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'I'LL NEVER SEE MY CHILDREN AGAIN' Failing eyesight means Kate Crofts, 37, can remember daughter Phoebe, 11, as a baby, but she's never seen her son Oscar, nine.

Byline: Words: Kathleen North

The first time you set eyes on your newborn child is an unforgettable moment for any mum, but for me it was even more so because it's the only memory I have of my daughter's face. I remember looking at Phoebe nestled in my arms, and seeing this titchy blob with dark skin, big, dark brown eyes she inherited from her dad Phil and this little, very kissy rosebud mouth. Sadly when her brother Oscar was born 21 months later my sight had deteriorated so much that faces were just blurs and I couldn't see his eyes at all. But I don't feel sad that I don't know what my son's face looks like, I just focus on all the wonderful memories I do have.

I was seven when my mum first noticed I was having problems with my sight. She took me to the local optician who referred me to Moorfields Eye Hospital. There, after a battery of tests, they told my mother that, due to a fluke combination of genes, my eyesight would continue to deteriorate and unfortunately there was no treatment available. My failing sight has now been a fact Snap Davies/ for so long it's become part of who I am.

I met my husband Phil when he applied for a job as my reader while I was at university. As a couple, we grabbed sighted life while Words: we could, so we travelled, dived off reefs and loved parachute jumping. Our feelings about having a family were the same, it was something important to both of us and we were keen to do it while I could still see. When Phoebe arrived shortly after we were married, we were thrilled.

I had begun to use a cane a year before becoming pregnant with Phoebe. So when she was born I was still working out what my changed vision meant, as well as figuring out how to make it work around motherhood. Oscar's arrival nearly two years later meant I had time to adapt as my eyesight continued to get worse. I couldn't pick up whether he was awake or asleep by looking at his face (I'd been able to detect whether Phoebe's eyes were open or not); I couldn't see him smile, or whether his mouth was open ready for spoonfeeding, where the mucky bits were to wash, where a favourite toy had been dropped - all the things you take for granted. But I did have Phoebe there, more able to tell me some of it as she learned to talk.

I developed other techniques for dealing with everyday challenges. I learnt what was a happy or unhappy gurgle and whether their cry meant they were hungry, tired or just cross. When they were really small they wore bells on hats or sewed onto hair scrunchies which I'd put in Phoebe's hair and round Oscar's ankle when he was crawling so I could always hear where they were. Breastfeeding was also a godsend, particularly with Oscar, because I didn't need to prepare bottles, and it also gave me the chance to bond with him through touch.

At first I was quite scared if I took Phoebe out. I'd only go if someone accompanied me. However, when I had Oscar, the reality of the situation hit - it was unfair to keep two small kids indoors all day. How could I introduce my wonderful children to the world if I never left my home? There was no choice - I had to brave the outside world and become emotionally stronger. I attached a sign to the buggy which read 'Blind Mum Driving - Keep Clear!' It went well although occasionally older ladies seemed alarmed. I'd get comments like, 'Is your carer nearby, dear?' or even 'Who let you out on your own?'

Around that time I joined an email group run by other visually impaired mums which became Blind Mums Connect. I found it an amazing source of support, information and friendship. I'm really pleased that we can now offer that support to other new mums who are in the same position as I was.

As they've got older, the kids have realised that, although there are things I can't see, my other senses make up for it. They know they can't get away with anything because Mummy has ears that span the entire house. They can't raid the fridge without me knowing.

They play with my blindness occasionally too. Phoebe has realised we keep naughtier food in a high cupboard in the kitchen which can only be accessed if they stand on the work surface, which they know they shouldn't do. Sometimes I'll walk into the kitchen and catch one of them mid-raid and they'll just freeze, hoping I won't detect them. They nearly get away with it but I'll be walking out of the room when I'll hear someone exhaling and I'll turn round and grab them. Sometimes a sighted family member will catch them sticking their tongue out or making faces at me knowing I can't see. Usually I don't notice, but sometimes the face pull is so extreme I can hear it.

There have been plus sides to my blindness too. Oscar's quite a performer, he loves to sing and his teacher is convinced it's because when he's performing and there's 30 of them on stage he knows Mummy can't see him in the audience so he has to be loud so I can hear him. Another plus is my guide dog Phantom, who the kids adore and gives me so much more freedom.

I try not to spend too much time thinking about the fact I won't see my family's faces again. I'm too busy getting on with the good things in life. I feel so lucky to have such wonderful children. I do worry a bit about losing that tactile contact I had with them when they still needed me to wash and feed them, that they'll become more physically distant - will a 25 year old really want Mummy to come and feel their face to understand what they look like?

But I also look forward to finding out what the future is going to bring. I feel passionately that I'm a working mother who happens to be blind - not a blind woman who is also a mother, to me that's an important distinction.

Blindness: the facts

The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) estimates there are almost two million people in the UK living with sight loss and everyday a further 100 people start to lose their sight.

The five leading causes of sight loss in the UK are refractive error, age-related macular degeneration, cataract, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy. All other causes, including complex hereditary diseases such as those experienced by Kate, account for less than 8% of cases.

Having an eye examination at least once every two years should be part of everyone's health care routine. Many causes of sight loss are preventable if they are caught early.

RNIB's Helpline is a source of information, support and advice for anyone in the UK living with a sight problem. Call 0303 123 9999.

How to help

Read for RNIB Day is on Fri 11 October. It's a fundraiser aiming to open up a world of reading for blind and partially sighted people. The National Library Service provide books in braille, audio and giant print. They also work with publishers to ensure accessibility is at the forefront of new developments. Find out more at readforrnib.org.uk or call 0845 345 0054.

'I couldn't see him smile, whether his mouth was open ready for feeding - all the things you take for granted ' for I

CAPTION(S):

Above, with Phoebe and left, with husband Phil and the kids

FACING THE FUTURE: Phantom the dog, Oscar, Kate and Phoebe

Pictures: Gareth Davies/Snap Media Production.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Sunday Mirror (London, England)
Date:Jul 21, 2013
Words:1315
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