As a hearing parent of a deaf child, I’ve often wondered what the world is like from my son’s perspective. Sam doesn’t realize he has hearing “loss” because it’s all he’s ever known. Before we discovered he couldn’t hear, he would stare intently, not moving, while other babies followed along in Mommy and Me classes. I thought he was just acutely observant, but he must have been trying to figure out what on earth was going on.
So it was with trepidation that I watched the new film “Wonderstruck,” about two deaf children 50 years apart who are seeking answers about their lives. I thought seeing the experience of deafness through their eyes would bring on a kind of mom guilt, a feeling that I’m parenting my son wrong. Although the film did strike a chord, it also gave me a new outlook on being deaf, something I can never completely understand because I’m not living it. The story of one of the children, Rose (Millicent Simmonds), was particularly powerful because it was filmed without sound.
I already knew that only three children in 1,000 are born with some level of deafness, and more than 90 percent of them have hearing parents — meaning deaf kids can feel isolated, even within their families. But seeing the dismissive attitude Rose’s stern father’s has toward her was heartbreaking. I congratulated myself for being more aware of my son Sam’s feelings; but then I realized I often treat him as a “regular” hearing kid. He speaks and wears hearing aids, which are not a total fix, but he hides it by filling in the blanks with contextual clues. So it’s easy, even for me, to forget that he can’t hear the way I can.
Rose has been deprived of language (although she can read and write, which might not have been possible in reality if she hadn’t first learned to sign or speak), and is largely cut off from the world because of choices her parents made for her. Her father wants her to lip read and talk, but she resists. With Sam, I’ve tried to be open to different modes of communication — he’s exposed to sign language at his school for the deaf, and I’m taking a sign language class as well — and so far, it seems he favors speaking. But as he grows, I have to allow that to be his preference, not mine.
These modes of language are not just about how deaf children learn communication — it’s their identity that’s at stake. Rose feels like she doesn’t fit in anywhere except in the movie theater watching silent films. Although I want Sam to find his way in the hearing world, forcing him to do so may backfire. I never want him to feel inferior, but he is always going to be different. Deaf culture, a tightknit community in which many deaf people use true American Sign Language (instead of the English-sign mash-up I attempt), has always seemed intimidating to me as a hearing person. But Rose eventually finds her way there, and Sam might, too.
Still, Rose struggles against what people tell her she can’t do because she’s deaf, something I have to remind myself not to do with my son. When one character tells her she can’t wander by herself because she could be hit by a car or kidnapped, she writes, “So could anyone!” It’s a valid point and while I worry about Sam’s vulnerability, maybe I don’t give him enough credit for the things he can accomplish on his own. I don’t want to focus on perceived limitations — I want him to find ways to transcend them.
Rose is able to find her “voice” through the efforts of her older brother, who helps her when parents refuse to see her for who she is. Advocacy is crucial for deaf children, and I’ve already felt my “mama bear” instincts coming out when trying to find solutions for Sam in school and social situations. But it’s not always easy with a child so young to figure out what his needs really are. Am I making the right decisions for him? I felt relief for Rose, and I desperately hope to make such a difference in the outcome of my child’s life.
While “Wonderstruck” does illuminate a deaf child’s perspective of the world, it also reminded me I can only imagine Sam’s reality — especially because the film’s lack of sound doesn’t represent exactly the way my son hears. Rose appears to be profoundly deaf, with no access to sound at all; but Sam has a moderate to severe loss, so he can pick up on some sounds and is able to use hearing aids to bolster this residual hearing. Deafness is not just one thing, and it would be naive to think that Rose’s experience represents the way it is for all deaf children.
Even though “Wonderstruck” focuses on deafness, its lessons of acceptance, advocacy and love could be applied to any disability or challenge a child may encounter, and how parents choose to respond. Even typical kids are always going to surprise us, to want to go down paths we don’t think they should take, and push us to confront our narrow views of the world. It’s our job to recognize our shortcomings and raise confident children who can make their own choices. I have to listen to Sam’s needs and wants for his preferred modes of communication and finding where he fits in as he gets older. I have to remember that even with his hearing aids, even when it seems he can hear perfectly fine, his perception of the world is always going to be different — not necessarily less than, but different — than mine.