This week marks the last in my May series of focusing on mothers and hearing loss. To mark the occasion I interviewed Jennifer Rosner, author of the memoir, If a Tree Falls: A Family’s Quest to Hear and be Heard, and the children’s book, The Mitten String.
I have yet to meet Jennifer in person, but she was one of the early people I spoke with when my son was first diagnosed with hearing loss. We have also had some conversations about trying to find our balance between writing working, and raising a family.
Jennifer, I want to thank you for taking the time to chat. I have read your memoir, so I do know parts of your story. But, can you take a minute to tell my readers a little bit of your background and the story of your children’s hearing loss?
Thank you, it’s nice to get a chance to share here. I am the mom of two daughters, both of whom were diagnosed with hearing loss at birth. It turns out that my husband and I are carriers of the recessive gene, Connexin 26. We had no idea!
My mother had hearing loss from childhood, but we thought it was due to mastoid infections and surgeries. We didn’t know of anyone else in our families with hearing loss until after our first daughter, Sophia, was born. It was after that when I started to do a little research about hearing loss in our family that I learned about my deaf ancestors, dating as far back as the 1800s.
That is so interesting. I was fascinated by the part in If a Tree Falls, when after the birth of Sophia your father faxed you a family tree with the asterisked names identifying ancestors that were “deaf and dumb”. What did that mean for you at that moment?
Seeing those words “deaf and dumb” really brought up all my fears about prejudice and ostracism that I was worried Sophie would face. Here she was, this new born baby with this huge issue hanging over her head.
While I was aware that it was, historically, a common descriptor for deaf mutes, it brought to the surface the demeaning attitudes toward deaf people and was really disturbing to see in the aftermath of finding out my daughter was deaf.
Finding out about my deaf ancestors also gave me a place to start to try to figure out how my daughter fit in.
You also write about your mother’s hearing loss and how that impacted your relationship with her as you were growing up, where you didn’t feel as if you were heard. How did that affect you as a new mother of a child who was DHH?
As a new mother, I wanted fiercely to be close and connected to my children, especially because I’d felt disconnected as a child. There were just times when I felt my mother didn’t understand me or hear what I was trying to say, how I was trying to get close.
I worried that there might be a gulf in the experiences that I would have with my own daughters. Simply because I was hearing and they were not. But in time I saw that we could bridge our gaps and be well-connected.
Do you feel you were changed as a mother because of your daughter’s hearing loss? What was the impact?
Becoming a mother of deaf children really led me to think, not just about how, or whether, my daughters would hear me, but how I would hear them.
It led me to analyze my own issues with hearing and connection, and to think a lot about intimacy and bonding. I am certain that it made me a better mother and a more sensitive and adaptive person generally.
We have similarities beyond having children who are deaf/hard of hearing (DHH). We both changed the paths of our careers moving from academia to writing about hearing loss and how that has impacted our children and families. Can you share a little about how this transition came about for you?
Before I became a mother I was working, and writing in the field of philosophy. Faced with the girls’ deafness, I chose to devote myself full-time to raising them.
Apparently, writing was meant to be a part of that process, because I began journaling as a way to process my experiences, and the next thing I knew, I was writing a full-blown memoir!
I found that I love creative writing (much more than academic philosophy writing) and I’ve been doing it ever since. It was very nourishing to write about our journey as a family.
In both your books you’ve mentioned the story of the string that was tied from the wrist of the mother who was deaf to the wrist of the baby so the mother would be able to respond when the baby awoke. And it really is such a powerful image of connection. Who served as your “string” when you needed to be heard and supported as you adapted to your children’s hearing loss?
My husband, Bill, was really there for me, even if we sometimes reacted differently to the girls’ circumstances. My parents and siblings were very supportive, as were some key friends, who loved our girls as much as we did.
So glad you were able to find support on your journey. Your new book, The Mitten String, also addresses a mother who is deaf and how a community learns to communicate with her, and also how a mother connects with her child. Do you feel you will continue to write about issues of DHH, being heard, and community? Or are you working on something new?
I have two things in the hopper. One is a sequel to The Mitten String, and it continues to feature Bayla, the mother who is deaf.
The other is a novel that has nothing to do with issues of DHH, but it is about a mother and her two daughters and it has everything to do with connection.
Those both sound really interesting. I look forward to hearing more about them. I want to thank you for taking the time to connect with me and tell us a little more about your story and your experiences. For those of you who are interested in learning more about Jennifer and her work, you can check out her website at www.jennifer-rosner.com where you can purchase both her books.
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