Kristen Witucki is a blind author, editor, teacher, and mentor who lives in the north-eastern United States. She is the author of a fiction book for emerging adolescent readers, The Transcriber, a novel, Outside Myself, and several non- fiction articles. She lives with her husband, James Simmons, who is also blind, and her three sighted children: Langston (9), Noor (4), and Karuna (1).
“I didn’t know she was coming,” the nurse told my sighted friend as she helped me into the soon-to-be-blood-soaked hospital gown. “No one told me about this.” Was “this” my blindness or the baby or both? She was right; the nurse hadn’t been expecting me and I had not met her before. On my hospital tour, it was nurse Evelyn I had met. She had told me about a competent blind mother she knew and who, she assured me, would help me get a handle on mothering. Unfortunately for me, Langston had chosen to be born on Evelyn’s day off.
“We took the tour and talked to several people here,” my friend, Suzanne, answered calmly.
“But I didn’t know,” the nurse said, reminding us that we had not, in fact, talked to every single person in that massive hospital, emphasising the I, as if she alone had the power to usher or withhold my baby from the world. Admissions couldn’t find me in the computer, even though I had mailed in all of the paperwork early, and an administrative assistant asked me a few questions, basic pieces of information like my name and birth date, which I could ordinarily have answered with 100 per cent accuracy. But now, thanks to the waves of pain, which seemed to be crashing over each other with no beginning and no end, I found myself unable to utter a word.
The nurse checked me, and I thought, “Please clear me for an epidural so I can talk.”
“She’s nine and a half centimetres gone,” the nurse said, sounding impressed for the first time. “She’s ready to have the baby.”
Apparently, I was having the type of labour which only happens in made-for-TV movies. Except, in those movies, the blind person is never the woman having the baby.
So, as I struggled against the worry that the nurse wouldn’t allow me to take my baby home, my son tried to exit, but he couldn’t quite get it right. People connected several heart monitors to us and his heartbeat sounded slow and steady like mine. Although I couldn’t spell my name out loud, I was suddenly telling the nurse, “I think his heart rate is down.”
“It slows down during labour,” the nurse reassured me.
Then a male doctor entered and said, “Kristen, are you listening? The heart rate is down.” (Hadn’t I just said that?)
“If you can’t get the baby out in the next 15 minutes, we will need to do a C-section.”
The doctor explained that I would need to alert him when a contraction started and to push through it. I would feel one and manage to grind out an “Okay” before pushing. My husband told me, “You’re doing great,” and I thought, “How do you know? You can’t see any of this!” I pushed and moaned and the doctor pulled with a vacuum and after a couple of tries, my son’s head emerged. Then, with the next push, he slid out to someone...not to me. Then he was gone...but just to the other side of the room, my friend explained, as the doctor gave me some medication to survive being patched back together. Eventually, Suzanne said, reminding them, “Will you give her the baby?”
They didn’t hesitate, at least perceptibly. They handed me the baby, wrapped in a coarse hospital-issue blanket. I was holding my son. The blanket made him, for them, just like any other baby. Only later would I come to know him as the most beautiful creature, as my most beautiful creature: the protrusions of his shoulder blades beneath the slight ripple of his skin; the bones of his spine, each one as distinct as the beads on a necklace; the soft down of his hair; his piano hands opening and closing like mussel shells, moving foggily at times to block his path to my breast.
I was released from the hospital, but Langston had to return to the NICU due to jaundice. The NICU nurses asked me questions. How would I take the baby’s temperature? Could I tell time? Did I have relatives living close by who would help? But these nurses seemed much nicer than that nurse I had met on the day of the delivery, the nurse who would rather I hold my baby inside myself. When I admitted to one NICU nurse that I hadn’t totally figured out how to measure medicine, she suggested that the pharmacist could help by measuring it out ahead of time. I learnt later that I could buy droppers of different sizes, but I appreciated her willingness to help.
For three days, as Langston’s bilirubin returned to normal and they completed observations, I slept and healed, pumped milk, and delivered it to the hospital. We worried. Would they let him go? My relatives and friends helpfully surrounded us, cocooned us, so that my advocacy efforts were minimal as I recovered. And eventually, they did release Langston, thinking, perhaps, that we were his parents only on paper, that we were not his actual caregivers. Caregivers, after all, were not supposed to be blind.
After a few days, my mom left us, with many cooked meals and everything organised, alone as a family to figure things out on our own. However, whenever we needed to bring the baby to the doctor, she always materialised. As long as she was there, I knew no one would question our legitimacy as parents. She wasn’t able to go to our three-month appointment, but my good friend, Nancy, who was planning to visit anyway, assured me she could take us.
On the morning of the appointment, she called me, her voice a frog’s croak. She had a cold, she said, and the roads around her were flooded. She probably shouldn’t take us. It was too late to reschedule the appointment. I called a cab, buckled Langston into his car seat, placed the backpack on my back, picked up the car seat, unfolded my cane, walked to the apartment door and opened it, walked outside, put the car seat down briefly so I could lock the apartment, picked up the seat, opened the main building door and guided the baby through it and down the steps so he wouldn’t fall or be slammed by the door, and shuffled out to the cab. Then I opened the door, shoved the car seat over as far as I could and folded my cane and slid in beside it. When we reached the office, I climbed out of the cab with the seat, unfolded the cane, placed the seat on the ground next to me and called the office to ask if someone could help me get Langston and my stuff upstairs. The receptionist assured me effusively that this was not a problem and came to my aid. I worried that she was too effusive.
I prepared myself for an invisible wall in the cubicle sliding open to reveal an entourage of people with paper, informing me that I was officially not qualified to take care of my son.
A lone doctor walked through the door an eternity later, nonchalantly examined Langston, asked me about tummy time and my plans to start solids and pronounced him healthy. Then she left me alone with my baby. I was free to take him home.
As a new mother, I felt the same rocky emotions as other new mothers: deeply abiding joy and love, fear and worry that I wasn’t doing enough or was doing it wrong, social isolation and, sometimes, even boredom with the never-ending cycle of feed, change, sleep, repeat. But the doctor’s nonchalant acknowledgement of Langston and me as a viable dyad obliterated, for a moment, that complexity. I simply felt the relief of being considered “normal,” free to take Langston home.
‘When I Became a Mother,’ by Kristen Witucki, excerpted with permission from This Kind of Child: The ‘Disability’ Story, edited by K Srilata, Westland.