How did I do as a blind dad?
As his daughter prepares to celebrate her 21st birthday, Mike Lambert reflects on the challenges of being a blind parent.
Most parents worry about how good a job they've done bringing up their children. But having a profound disability gives me some additional pause for thought. My only child Caitlin is at university now and during a recent trip home, we had a very frank discussion about what it's been like having a blind dad.
She admits she still finds it difficult telling new friends that her dad can't see. "It doesn't matter how many times they hear the one about the blind man who climbed Everest," she says, "people still ask the most basic questions about how you get dressed and get around. I can't explain, it makes you sound like you're..."
"Helpless?" I suggest.
"Yes - and then I think they must consider me unusual as well, because I'm your daughter."
One thing she commonly gets asked is, "Who cares for who?" It's an upsetting question which raises doubts about my effectiveness as a parent. I don't feel like my daughter has been a carer though she has pitched in to the wider family effort.
We've all heard stories about young carers whose development has been negatively affected by the needs of a sick or disabled family member. And there is research to show that taking on a carer role too early can lead to lower exam results, fewer job opportunities, through to depression and anxiety in adulthood.
Caitlin appears to be happy, however, and she's a conscientious student, but I sometimes wonder about the psychological consequences of the many ways I relied on her from an early age. "Cait, could you help me find the ketchup?" "Cait, can you help me find the keys I dropped on the floor?" Did these small but constant demands foster an early but helpful sense of responsibility, or were they an ongoing anxiety hanging over her childhood?
Together we tried to remember the first time I held her arm and she took charge of guiding me. We're both surprised when we realise it may have been as early as six or seven. But Caitlin insists that being an occasional guide always felt natural, never a chore. "It's like you're an extension of me and I have a sense of the space we're taking up," she explains.
I remember when she was very young, those roles were in reverse. I protected her and it felt like it was she who could be described as a natural extension of me. Before Caitlin got too big, I could simply strap her into the baby-carrier and head out, wherever I wanted, using my white cane to walk. If you can't see, a backpack is far more manageable than a pushchair and, with it on, I loved collecting Caitlin from her childminder every evening. I felt so proud carrying her while, over my shoulder, she chattered on about her day. I was in charge, like dads are supposed to be.
So it saddened me when I discovered one of the other mums had been discussing with the childminder how dangerous it was for me to be crossing busy roads with Caitlin. I tried talking to that mother but she just couldn't get it. And it rankled with me all the more because I knew she was an intelligent and sensitive person.
When thinking about care, it's been important that Caitlin has had a non-disabled mum who's been able to fill any gaps. And I'm lucky I always had a job to support us all, as well as a network of friends who would help when the going got tough.
As Caitlin got older and started to move through school, I wanted to make sure I didn't cause her any undue embarrassment and that her school friends didn't make assumptions about her dad.
When she was nine, I presented a session to her class about Braille. It was well received, and each child left the room with a Braille alphabet card, a secret message to decode later and, so I hoped, the impression that Caitlin's dad, whilst different, was also an interesting and articulate man.
As a teenager, she became more self-conscious, insisting I should never bring my white cane to school. At 17, she invited her first serious boyfriend back to the house when her Mum and I were at the theatre. She recalls: "I hadn't told Tom you were blind because I didn't think you'd meet. But you came back early and I remember us all standing round the island in the kitchen, feeling extremely awkward. Then, when Tom reached out to shake your hand, I had to look away because I couldn't bear seeing what would happen next."
In our recent chat, Caitlin brought up an incident she remembered from when she was six. She recalls standing by the window one evening, and seeing me come in from work with blood streaming down my face. Her mum explained I was okay and that I'd had a collision with a carelessly constructed display outside a shop. I'd reported the matter to the police and, when they arrived at the house, Caitlin's anxieties began to peak.
She says: "I remember sitting there, feeling distraught, wondering what I could do to help. And then it came to me - I must write to the Queen." We still have a copy of her letter:
This is me, Caitlin. I'm six. I want to tell you about something really important to me. It's about my Dad he is blind. Every day when my Dad comes home from work, quite often he has bumped into a signpost and it proves that people don't care about other people who are blind. The last time I saw him bleeding he had got into an argument with a shopkeeper because he had bumped the sign over and my Dad called the plies. Do you have any ideas?
Re-reading Caitlin's letter, I feel sorry for the anxiety I caused her. But, more than anything, I'm impressed at this early example of her tenacity and search for a solution.
So, aside from spawning a royalist, how have I done as a parent? Caitlin reckons she never suffered from any lack of love or attention. Maybe there's a positive connection between the young woman who now sees herself as being especially observant and sensible, and some of the added responsibilities she assumed at an early age. Although as Caitlin points out: 'I like being sensible - and who's to say I wouldn't have been sensible anyway?"