There are amazing, devoted, wonderful, deliberate mothers out there, and each week we’ll spotlight one of them here at Power of Moms. Do you know a mom who deserves a little time in the spotlight? Email rachelle.price (at) powerofmoms.com. We can’t wait to meet her.
Introducing Mary Jo Hartle
How many children do you have and what are their ages?
My husband Jesse and I have a daughter who just turned 2, and are expecting our second child in September.
What are some unique and interesting aspects of your family or your approach to mothering?
Both my husband and I are blind, so this really makes our parenting experience a unique one and sometimes provides different challenges in raising our family as result.
What do you do that is a little different than what seems to be the “norm”?
For the most part, we consider ourselves just to be your typical family in that we try to be just as normal as anyone else. We’d rather others see us as “The Hartle Family,” which just happens to have two blind parents, rather than having everyone see us or label us as “The Blind Family.” That being said, we do recognize that our situation is unique. We do have to use some different strategies or techniques to accomplish everyday tasks. We own our home, and it’s just your average typical home—no special designs or major blind-friendly adaptations like some would expect. The only real “accommodations” we have done around our home is to put tactile indicators like Braille or raised labels on our appliances and thermostats to make them useable. We also may organize things a bit more or a little differently than some people too so that we know what and where certain things are.
I am a stay-at-home mom and therefore am responsible for most of the care of our daughter and also do the bulk of the maintenance of our home. We don’t hire a maid to come and clean for us or anyone to come and care for our child. I find it a bit funny sometimes that occasionally when people first meet us, they ask us who lives with us and helps to care for us. They are usually stunned when they find out no one does.
One of the biggest challenges we face is transportation. We use a lot of different strategies for getting around, including public transportation, sharing rides with friends and neighbors, and hiring drivers from time to time. This all requires some extra planning, forethought, and a little creativity, not to mention patience at times, especially when dealing with public transportation.
Another area where our approach varies from “the norm” is the supervision of our daughter. Since she first became mobile, we have put bells on her shoes so that we can hear where she is. As she has gotten older, and more verbal, we’ve taught her to respond to us when we call her. Since I can’t just scan a room or playground to see where she is, I have to use an alternative technique, so I call her and tell her to say, “Hi Mommy” so that I can hear where she is or what she is doing. I’ve used this in a variety of situations as a way of “checking on her” in a nonvisual way. She does pretty well for the most part, even though it’s sometimes still a work in progress since she is only two. When she doesn’t respond, there are consequences and I have to correct her just like I would with any other misbehavior because this is one of my ways of making sure she is safe.
What have you decided to prioritize in your mothering that you see as somewhat unusual?
Prior to having my daughter, I’d pursued a graduate degree, had a pretty successful career, and had worked my way up to becoming a director at a national nonprofit organization. I had decided early on that I wanted to stay home and raise my family, so when the time finally came, I was ready. (I feel like I started the mom role a little later than most.) This decision is very important to me as I feel it is the best choice for my family and a worthwhile endeavor. I felt at the time like some of my co-workers and other acquaintances thought less of me for “wasting” my talent and education to “just stay home.” I still feel like some look down a bit on my decision, especially since I live on the East Coast where the practice of being a stay-at-home mom is even less common, and most moms try to balance a career with having children. For me, however, I feel like if I were to continue my professional pursuits, I wouldn’t be able to give 100 percent to my family or to my career all the time—something would always be getting short-changed.
What have been your favorite parts of motherhood? How do you cultivate joy in your journey as a mother?
I think I enjoy all the little spontaneous and tender moments with my child that pop up, like when she grabs my cheeks with both hands and gives me a kiss or just watching how excited she gets about looking at “the baby flowers” blooming in our yard. I had friends and family tell me when I first became a mom to treasure all the little moments and not get so caught up in the day to day business of doing dishes or laundry sometimes because our children grow up so fast. I’ve really tried to take this to heart and make sure to take advantage of some of the little tender moments each day even if it’s just carving out some time to go for a walk around the block with her, read stories, or rock her to sleep before a nap or bedtime. I also really love all the teaching moments that come up so often. It’s so rewarding when I see my daughter make some new connection, say a new phrase, or do some new task that she just learned. It really validates me as a mother that I am doing something right with her. When I find myself having “blue days” and feeling bored or lonely as a stay-at-home mom, it is these little moments that help me get through it and remind me that I truly have the most rewarding and important job.
What have been the biggest challenges of motherhood for you? What are the hardest parts of your typical day as a mom?
First, I would have to say that my own expectations or perceptions of what motherhood would be like, or what kind of a mom I should be, have presented some challenges. I tend to be a bit of a perfectionist and overachiever, so when things aren’t quite like I think they should be, I tend to be a little hard on myself or feel like I’m a failure in some way. I often struggle with comparing myself a lot to other mothers around me. The problem with doing this for me (despite the fact that we shouldn’t do this in general as mothers) is that I’m comparing myself as a blind mother to sighted mothers. My ways are going to be different and there are frankly just things I’m not going to be able to do at all or the same way because of blindness, but this doesn’t keep me from comparing myself to others. For example, I see other moms being able to just put the kids in the car, take them to the park, and still get several errands done at once on the way home. But, because I have to rely on public transportation or getting rides with others, our outings and errands get broken up into several days sometimes. I know this isn’t really that big of a deal, as long as the task gets done why does it matter how or when, right? But I see this sometimes as a weakness on my part that I can’t just get it all done in one day too and be “Super Mom.”
On a related note, I also struggle with letting go of some of the “ideal expectations” or perceptions I have had with respect to what our family life would be like from before I became a mom. I am still working to embrace new ways of thinking about how “things can be, even though it is often hard to let go of my perceived “ideal.” For example, I always pictured going on road trips, camping, or just jumping in the car to go out for ice cream in the evenings with my family. These were quality times with my family growing up, and I want to share the same experiences with my own family now. Since both my husband and I are blind, however, it makes doing these things in the same ways pretty impossible. But it’s not to say we can’t find other ways to accomplish the ultimate goal of providing quality family time and experiences. So maybe we have to take a train or plane to a different vacation destination rather than a remote campground in the mountains, or maybe we walk ten minutes down the road to Baskin Robins instead of eating our ice cream in the car. The same goal is accomplished. I just have to remind myself of the end result—the family time—rather than getting caught up in the method so much. I’m sure I’ll get the opportunity to have lots of quality chats with my children as they get older and we’re standing on a corner waiting for a bus.
Another big challenge for both my husband and I is public attitudes and perceptions. We often face discrimination or are treated in patronizing ways. Fortunately, both my husband and I have had some excellent blindness skills training and feel that we are pretty competent, independent individuals, but there is always this feeling that we have to prove ourselves capable all the time to others—sometimes even our biggest supporters and friends.
For example, I’ve still never been asked to babysit for any of my “mom friends” from our church or play groups, even though I’m a parent myself and care for my daughter on my own (I’ve never lost her or had to even take her to the ER, I’m a certified teacher in three states, and have years of experience working with children professionally). I sometimes attribute this to the fact that maybe the right opportunity hasn’t come up yet, or that someone else lives closer, but in the back of my mind, I still worry that it’s because these individuals still don’t feel comfortable in my abilities and have some of the same public attitudes we deal with on a daily basis.
A couple of weeks ago my daughter (again who is two) wanted to pick out her own clothes. The outfit didn’t really match, but to allow her some independence, I let her wear it. All day though, I worried that others would judge me on the fact that her miss-matched outfit was as result of me being blind rather than because I let her choose her clothes. When we eat out somewhere, I often over compensate to clean up after us so that others won’t think our mess was as result of us being blind and not the fact that we have a toddler. It can sometimes be frustrating to always feel like we have to prove ourselves or feel like our authority or abilities as parents is being questioned all the time, especially in front of our child.
Since my daughter was born, I’ve used either a Bjourn or an Ergo carrying pack with her not only because I like the closeness and the bonding aspect of it, but also because as a blind person, it allows me to travel with my cane and child so much easier. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had complete strangers in public tell me that I’m suffocating my child, or yell out from across a bus or train at me to not sit on my child when I take a seat (as if I could forget I’m carrying a small child). I’m pretty sure if it wasn’t for the fact that I carry a white cane, anyone would even question my parenting abilities.
In these situations, it’s hard not to be offended or want to reply with some sarcastic comment, but I try to stay calm and use the situation as a teaching opportunity—most of the time. I may be the only blind person people may ever see or meet, so I want to make a good impression that we are capable and competent individuals so as to help educate the public on the capabilities of blind people.
What coping strategies do you have for getting through hard times and hard days?
My faith is probably the biggest strength for me. I feel like my blindness sometimes is a challenge I was given for a reason and that it gives me some different abilities and experiences than I would have had otherwise. I hope that maybe in some ways others can learn through my experiences. Prayer is also a big help for me in praying for patience, guidance, and the strength and abilities I need to deal with the everyday challenges I face.
Secondly, I think having a positive attitude is key. I may not be able to choose the circumstances I’m in, but I can choose how I react to them. I also have to learn to find the humor in some situations –like how I’ll look back and laugh on the day we stood in the pouring rain for an hour waiting on a bus only to find out that the stop had been taken off the route–and remember not to take myself too seriously sometimes.
I’ve also found that writing about my experiences can also be very therapeutic and help me take a step back and look at the situation in a different light sometimes which can help me see that maybe things aren’t always as bad as I may think at the time.
Lastly, my husband is also a great source of support for me. He has a very positive attitude about blindness and helps me with this at times. He also has a great sense of humor and listens to my complaints without complaint.
What has surprised you about motherhood?
Aside from some of the challenges I discussed above which I didn’t really expect initially, I would have to say that the thing that surprises me the most about motherhood is how much I would enjoy it. I knew I would love my children and that I would love being a mom, but I had no idea how much. I am constantly surprised by the joy I feel from being a mom. It is seriously the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but by far the most rewarding.
What have you learned from motherhood? Please share a specific story or incident that really taught you something.
I had to think about this for awhile because it is really hard to pinpoint a specific experience. I feel like there are a string of experiences or situations that have taught me so much about myself, my abilities, and about others. The answer I came up with however really surprised me.
My biological father passed away the day before my husband and I were married. He and I had had a rough relationship for a few years prior to his passing, and a particularly ugly exchange a few months before where we both said and did some hurtful things. I struggled for a long time after his death with feelings of sadness, hurt, and anger. I’ve worked for a few years now on forgiving him for some of the choices he made. I still love and miss him despite the pain. I also felt a lot of regret and sadness that maybe he didn’t love me anymore or would ever forgive me for the hurt I may have caused him (I firmly believe that I will get to see him again someday after this life.)
Anyway, a few months after my daughter was born, I was rocking her to sleep one evening and had this overwhelming feeling of love for her. I knew that I would love her before she was born, and I did love her now, but this was more than I’d ever imagined or could describe. It surprised me that I could feel this much love for my child. It was like no matter what she did I knew I would always love her, no matter what. In that moment, I thought about my dad and knew that no matter what I had done to hurt him, he still loved me. I’ve never really felt a strong feeling that he’s forgiven me, but I do know that he loved and still loves me. So, I guess the thing I’ve learned most as a mother is the ability to love unconditionally and what love really is.
Editor’s Note: Mary Jo keeps a blog called Making it on the Playground. It’s a resource for parents and teachers of blind/low vision children, and includes personal stories and experiences about her family.
Photo courtesy of Mary Jo Hartle