My favorite reaction I get when I tell someone my mom is deaf is “What’s that like?” and the answer is that I don’t know. I don’t have anything to compare it to; I’ve never known any different. Imagine I went up to you and asked you what it was like to be alive. It’s hard to explain because you don’t know what it’s like to be dead.
Something you may notice if you ever talk to more than one CODA (Child/ren of Deaf Adult who is hearing) is that no two experiences are the same. Sure, some can be similar, but unless you’re talking to siblings (which, even then, can be different), you’ll never hear about the same stuff. Some families strictly sign, some rarely use ASL, and some use other forms of signed language (Cued Speech, for example). Some families have their kids interpret, and some refuse. Some CODA have deaf siblings, and some don’t. I could go on and on with differences.
In my opinion, having a deaf parent is really great. I have access to an amazing language and culture. That’s something that a lot of hearing people don’t really get. Deafness is a culture. There’s a shared language and heritage aspect to it. There are different dialects of the same sign language. Similar to how in English there’s different dialects (British, American, etc), in ASL there’s also different dialects (standard, Black, etc). There are also regional differences. In the same way someone may call a water fountain a bubbler in some regions, garbage is signed one way in one area, and differently in another area. Also, many Deaf people have had similar experiences in life and thus share similar beliefs, attitudes, and traditions, another thing that ties them together in a culture.
This culture puts a lot of CODA in a weird place. Growing up surrounded by Deaf people and their culture, but going to school and being surrounded by hearing people, straddles them between two very different worlds. It’s similar to being the child of immigrants.
You can kind of begin to see what that’s like in the movie CODA, which I totally recommend, but that’s only one story, one perspective. And there’s so many stories, like mine, that are way, way different. For starters, I have a hearing parent too. Most Deaf people tend to marry other Deaf people, in the same way you’ll find that it’s rare for someone who went to college to marry someone who didn’t. My dad is 100% hearing, my mom is 100% deaf, it’s a fun mix.
Another huge thing that sets me apart from the average CODA is that we don’t use ASL that much in my house. While my siblings and I grew up learning and using sign language, once we began talking, we pretty much stopped. We still use it on occasion, some of us more than others, but we mostly speak. My mom reads lips and talks as well, so ASL was just never something that was necessary.
However, makes me feel alienated from the Deaf community that so many CODA find comfort in because we don’t use it.
A few years ago, I went to an overnight camp designed specifically for CODA to, as my dad put it, commiserate. It was a great experience and made me feel so much more connected to my mom, but at the same time, I felt weird because nearly everyone else had a more traditional CODA experience: interpreting. They would have conversations about interpreting, sharing their crazy stories, and I would just sit there silently and nod like I could relate to what they were talking about. But I couldn’t. My mom doesn’t need or want my siblings and me to interpret. There are only a few situations in which she needs us to interpret. Like, at a drive-thru, if the person she’s talking to is wearing a mask, or if the person she’s talking to has/is doing something that makes them hard to lip read (beard, accent, mumbling, etc). However, I rarely have to do this, maybe once a week. That means that the absolute hardest part about being a CODA is something I can’t really relate to, especially since my interpreting stories are mundane and it’s not an “all the time, everywhere” sort of deal for me. And that’s a good thing, but it also makes me feel like I don’t deserve the CODA title, because I don’t do as much as everyone else.
Something that took me a while to understand is that I still do something. I do interpret, even though I don’t do as much of it as others. But, I get put in weird situations, just like the other CODA. Sometimes, when I’m interpreting, the person I’m interpreting for my mom will begin to direct their questions and comments to me, as if I’m the one answering, which puts me in such a weird spot. The other night my mom and I went to Target. The lady at check-out asked my mom a question while she wasn’t looking, so I tapped her on the shoulder and signed what the lady asked (I often sign to her when I don’t feel like talking). From that moment on the lady directed everything to me, even though up until that point, she had been interacting just fine with my mom. She handed me the 5$ rewards gift card as if I was the one paying, and let me know why she double bagged something. My mom was literally right next to me! And this was all because she assumed that my mom was incapable of handling this interaction on her own, which is so, so hurtful.
Quick side note about interpreting: oftentimes deaf parents will have their kids interpret anywhere and everywhere (as opposed to in very specific situations, like how it is for me). This can put their kids in awkward and even inappropriate situations. They have to interpret at traffic stops, doctor appointments, in the checkout line, at the bank, and even at their own parent-teacher conferences. Some kids start interpreting at incredibly young ages too, pretty much as soon as they can understand spoken English and Sign Language. Their age can make interpreting even more inappropriate. Imagine a six-year-old child interpreting at their parents’ doctor’s appointment, or any child for that matter. That’s one of the reasons why my mom doesn’t like having my siblings and I interpret for her; it’s not our job, and that’s not what her kids are for.
CODA goes into so much more detail about interpreting experiences (I cannot express how much you should watch this movie). It shows how hearing kids will feel responsible for their Deaf parents, and how intensely Deaf parents will rely on their hearing kids. It also gives an insightful view into how hearing people see Deaf people and their culture.
There are some things that all CODA can relate to, though, and these were brought up a lot at camp. For starters, we are all armed to the teeth with deaf jokes. A common joke in my house is when my mom will say something along the lines of “I heard that you got an A on your math test.” And every single one of my siblings and I will automatically respond, “No you didn’t.” Another one is after all of my orchestra concerts, I make a point of asking her how she thinks we sounded.
She even makes the jokes herself. Once my brother and I were arguing over the front seat. His argument was that he called shotgun when we left the restaurant. Without missing a beat, my mom responded, “I didn’t hear it so it doesn’t count.”
Another common CODA experience I’ve found is that we all really like Closed Captions. I, personally, find it incredibly hard to watch something without them, likely because I’ve had them there my whole life. They’re also so useful. It quite literally baffles me that people don’t use them at least a little bit.
Something else we could all connect about was the questions. Every time someone finds out my mom is Deaf there are. So. Many. Questions. And I’m so glad people are curious and want to know, but the questions are usually the same five: “Do you know ASL?” (meh), “Does she have a service dog?” (he’s dead), “Are any of your siblings deaf?” (no), “Can your mom read lips?” (yes), and “What’s it like?” (good question).
Besides questions, another common reaction is, “I’m so sorry.” Why are you sorry? There’s nothing wrong with deafness. Usually, when people say that to me, I tell them I’m sorry they have a hearing mom. Of course, I don’t mean it in a mean way, but how else am I supposed to get them to see that what they’re telling me is wrong on so many levels? I bet you wish you could blast music at 11 pm with no consequences (I can only do this when it’s just my mom and I for the night, but you get what I’m saying).
The camp was amazing though; it was great to be able to connect with others about such a huge part of my life that is so underrepresented anywhere and everywhere. It was kind of jarring too, to meet so many people who were just like me. But jarring in a really good way.
Until then, I had gone my whole life not knowing anyone who wasn’t one of my siblings who had a Deaf parent. Up until I was around ten, for whatever reason, I just thought that everyone’s mom couldn’t hear, even if it was really clear their moms could. It was just how my brain worked. Without someone with a Deaf parent in my life or in pop culture, it didn’t feel different and didn’t start to register until I was older that my experiences were different, that my family was different, and that I was different.
I started to hide it. I wasn’t ashamed, it was just unique and I didn’t want to be. CODA Camp made me proud to have a Deaf parent and validated my identity and experiences, something I couldn’t be more grateful for. I’m proud that my mom is my mom, and I wouldn’t rather have another mom.
Being a CODA is so hard to explain, especially when I don’t have the experience that’s expected. But I love it, and I’m so glad that I’ve been given a platform that allows me to share my experiences and educate people on something they may have never understood. I encourage you to do some of your own research, as there is so much more that I couldn’t include. If you want resources I recommend True Biz by Sara Novic, which is an incredible fiction book about being Deaf and being a CODA, of course, the movie CODA, and, I’d also recommend checking out the National Association of the Deaf and the National Deaf Center’s websites.
Please, educate yourselves and those around you. Every Deaf person and every CODA will probably love you forever.