The Intrepid

Parenting without sight is no mean feat—but like any serious challenge, it’s a little easier when you have friends along for the climb.

Photo by Peter Hapak

It’s Saturday night at a vast indoor playground in downtown Portland, Oregon. Dozens of kids clamber through three stories of tunnels and slides while their parents sit at tables nearby. In a brightly painted room usually reserved for birthday parties, a mothers’ group is meeting. For the next two hours, the four women in attendance will trade stories about their families. They’ll talk about their kids, their homes, their husbands, their dogs—but their dogs are here with them, under the table. All these moms are legally blind.

A Meeting of Minds

One of the group’s members is Tracy Boyd, 44, a mother of four (though she looks like a kid herself). Tracy was born with congenital glaucoma that worsened as she got older. In high school, she was still able to read large-print books. Now she can only detect blurred shapes and colors (say, whether a person is a blond or a brunet).

Last April, Tracy attended an alumni meeting set up by Guide Dogs for the Blind (GDB), the largest guide-dog school in the country, where her dog, Chiffon was trained. Tracy brought along Desmond, her then five-month-old son. (Tracy’s daughter, Alina, is 18, and her sons Colin and Tristan are 12 and 8.) “People at the meeting couldn’t see Desmond, but they could hear him, so everyone wanted to hold him and know how I was doing,” she remembers.

One of those people was Kelsey Sparks, 24. Kelsey was born with a retinal disease. She can make out some shapes, but they’re blurry, and she has no depth perception or peripheral vision. At the time of the meeting, Kelsey was five months pregnant with her first child. “I said to Tracy, ‘I have so many questions. How can I be blind and take care of a kid? How am I going to carry a baby when I’m holding onto my guide dog?’” she says. “I had no idea how other moms did it.”

Joy Ross, a blind mom of two at the meeting, nudged Tracy. “We should start a moms’ group,” Joy whispered. Tracy was thinking the same thing.

Up for the Challenges

Tracy had 18 years of parenting under her belt; she was an accidental expert in the difficulties facing blind moms. “If you see your baby crawling toward an electrical outlet, you pull him away. But what if you can’t see him?” she says.

Communication is a big issue. Tracy says, “I’m always wondering, Are my kids happy? Are they sad? When you can’t see their faces, you have to build a deeper dialogue. There’s much more talking.”

There’s also more planning. Tracy and her husband, Preston (who is sighted, as are all the Boyd kids and the children of the other women in the group), keep furniture in front of all outlets as an extra safety measure, backing up the outlet covers already in place. Tracy memorizes the words to board books so she can read to Desmond. She buys only white socks, so matching is never an issue. To ensure that diaper rash doesn’t go undetected and untreated, she applies lotion during every diaper change. She has a phone that reads texts aloud to her, enabling her to stay in frequent contact with her older kids, who all help out with the baby, locating and putting on his shoes, getting him into his car seat, pairing up his shirts and pants (which Tracy stores on outfit hangers, so they’re ready when she needs them).

Joy had developed plenty of parenting strategies of her own: “I lay out rules when my girls have playdates: Don’t put stuff in the walkways where I can trip. Don’t leave your cups full of liquid or plates of food out. And please let me know if you’re right in front of me.”

Tracy used to worry that other parents wouldn’t feel comfortable having their kids over to her house, but that has never been the case. “I might not be able to see what’s going on, but I can hear the different sounds and know exactly what the kids are getting into,” she says.