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Parenting While Legally Blind: Secrets of a Visually Impaired New Dad

Babies are giving more cues by touch, sound, and smell than you might think.

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It’s 8 a.m. and my senses awaken. The room is calm and dark. The smell of lavender tickles my nose. A low thump-dub, swoosh, thump-dub, swoosh methodically pulses my ears. Coffee engages my palate. Many mornings start out like this, I recall, but reality pulls me back: Someone urgently cajoles, inches away, “Push! Push! Push!” My wife squeezes my hand. 

I sensed that the time was close, and then finally heard the sound I had wondered about for so long: the sweet sound of powerful lungs crying out to the world. She arrived, 6 pounds 10 ounces, 20 inches — my baby girl. As the emotions flood in, so do the questions. Is she healthy? Who will she become? How will she change the world? Why does cutting the umbilical cord remind me of dissecting a pig in class? And what does she look like?

Most dads easily answer that last question. Others, like me, cannot. Though we’ve taken in the radical experience of childbirth through heightened sensory intake, visual input lacks. I’m legally blind.

This story was submitted by a Fatherly reader. Opinions expressed in the story do not reflect the opinions of Fatherly as a publication. The fact that we’re printing the story does, however, reflect a belief that it is an interesting and worthwhile read.

Progressively losing my vision over two decades, I’ve learned to adapt and live a normal life. Computers speak to me. Phones navigate me. Friends guide-run marathons with me. And, most importantly, my partner describes the world to me. Now, entering fatherhood, I wonder how I will adapt to raising my very own squiggly, squirmy, sweet, and sometimes slimy little being without the benefit of sight.

All dads fly blind at some point when raising kids. It’s the beauty of the unknown. But advice on fathering blind was limited — despite all the classes I took, the Children 101 books I frantically read, the insights from fellow dads whom I poked and prodded over beers, the web resources from blind advocacy organizations I consulted, and the parenting articles I read. I hope that sharing my personal perspectives here will help other visually impaired new dads confidently navigate the unknown, too. And if sighted dads learn a thing or two as they begin their journey, then the more the merrier.

Fathering by Touch

Nine days after birth, life is feeding, burping, pooping, swaddling, soothing, not sleeping — and the baby has needs, too. When my daughter is not being breastfed, I handle the bottle feeding. A seemingly simple task, until one tries to do it with one’s eyes closed, while also not poking their tiny eyes out with a giant silicone nipple.

I tried multiple different positions while holding her in my arms: coming in from the top, a sneak attack from the right, and kamikaze. Many trials, and even more errors, slowly taught me how to use my sense of touch strategically. Cradling her in my legs at a 45-degree angle, I supported her neck, squirminess was controlled, and my hands were free. This  allowed me to locate her mouth with one hand and guide the bottle directly in with the other. “Success!” I silently yelled at 3 in the morning as she guzzled down the bottle like a champ.

I sense that my newborn’s love language is touch. She cannot get enough skin-to-skin contact with mom and dad. She calms down when grasping my finger. And she zonks out when I have her in my wearable carrier. I highly recommend getting all this body contact time in, especially with the carrier. To the visually impaired new dads out there: Please wear your baby! I am even doing so as I write these words. Critically, this will keep your hands free to use your walking cane, get some fresh air, and go about town.

Fathering by Hearing

My daughter makes innumerable visual cues to connect with me: from looking into my eyes while feeding to cracking a smile every now and then. I lament missing these simple yet amazing scenes. These visual cues, however, are usually accompanied by audible ones. Sometimes I translate the sounds correctly, sometimes not. The point is to continue listening: She communicates volumes with those sounds.

On day two of life, I began discerning her cries coming down the hallway from other newborns in the hospital. This gave me a much-needed shot of confidence that I, too, can respond to her vocal cues. As the days have blurred since then, I slowly have heard unique squeaks, screams, gurgles, and snorts that express her burgeoning personality. For example, when she sighs and appears exasperated, she often has coordinated arm movements and tongue clicks: These little quirks are valuable clues to how she’s feeling, and I have even helped my wife notice them.

Distinct sounds also accompany proper bottle feeding. If you hear the sound of swooshing air with each gulp, then the seal is likely not tight between your baby’s mouth and the bottle. You can simply reposition the bottle to help maximize the efficiency of her feeding efforts.

Fathering by Smell

I could not leave without discussing poop. One does not need vision to enjoy the wonders of your child’s early changing bowel movements. Simply having someone describe the myriad color changes was sufficient for me — a veritable spectra of greens, yellows, and blacks to envision. Eventually, when the colors stop morphing, the smells arrive. And wow, do they! Let’s just say that both my sighted and visually impaired friends easily know when a diaper change is needed.  

Don’t be wary of the diaper change, even while blindfolded. As with other life experiences, this will get easier with practice. My wife patiently helped guide my hands as I found the Velcro straps, cleaned her, positioned new diapers, and learned to control her squiggly body. I advise strategically placing all your equipment in a logical order around the changing station for easy access and build that muscle memory.

These sensory experiences are not new, but I do hope they provide a sense of relief that other visually impaired new dads out there are not alone. For new dads who are visually impaired (and new dads who have perfect vision), you will find your stride, too.

David Kosub is a biomedical researcher from Texas turned proud federal civil servant (policy wonk) in Washington, D.C. He’s also a very new dad, and is excited to teach his daughter about science, living life, distance running, and the underappreciated art of dad jokes.