong with him. He didn’t know any differently that he was different. My answer was there beside me, telling me that I was doing EVERYTHING right. In his beautiful world he didn’t know he was “deaf”. All he cared about was that I loved him. I was the one who was broken and HE was the one who fixed me!
Sometimes we get so focused on taking care of others needs that we fail to tend to our own needs! Our kids need us to take care of ourselves! It is as much a priority as our responsibilities as a parent! When you are on a plane they instruct you to put your own oxygen mask first before you do it for your child. I needed my air so I could breathe and think clearly. Then I could refocus and care for the needs of all of my children.
When I finally stopped feeling sorry for myself, I got myself together, and started focusing on my own needs. It had been six months since I got a haircut and it was one of the first things I did for myself. I forgot how good it felt to feel “normal”. Little by little our lives transformed and we found our “New Norm”. I made it to the gym, spent time with friends, and enjoyed my family time.
It was important for my husband and I to spend time together finding moments of joy with each other, despite the hardships we were experiencing. We squeezed in date nights when we could, even if it meant driving in the car till “The Littles” fell asleep to have ice cream cones together. It’s those sweet moments that I cherish the most.
My husband is a hard worker. He worked full-time to support the family while I was busy managing our family business, taking care of the kids, and driving to appointments. When I needed rest or a moment of sanity he gladly stepped in and did his daddy duties with pride. We spent a lot of time talking to each other as a family, having conversations about everything. We love to travel and we learned from our experiences together.
We knew that if we were going to help our son communicate with the world we needed to learn how to communicate as a family. Because when you have a deaf child, you become a deaf family. As with most families, the diagnosis of having a deaf child changes your life and the dynamics of a family. This was not our weakness, it only made us stronger.
My son’s diagnosis changed me too! I have always been a bookworm and self-proclaimed nerd. So when life settled to a comfortable pace, I went back to school and started online classes to earn a second bachelor’s degree in Communicative Disorders and Deaf Education at Utah State University. I graduated on the Dean’s List in 2013. I always felt lucky that I had the kind of training that most of my fellow classmates didn’t have. Regardless of my degree, I was a parent first. I used my new found knowledge and taught my son how to read and write. I learned to communicate with him and create opportunities for him to learn how to communicate with others. It was exciting to use the tools I learned and see my son’s progress. I was fortunate to have on the job training! This knowledge helped me create better relationships with his educators. I knew that if he was going to meet his goals, as a part of his IEP team, we needed to work together.
When my son was mainstreamed in our home school I decided to take a job as an aide in a Special Education classroom. I worked my way up to becoming a Behavior Intervention Instructional Assistant working with kids on the Autism Spectrum. I also volunteered at the local Children’s Hospital working with kids who were Deaf and Hard of Hearing. I also volunteered briefly for an Audiology office observing Aural Habilitation techniques used for kids with Hearing aids and Cochlear Implants.
My work experiences helped me have a different perspective compared to working with my own child. It helped me understand that professionals have a responsibility to heal, to habilitate, and to provide a service that meets a specific need for our child. But that does not take away from the real learning that comes from home. As a parent, our job is to meet professionals and educators half way. They hold the piece of the puzzle that we need to understand our own journey. It’s our job as parents to put the pieces together in a way that fits best for our family.
As a parent and a “wannabe” professional, I met Auditory Verbal Therapists, ENTs, Speech Pathologists, Occupational Therapists, Reading Specialists, and Deaf Educators and Specialists along the way who gave me different tools to use. I like to think of these moments like a trip to the “Special Needs Home Depot”, you can fill your toolbox with many tools and use it if (and when) the time is right. I filled my head with a lot of information, gave myself the opportunity to fill my toolbox as much as I could. I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of having something fit just right for my family or for the children that I worked with. My advice for new families is to always keep that toolbox open and learn as much as you can! Together with your child you can figure out what works best!
In 2015, I got my first job working on a research project studying outcomes of Deaf and Hard of Hearing Children with Cochlear Implants. Having a better understanding of the CI candidacy process and collecting data from educators helped me understand the many different factors that can influence a child’s ability to succeed academically as well as communicate effectively. The bottom line (as a parent by this time I was NOT surprised) family involvement in their child’s education has a positive correlation to overall success.
Because I was no longer just on the receiving end of services, I gained a newfound appreciation of the fact that we all have different perspectives, but our hearts are in the same place. Professionals, even those who think differently, expect different outcomes, or provide a viewpoint different from ours also want the best for our children. We are more alike than we are different. I often think to myself, “Imagine how much we can accomplish as a group if we focus on the sameness and not differences.” Our children need us to work together.
Togetherness is a concept that speaks to the core of what it was like for me parenting a child who is DHH. It is a re-occuring theme in my life, in our journey as a family, and now for me as a professional. When everything was falling apart, I struggled to keep my heart, my family, and my community together. Some days were better than others and progress was not always perfect or prompt. What gave me hope when times were tough was realizing that along the road, I walked the journey with people (my son, my family, DHH parents, and everyone else that crossed my path) who reminded me that I was not alone.
It seems like a lifetime ago when my son was diagnosed. My son is now 11 years old, entering his last elementary school year in the 5th Grade. He has friends (both hearing and DHH), plays baseball (his favorite positions are 3rd base and catcher), loves Hip-Hop music, and annoying his two siblings. My eldest daughter, a senior at CSUN in the Music Therapy Program and President of the Music Therapy Student Association, hopes to pursue a career helping others with specials needs. My youngest daughter (who is now eight years old and grew up alongside our beautiful journey) has won awards at school for good character, recognized for being kind and having compassion for her fellow students. My husband and I can only look back and think about how far we have come. Married for 10 years and after everything we have been through, we live the truth of that “which does not kill you will only make your stronger”! Our lives have never been without struggle, but we wouldn’t change a thing.
Currently, I work as a Pediatric Clinical Research Coordinator for Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego, I serve as PTA President for my children’s school and on the Community Advisory Committee for Poway Unified School District. Most importantly, I remain committed to my role working with California Hands & Voices helping to build bridges between parents, professionals, educators, and others in the DHH Community.
Together we grow. While my son was learning how to speak, learn, read, write, communicate; I was learning too! When he struggled, I learned how to help him succeed. While his knowledge of the world around him grew into his identity, his identity defined who I am today. His deafness helped me learn how to listen to my heart and my heart allowed me to follow my passion.
Healing begins when you can find purpose in your pain. What started off as a desperate mom looking for answers has led me on a path where I have combined my real life experiences as a DHH mom with the knowledge of as a Professional. Because of this, I feel a responsibility to share my unique insight with others. Everyone has an important role to play. As Parents, Deaf Children, Deaf Adults, Medical Professionals, Educators, Researchers, and Advocates we all have the power to create a community for DHH Children and their families…TOGETHER.