Dr Amit Patel discusses the truth about being a blind dad, his experiences of nappy changing, and the reality of baby groups with a guide dog.
I always wanted to be a dad. Or rather, I always knew that I’d be a dad. I just never thought it would be like this.
When I lost my sight, out of the blue only eighteen months after getting married, kids were the last thing on my mind. Yet here I am, with a 4-year-old and a 20-month-old running around and creating chaos all around me. Like many of you, I spend my days wincing in pain as I step on disregarded Lego bricks. Or trying (unsuccessfully) to get my darling children to eat anything resembling a vegetable. I have also tried every trick in the book to get them to sleep. That all sounds pretty typical doesn’t it? So what is the truth about being a blind dad?
Perception Vs Reality.
Before our son was born, my wife Seema and I were very anxious about how we would cope with the reality of having a child. What roles would we each play? What was the truth about being a blind dad, how much would I be able to do for the baby? I wanted to be a hands-on dad, so we spent months researching everything – from buggies to carriers to clothing.
We spent whole days in baby-related shops. We tested prams, baby carriers and car seats. Worked out how many changing mats we needed, deciding whether a nappy bin was an essential, et cetera, et cetera. It was overwhelming. My lack of sight meant we needed the things we bought to be easy for me to use. Even finding a baby monitor that was straightforward and tactile enough was not a simple task.
A Midwife for Me!
When the big day finally arrived, we were in the birthing unit at the hospital. We had two midwives with us. One looking after Seema and the other giving me a running commentary on Seema’s progress. As a doctor, I’d delivered several babies on my rotations, so I knew exactly what was supposed to be happening… but this time I wasn’t there as a doctor but as a husband and father to-be. When my son was born, I cut the umbilical cord, with a bit of help from Daisy, the midwife. Daisy placed the baby in Seema’s arms and I felt a rush of love unlike anything I’d ever felt before.
When Seema asked if I wanted to hold our son I couldn’t wait! I made myself comfortable in a chair and my son was placed in my arms. Seema told me “he’s looking at you”. It was at that moment that I was struck by all the things I would never share with my son. No matter how well Seema described him to me, I’d never know for sure what he looked like. I’d never be able to look into his eyes as he looked into mine. I’d never be able to teach him how to drive, as my father had taught me.
Holding him made me more determined than ever that he should not miss out on anything because of my blindness. In that moment I made a silent promise, that I would be the very best father I could be. Our son would never hear me say, ‘You can’t do that because I’m blind.’
Can You Change A Nappy BlindFolded?
We all think we can change a nappy blindfolded, but can you really? I knew that if I wanted to be a hands-on dad, it all started with the nappies. So with a little support from Seema and a super stocked, super organised changing table, I went for it. I had nappies, wipes, cream laid out within arm’s reach, I’d memorised where everything was. And as I changed my beautiful baby boy’s nappy…. he peed on me! I learnt very quickly after that mistake.
Playgroups and Other Parents.
As time went on, I felt comfortable with looking after my son Abhi. As a guide dog owner, I had Kika (my guide dog) close by and Abhi and Kika soon became best friends, but we wanted to make sure he had plenty of human friends too. Before long, he was old enough to go to a local playgroup. As with everything else I wasn’t going to miss out and naturally Kika was with us.
It was great to be among other parents with young children. But unfortunately the majority of parents didn’t know how to engage with a disabled person. It soon became very isolating.
I went to the playgroup a few times, but it was as if I was there and yet not there. Firstly, I was always the only dad there on a weekday, and I was disabled. That made conversation scarce. If anyone did talk to me, they would strike up a conversation about Kika, rather than my son. And if Seema wasn’t with me to get the conversation rolling, the other parents wouldn’t interact with me at all. After a few weeks of sitting there feeling like a sore thumb, I decided not to go back again. I didn’t need to be made to feel like an outsider. Abhi and I would go to the park instead. He loved the swings and I was able to push him on one.
You Need Eyes In The Back Of Your Head
But the mums from the playgroup also came to the park. I could recognize their voices – and I would often hear their whispers of consternation. ‘Where’s his career?’ somebody once asked. ‘How can he really be safe alone with the child? You need eyes in the back of your head to look after a toddler.’
When I talked about it with Seema, she reluctantly told me about the things I didn’t see. Even some of the friendly conversations I thought I’d had with other parents were accompanied by disapproving facial expressions.
Did people really think that my son wasn’t safe with me? Did they think that disability prevents you from being a normal parent? Sometimes it seemed to me that ‘normal parents’ weren’t doing such a great job themselves. I came to understand that many people say hurtful things to make themselves feel better. Although some people really are just mean. Or thoughtless.
Baby Shark Doo-Doo-Doo-Do-Doo
I really got to know my son when Seema went back to work full time. I took over the day care for the 2 days a week that he wasn’t at nursery. You’d usually see me pottering around with a baby strapped to my chest. Left hand on my guide dogs harness and singing nursery rhymes (including the dreaded baby shark!). All with a huge smile on my face).
Being self-employed, I wasn’t in a position to say no when work things popped up on my childcare days. That meant that I took Abhi along with me instead. He got to visit inside 10 Downing Street before he was eighteen months old. He assisted me in giving presentations to corporate clients and MPs as well as to charities that I work with. I wondered where he gets his confidence from, but he’s been surrounded by people from all walks of life since such a young age. That has been a great parenting tool, as now nothing phases him.
Baby Number 2!
Seema and I always wanted more than one child. And with the truth about being a blind dad no longer an unknown. We welcomed a daughter into our family 20 months ago. I had learned my lessons on changing nappies. Although, I am pleased to tell you I haven’t been peed on this time around!
Now with a little sister around, my son’s confidence has continued to grow and appears to be rubbing off on her. Despite her not having seen much more than our 3 faces for the best part of a year (thanks Covid). She is a confident and happy little girl. And as for me. Well, Covid has made the past year tough, for a variety of reasons.
That said, the quality time spent with my kids has been very special. Like everyone working through this, we’re trying to force some separation between weekdays and home-schooling and the weekends. We’re all a bit fed up with walks around the block. But the kitchen discos and home-made pizzas will continue long after lockdown ends!
The Truth About Being a Blind Dad?
So what’s the reality of being a blind dad?
Although there are a few things that I know I won’t be able to do. The reality is, the only thing that holds me back is the limits that other people put on me.
Kika & Me
If you would like to read more about my story, from the challenges of travelling when blind to becoming a parent for the first time, my book Kika & Me is available now in all good book shops and for Kindle and Audible.
You can also follow me on Twitter & Instagram
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