During the past 5 years and more particularly in the 6 weeks Peter was in the Antarctic, I have been repeatedly moved by the gestures of love and support of friends, family and often complete strangers. But every now and again someone will ask with complete bewilderment: “So what’s the problem with having your husband in the middle of the Atlantic/Antarctic?” Or, “Don’t you worry about him dear, he’s going to be just fine.” A marvelously bizarre comment was ,”Oh yes, I have a friend who does that [rows across the Atlantic/treks to the South Pole?] all the time!” Huh? Really?
So maybe I need to explain from my own experience what is in fact so complex and difficult about these expeditions (which often appear to the outside world to be rather glamorous) for the wives, husbands, partners, parents and children of the people out there rowing/trekking across some remote wilderness.
Peter, Hannah and I are very intense with each other. We love each other to distraction and have always been privileged to spend more time together than most families. Peter and I are best friends. When Hannah was 8 months old and I went back to work, Peter took care of her. Because of the nature of his job he has spent more time with his daughter than almost any father I know. Under the circumstances they have an extraordinary bond. We are unused to being without each other and miss each other enormously when we are apart. So missing him is bad, but by no means intolerable. Seeing Hannah miss him is worse, of course. (When we say grace before a meal she always pretends to hold his hand which makes me want to howl daily.)
When Peter is away, obviously one needs to deal with the inconvenience of being a single parent. (I have great respect for people who do this all the time). It is relentless to try to earn a living, look after a small child, do all the housework (Patricia my domestic is uncannily on extended annual or maternity leave every time Peter is away) run the home admin and finances, do the DIY and fix the car (window, hooter, aircon, tyres, lights all inexplicably give up the ghost during expeditions!), evict snakes and bats from my home and operate as Pete’s PRO, churn out information for the web sites, book flights and accommodation without eta’s, apply for visas and train for my own expeditions/races all while offering Peter emotional support 24/7. This is hectic and inconvenient, but quite manageable for most women.
This sort of scenario is quite common during expeditions:
I have a work related but ignored deadline. I am on the phone conducting an interview with a newspaper which is unable to reach Peter, the gardener electrocutes himself with the lawn mower and the neighbor’s dog decides to maul him in his weakened state, Hannah bellows from the bathroom that the toilet roll has run out, someone arrives in the driveway and begins hooting impatiently as the washing machine inexplicably begins to overflow all over the floor. At this moment the phone starts ringing. The caller ID reveals that it is Peter so I have to drop everything, adopt a tone of manic enthusiasm and say “Hello my love, you are a machine! Legend!!! Howz it going today? There are hundreds of messages for you let me read them to you…. this is todays weather info from Tjaart……you have moved up 2 positions and are now only 1 mile behind XXX etcetc
A typical daily routine looks something like this:
5.30am: Wake up and check Peter’s progress update, send barrage of motivational sms’s. Make Hannah’s school lunch and pack her bag.
6.00am: Wake Hannah and dress her, give her breakfast and do neglected homework
6.45am: Take Hannah to school. Attempt to disentangle (inexplicably) weeping clinging child, from my leg
7.30am speak to Peter, go for a run (training for my expedition)
10.00 am: Hurtle home to check am progress update and sms Peter progress information, write and send an article to local newspaper, update FB site, contact sponsors and various media with updates, send sms’s to Peter, collate messages of support from various sites and send to Peter, answer calls, do admin, pay accounts, try (with little success) to earn a living etcetc
12pm: do grocery shopping, fetch Hannah and take her to extra murals, home again for lunch – do stuff with Hannah,send barrage of motivational and anecdotal sms’s to Peter; graciously receive Peter;s numerous fans and provide endless supply of tea, beer, news…
7pm check progress update and relay info to Peter, speak to Peter and update websites, supervise bath and supper for Hannah and complete new improved “compensate for missing daddy” bedtime routine, answer calls ignored while busy with Hannah, tidy the house from top to bottom, do washing etc
11.00pm check update and send information to Peter, update FB do
bellyexercises and try to keep awake and enthusiastic for Pete’s phonecall. Finally fall into exhausted sleep worrying about Peter.
I had always been particularly grateful that I am the partner who got to endure a drugless childbirth, rather than having to watch helplessly while Peter did so – but it certainly seems that the tables have been turned in the days that he is away! I can think of no other way to describe it other than to say that for me it is much like knowing that Peter is going through a massively complicated, painful and lengthy labour somewhere on the other side of the globe and that I am powerless to do anything to assist other than to keep the home fires burning and to send a barrage of positive, entertaining and motivational sms’s to his sat phone.
What I find intolerably difficult, is to know that Peter is suffering horrendously and that I am absolutely unable to help him. To know that he aches for his daughter with a physical pain that is sometimes unbearable, that his fingernails and toenails have fallen off/that he has salt sores under both arms/is suffering from altitude sickness/frostbite/that he has pressure sores on his bottom, that he has been violently sea sick, that he is desperately fatigued, his muscles have atrophied in his legs to the point that he will be almost unable to stand, that he has lost up to 20% of his body weight, that he is often lonely and afraid and desperate for human contact. That his hopes are constantly dashed by the fact that the weather is unpredictable and dangerous…..This is the part of this journey that I am most unable to deal with. So when the well meaning folk say Peter is going to be fine – I know that he will be. I know that Peter will survive this expedition, but I know that in the moment he is not fine at all. He is experiencing pain, hardship and loneliness such as most of us will never know. And that absolutely kills me and all the other husbands, wives, partners, parents … all the time.