For this week’s post (the final one in the Focus on Fathers series) I was fortunate to interview Pete McEachen. Pete is a cartoonist, illustrator, and toy designer. I first connected with Pete when I wrote to him to tell him how much my son enjoyed his “plugged in” comic books. We received the books through Oticon and my son fell in love with them.
Pete, and his daughter McKenna, are the perfect way to end up this series. Pete has a hearing loss himself, and it’s so interesting to learn about how he manages it day-to-day, how it influences his work, and how he and his daughter connect. Enjoy!
Pete, your story is a little different as you grew up with a hearing loss yourself, so you were familiar when your daughter was also diagnosed. Can you tell us a little bit about your story?
Sure. I was diagnosed with a hearing loss at the age of four. Up until then I was grunting and pointing a lot to express myself. While an effective method of communication for me, my mom was not amused.
Many doctor appointments ensued (this was the early 70’s) and no could find a clear cause for my behavior. One doctor even bluntly stated I was a “moron” which only riled up my mother more. Once I was given a hearing test and failed that, pieces fell together and my existence started making a little more sense to everyone. I was placed in deaf and hearing school in VA. Remarkably, within a year, I was mainstreamed into public kindergarten.
I only wore one aid to start, though I really needed two. It was the big beige, “no doubt you’ve got something in your ear” type of aid, so I was self-conscious. By middle school I was up to two aids and I was so embarrassed about them, I went all 8th grade without wearing either of them in public. I had a big red mop of curly hair, freckles and was rail thin. I felt I had enough going against me, I didn’t want to add to my worries.
Come high school, the aids were back in. I had new friends, new school and I knew I couldn’t get through Spanish class without hearing aids. I’ve wore hearing aids faithfully ever since. My loss is described as severe to profound in both ears.
Because of my family history (along with my father, four out of my five siblings have some form of hearing loss) we knew McKenna, our daughter, had a good chance of having a hearing loss. Prior to her birth a doctor informed us, with a grave and concerned look upon his face, that there was a very high likelihood our child would have hearing loss and were we sure we still wanted to have it. My wife looked at me, smiled and said “Why on earth not?”
Upon Mckenna’s noisy entrance into the world, (Yes, I did hear her scream) we promptly tested her ears and she passed! Six months later though, the real truth was made known. We learned McKenna did have a hearing loss, very similar to mine actually. McKenna definitely needed aids,
There were no tears, no sadness, no joy. Just a sense of, “Now we know. Let’s do something about it.”
How does your own hearing loss impact your relationship with your daughter?
It has definitely brought us closer together. We refer to Kim, my wife, and my son, Connor, as “The Hearing People.”
McKenna is incredibly bright and creative. We’ll share knowing glances and crack up about the ways we think we hear things. It’s no bed of roses, but there are frequently times where I get what she’s going through and I’ll sit beside her and give her some inside secrets.
Instead of talking about past frustrations, I try to point her to solutions I’ve used. Such as “Talk less, observe more”. Sometimes just watching people helps you understand what’s going on better than verbal conversations.
To quote Thomas Edison, “It’s astounding how much more a deaf person can see.”
How did your daughter’s diagnosis impact you as a father? Where has it taken you?
First and foremost, I wanted to prepare her. People are much more receptive to differences today than when I was a child. There’s so much more awareness and help available. I wanted to make McKenna comfortable with her hearing loss and to realize it’s just an extension of who she is.
I had the joy of taking her to my office daycare before she went to preschool. I remember preparing the daycare supervisor the day before her first visit that McKenna wore hearing aids and to make sure she doesn’t flush them down the toilet or leave them on the playground.
The next day I brought McKenna in and she was warmly greeted by everyone there. McKenna lit up and totally lost herself in a world of new toys and friends. By the end of the day, the daycare supervisor said they spent a half hour letting everyone touch and hold the aids and afterwards three girls all wanted “earrings” just like McKenna.
I love the bright colors they do for children’s hearing aids. McKenna’s first hearing aids were bright pink and purple. Why hide it when you can flaunt it? Seeing the colorful array of children’s aids made me switch to brighter colors for myself. The audiologists look at me funny, but I tell them I’m not trying to hide anything. In fact, The colorful aids help tip people off before they even talk to me that I may not hear them well, so it’s my deaf way of giving fair warning to others.
I think it’s different when you have your own hearing loss, because you already know how to live with it. Did you feel you needed to connect with others? What was your experience?
I didn’t seek out other fathers, not even my own, who has a pretty profound loss. I’m very comfortable with my hearing loss. I prefer and crave isolation at times because when I’m with others I get anxious. I don’t necessarily hear or understand everything that’s being said and I worry I’m missing something. I know this makes me appear aloof, but it’s my way of managing how verbal communication comes to me.
My wife describes me as independent, but worries I isolate myself too much. She worries I’ll turn into my father whom she would describe as a near recluse. He doesn’t show much interest in what’s happening around him and is completely content being in his own silent world. Just trying to carry on a conversation with him can be difficult.
I recall him saying that when he was younger, wearing hearing aids was seen as a flaw and a sign of weakness. In his mind, being seen wearing hearing aids was not a socially acceptable thing to do in his generation.
When I need support or clarity, I turn to Kim. She’s my anchor and keeps me rooted to more socially acceptable ways of conducting myself. What I learn from Kim, I pass onto McKenna and thus as a parenting team, McKenna sees we are both expecting the same things of her.
Do you have any advice for other fathers that are facing the same thing?
Be very upfront and comfortable about your child’s hearing loss. When McKenna would start swim team or some group activity with people she’s never been with before, I’ll mention to the leader and others that she has a hearing loss and may not correctly hear things at times.
Hopefully your child will become a keen observer and can figure things out just by watching others. Our problems with McKenna seem to rest on her caring so little about what’s going on around her that she’s not paying attention. She’ll get it, but she’ll be bored with the activity.
Really get to know what your child’s strength and weaknesses are – build on those strengths and support their weaknesses.
Now that McKenna is 14 she’s on auto-pilot. Like me, sometimes she chooses to intentionally turn off her aids and tune out the world. And that’s okay, I completely understand why she needs to do that.
Can you talk a little bit about the Plugged In book? Where did the idea come from? What did your daughter think?
I’ve always loved drawing comics and it was an idea I had been putting off for years.
When McKenna was 3 or 4, I wanted to give her stories or examples to show her she was not alone in her deaf world, so plugged in was born. I originally posted plugged in on www.about.deafness.com.
During this time I was looking for publishers of DHH material that I could pitch my strip to. McKenna’s audiologist put me in touch with Oticon Inc.
Maureen, a US marketing expert for Oticon, Inc. loved it. The books were primarily for Oticon care packages, intended for kids new to hearing loss. I mostly give them away, but a few have been sold in a local bookstore. I gave the profits back to the store to keep.
McKenna loved the books. I think she loved most that she was the inspiration and motivator for me to do the books and that she’s mentioned in every one of them. Although I’m syndicated online doing another strip called Mulligan, my heart is always with plugged in, because it was more meaningful to me.
I still get excited to hear about kids discovering the series and more importantly that they relate to the humor. I’m thrilled it makes sense to them and hopefully they realize others have experienced what they are going through.
My son (and daughter) loved the books. I think there is so much that he could relate to in them. What’s your next idea?
Building on McKenna and I’s secret code we share in dealing with “The Hearing People”, we co-wrote an illustrated novel titled; Deaf Logic and Other Stranger Things. The manuscript is written, but the illustration part has yet to begin.
I had a publisher that was interested, but they pulled back after their sales team felt it was too niche a market for graphic and/or illustrated novels. Hopefully we can find another publisher, and just like plugged in, we can provide another humorous glimpse into the minds people who are DHH. If not, McKenna and I can at least share another laugh together.
Pete, thank you for taking the time to share your story. I love your sense of humor and hope you find a way to keep writing to share your experiences and viewpoint. McKenna is really lucky to have you as such a great role model.
If you are interested in reading the plugged in books (there are three), there are a couple of ways you can find them. The first book is available as a kindle book on Amazon. Otherwise most pediatric audiologists who carry Oticon aids can provide the books in their office. If you are unable to find them at your audiologist’s office another way is to contact Maureen Doty Tomasula at Oticon, Inc. and she can arrange to have books sent as well. Her email:firstname.lastname@example.org.
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