Holly Bonner takes daughters Nuala, 3, and Aoife, 15 months, for a walk in the park in Staten Island, New York. “I have this motherhood thing down on lock,” she said.
By Paysha Rhone
Raising kids is tough. All parents know this. But raising kids when you’re blind presents unique challenges.
How do you make sure your energetic toddler doesn’t get into mischief? How do you get to appointments and events if you can’t drive? How do you measure precise doses of medicine for your sick child?
And perhaps most difficult, how do you endure the judgment of sighted people, who are frequently alarmed when they see a parent using a white cane while pushing a baby stroller?
But as three moms who are visually impaired from around the country demonstrate, it certainly can be done, with plenty of love, tenacity, humor, planning, confidence and creativity. Just like every other parent does it.
“Blindness is something I struggle with, but all parents have issues they’re dealing with,” said Courtney Tabor-Abbott, the mother of two young boys. “If people see a family with a blind parent, I hope they can understand that blindness might be a more visible challenge, but it’s definitely not a reflection of capability.”
Holly Bonner, 36, of Staten Island, New York, never expected to be a blind parent. First diagnosed with breast cancer at 19, she lost most of her vision at 32 due to a neurological condition. After years of health struggles, she’d accepted that children would not happen.
She learned she was pregnant the day after completing orientation and mobility training to learn how to use a white cane. “That was more shocking than losing my vision,” she said.
When daughter Nuala, now almost 3, was born, Bonner had just enough usable vision to see her. Little sister Aoife, now 15 months, followed. Bonner said she and her husband, a New York City police officer, couldn’t believe “lightning struck twice.”
Bonner, who works from home as a social worker while caring for her girls, blogs about parenting at blindmotherhood.com. She said writing helps her cope, especially because she doesn’t know anyone else in her situation.
She admits to getting frustrated when people doubt her parenting abilities.
“I’m sure if I wasn’t visually impaired, no one would have questioned me,” she said. “But you’re talking to a woman with two graduate degrees. I have this motherhood thing down on lock.”
Bonner doesn’t mind questions. She’s often in public, walking with her white cane and pulling her double stroller. But she doesn’t like people touching her or asking her daughter if she’s OK.
“My kids are safe, they’re with their mom,” is her standard response.
She found a sympathetic pediatrician and learned to feel for diaper rash. She’s also learned a trick for measuring her kids’ medication – marking the syringe lines with (tactile) puffy paint.
Bonner puts bell necklaces on the girls when they’re out and bells on the baby’s shoes. “If I didn’t, I’d have no idea where they are!” she laughed.
She still suffers from “Mommy guilt” at times, like when she can’t take Nuala to dance class. It’s too hard to negotiate taxis with two car seats, she said. But she’s proud of her skills.
“I’m definitely more intuitive with my other senses,” she said. “I can differentiate their cries and know what they need. Am I going to be the best person to help pick out the prom dresses? Am I going to be doing carpool? Probably not. But will I love them more than any other person? Yes.”
Bonner recently noticed Nuala going out of her way to talk to a little boy in a wheelchair. And she knows she’s become more empathetic herself.
“I think I am a better person, and a better social worker, because I have been on both sides,” she said.
Desiree Sturdevant, 38, of Austin, Texas, always wanted to be a mom. She had a little brother, whose stroller she pushed and diapers she changed.
“I always loved babies,” she said. “It wasn’t scary to me.”
Born with visual impairment from microphthalmia, she could see close-up objects in one eye. But at 13, her retina detached and surgery destroyed her remaining vision.
When she and her husband had children, “I think my mom was more afraid than I was,” she said. “But I knew I’d take it as it comes.”
Sturdevant now has three daughters: Natasha, 12, Nadia, 4, and Nikita, 18 months. She works for a local nonprofit conducting accessibility testing at home, and she homeschooled Natasha through fourth grade.
Her oldest understood her visual impairment really early, she remembered.
“As a really young baby she would put my hand on stuff and say, ‘Pretty, pretty, pretty,’” she said. “I think she is really sensitive to people who are different.”
Sturdevant also puts bells on the girls’ shoes when they’re out. “But at home, I can hear what they’re touching and doing,” she said.
Sturdevant uses ride share programs like Uber for transportation when she needs to go somewhere with her daughters. “They’re more patient with putting in the car seats than taxis,” she said.
She takes her guide dog or white cane when she needs to walk somewhere. She pulls her girls in a wagon to the neighborhood park, talking about everything they hear along the way.
Sturdevant said she’s also experienced judgment from strangers.
“You get a lot of ‘Oh my gosh! I could never do that!’” she said. “And you get people talking to your kids, saying, ‘You must be so helpful to your mom!’ No, she’s 2. She’s not helpful at all.”
One time another mom pulled her daughter off a playset without asking. “I was so mad,” Sturdevant said. “How could you go grab my kid like that?”
Sturdevant teaches Sunday school and loves reading to her girls in braille. She’s memorized all their books.
“I don’t ever feel they lose out; that there’s something I can’t teach them,” she said. “One of my favorite things to do is to talk to either blind kids or parents of blind kids and say, ‘Hey, you can have a normal life.’”
Motherhood was always in the plan for Courtney Tabor-Abbott, 28. She was born with Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis, which affects the retina. Her vision has deteriorated over time, leaving her completely blind in one eye and with some perception of light and dark contrast in the other.
She lives in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, with her husband, a physician-in-residency, and two sons, James, 3, and Samuel, 1. She works as a transition specialist at Perkins School for the Blind while her sons attend neighborhood daycare.
Tabor-Abbott has experienced skepticism about her ability to parent while blind. Sometimes strangers don’t believe she is her sons’ parent. Sometimes there are weird comments.
“I’ll never forget when someone I know said, ‘I don’t know how she does it! She must have a really great husband who does all the work,’” she said. “It was kind of infuriating.”
One challenge she underestimated is transportation, Tabor-Abbott said. She pulls her children in a wagon to daycare and for walks, but relies on rides from family and friends to venture farther.
Her husband always accompanies the family to the playground. “I haven’t mustered up the courage to do that on my own,” she said.
Taking care of two children is harder than one. Her older son is quieter, the little one highly active. “I have to listen closely all the time to make sure he’s not doing anything!” she said.
She’s also noticed her older son acclimating to her blindness. He’s good about cleaning up and helping identify clothing colors. He brings her braille books, reminds her to take her cane and, recently, asked her to “come feel” a picture he made with stickers. He understands he must hold her hand on walks.
“He’s learned there are certain things he can’t do with me that he can do with somebody else,” she said. “But I never want to make my kids responsible for my visual impairment. I want them to be kids.”
Humor is key. She knows her sons probably wear mismatched socks and that sometimes blueberries will stain their hands. But she’s learned not to sweat the small things.
“I think that not seeing has helped me be more relaxed and let my children be children,” she said.