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An inspiring interview between a human and a duck, commenting on the state of our planet xx Rowena

Rethinking Life


“I don’t understand?  We’re white, we have feathers, right?  Sure, we’re smaller in size and our beaks are orange but for the most part we’re the same.”

“I see your point but swans are still considered…”

“Prettier than we are.”

“Not by every one, of course.  I think you’re gorgeous.”

“Thank you.  We really don’t care, it’s just that you humans try and pit us against each other.  You draw attention to our differences and then rank us, as if what you say matters.  Swans, geese, ducks, you know.  We’re friends and you try to make one of us better than the others.  That’s what you crazy humans do.  Rank, measure, name, and destroy beauty. You take the natural beauty out of everything and make life a contest.”

“I guess we do.”

“You definitely do.  Anything different, or flashy, or bigger, or better, or whatever catches your eye, is the…

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Sink or Swim?

This morning I felt very much like Mother Duck when our son competed at his very first swimming carnival.

Normally, I’d protest profusely and be seriously offended if anybody dared to compare me to a duck of any persuasion. While we might all admire a duck gliding effortlessly across the pond, nobody wants to think of themselves as waddling or even vaguely walking like a duck. Rumi associated ducks with gluttony, so eating like a duck isn’t very flattering either!

Where we live there are a lot of ducks and it’s not uncommon to see a mother duck crossing the road with a trail of tiny fluffy duckling behind her. We stop our cars, sometimes breaking quite suddenly to allow yet another mother duck with poor traffic judgement to cross the road. We look out for those tiny, little ducklings but we also take note that ducks don’t always make the best parents. Slowly but almost surely, the number of ducklings diminishes as 10 ducklings goes down to 8 then 6 and then maybe 5 and by the time the ducklings are adolescent, there might only be one or two left. It’s very rare to spot a mother duck with a grown up tribe of “ducklings”.

Anyway, as I said this morning I felt very much like Mother Duck when I sent my son off to his first school swimming carnival and I wanted to ensure my little duckling came home.

You see, my son was signed up to swim 50 metres freestyle and backstroke and it was being held in the big 50 metre pool. He is only eight years old, almost nine and he’s only really swum in this pool once before. That was when he was attempting to complete a 600 metre swim for Nippers and he conked out after 100 metres unable to breathe. We’re still not really sure why he couldn’t breathe but he does get asthma. Not knowing the cause, made it really difficult to know whether he should swim in the carnival or not and I felt I had justified concerns.

Being a school swimming carnival, there were the usual permission slips to sign and this one was quite clear. To compete, your child had to be able to swim 50 metres in racing conditions. You had to actually tick that box and sign on the dotted line. That I’m sure that constitutes a legal document so naturally I took that fairly seriously. I was putting my son’s safety on the line and I didn’t want to get it wrong.

At the same time, I knew that if I did make an error of judgement, that the teachers would fish him out of the water. That was a no brainer. Yet, there was still that element of doubt.

Not that I was catastrophising!

In 2008, a child actually drowned on a school pool excursion in the Blue Mountains and in March last year there was a near drowning at a school swimming carnival in Canberra. I’m sure those teachers loved those students every bit as much as our teachers love our kids. Even with the very best systems and procedures in place, things can go wrong. You just ask those poor mother ducks. I’m sure they thought they were taking fabulous care of their precious little ducklings as they slowly disappeared one by one!

I also have to admit that I didn’t take to water like a duck myself. I thought I was going to drown in the school pool. Admittedly, I was going for my Bronze Medallion and I had to swim a very long way fully clothed and I also have asthma. It was by no means a standard swim but I forgot all of those details while sitting beside the pool having a mild panic attack. I could see my poor little duckling sinking to the very bottom of the pool.

Breathe Ro! Breathe!

Yes, I know I wasn’t swimming but just watching Mister was becoming very, very stressful!

Anyway, we decided to test Mister out on the weekend and give him a bit of practice. We had tried to get into the 50 metre pool to have a run through before the carnival. However, the pool was closed so we headed round to a friend’s pool instead. This was when we found out Mister wasn’t taking his breaths, which could well account for his breathing troubles. So like a true blue swim coach, I was strutting up and down beside the pool: “1…2 breathe. 1… 2 breathe.” It wasn’t easy for him but he completed his 50 metres so we decided to let him compete.

At the same time, we decided to keep the whole thing very low key. We just encouraged him to finish. Anything more was a bonus. Whenever he started talking about getting a place, we gently brought him back. It’s not that we wanted to set low expectations and for him not to try but we just didn’t want him to be disappointed. We really had no idea how he was going to go.

I had been hopeful but this morning, he woke me up with a dreadful foghorn cough and it sounded like he had asthma, croup or both. This didn’t bode well for the big swim and I was feeling more and more protective and concerned. Things weren’t looking good. Should he compete? I was even wondering whether he should be staying home although I said nothing.

But he was really excited and went off to school really, really looking forward to the big carnival. I arrived a bit earlier at the pool and saved him a seat. I do the publicity for the school and much of the photography.

I have to admit that while I was waiting there beside the pool, that 50 metre pool seemed to get bigger and bigger and bigger. It was huge. I couldn’t imagine swimming the full length of it myself let alone an 8 year old. I was pretty sure that I could only dog paddle when I was his age. These were huge expectations and I felt like scooping up my little duckling and taking him well away from the ocean. This pool was no pond!

But I restrained myself and tried to be encouraging!

While I was waiting, I also realised that I was only an arm’s length from the edge of the pool and could jump in, even fully clothed, if necessary. I know this probably sounds a little crazy but I was on red alert. Make that red alert with a flashing light. I was going to be a good mother duck! My little duckling was going to come out of this swim alive!

Meanwhile, Mister was really excited and was really looking forward to the swim. I know you’re not supposed to run beside the pool but as he was called off to the marshalling area, he was running…just a little bit.

Mister is eight almost nine years old. He is quite capable of crossing a road unassisted and he is able to swim. He is starting to become independent. I am quite happy to let him go most of the time but when it came to this swimming carnival, I just found that I wanted to wrap him up in layers and layers of bubble wrap. As far as I’m concerned, it’s times like this that you have every justification for being a helicopter parent and zooming in right up close to make sure your little duckling isn’t going to drown. That’s just being sensible. I would have felt much more comfortable with him only swimming in the novelty races but he wanted to be stretched. He had shown that he was capable of making the distance. We just didn’t know how his breathing would go

As much as I wanted to protect him, I also knew that parenting is also about letting go. Giving your child enough space to grow, develop and become their own person. Sometimes, you have to take a deep breath, or two or three and all you can do is wave to your little duckling, who really isn’t quite so little anymore and wish them good luck. You are watching by the sidelines or even from home or from work. You can’t keep holding their hand forever.

The race is about to start and I now notice he is in the far lane and so I get out of my seat to take the photos. I am watching the race through the eye of my zoom lens and I am almost right beside the pool. Not to jump in to save him but to get a good shot. I have momentarily relaxed.  I am now the proud Mum and I want to capture this moment forever!

So there I was poised beside the pool with my zoom lens when my heart sinks once again as he climbs up onto the blocks to dive. I was so proud but very fearful. The blocks weren’t that big but they looked big enough and he seemed quite small up there. It was like he was made of glass and he could shatter any minute. These thoughts all seems quite silly in retrospect but I wasn’t thinking clearly. I was his Mum and my little duckling was about to launch into his first swim and anything was possible.

“On your marks, get set…” The whistle blew. I was watching him through the zoom lens and he was keeping pace with the other boys. He was actually swimming quite well and he wasn’t even coming last. I felt a surge of pride and even started to wonder whether he could actually get a place. His stroke was looking good and he was powering through the water. I noticed he was also remembering to breathe. “Good boy! Well done!”

The next thing I knew he was being pulled out of the pool. Not being rescued but at about the halfway mark, he pulled out and was looking a bit short of breath. He was pretty upset… guttered even. He had really wanted to get a place or at least finish but he didn’t make it. I could feel his pain and was pleased to be there with him and him a hug. He hadn’t finished but he had kept pace and I certainly wouldn’t describe him as a bad swimmer. I congratulated him on getting halfway and for having a go.

It was now all about “having a go”.

His friends and other parents were also very encouraging and it was good to see him warm up and slowly feel proud of his efforts. It turned out that a lot of kids in his age group didn’t compete so he actually went quite well!

Now back at the relative safety of my laptop, Mother Duck is feeling quietly more confident about letting her duckling venture out that bit further next time knowing he’s going to be okay…even if he doesn’t make the distance!

I should also say that the school was exceptionally well prepared and were very safety conscious. There were teachers with rescue float thingies walking beside both sides of the pool and I was pretty sure all the teachers had eyes all over their heads. They were very capable and extremely vigilant. As much as I was anxious, the teachers always  had my absolute trust. I knew he’d be fine but that’s the logical left-brain talking and I’m very right-brained.

Working on this post has made me wonder whether I might have been catastrophising just a little…

Anyway, somehow we both managed to survive his first swimming carnival. I’d say we both deserve a gold medal!

xx Rowena

PS I edited this bit out when I was writing my post and thought I should put it back in. When I filled out the permission slip, I actually attached a note about Mister’s breathing problems and then mentioned it when I saw his teacher. At this point, I thought putting him in a lane at the edge of the pool would be a good precaution. That worked well because when he stopped, it was easy for the teacher to help him out of the pool. There was no big drama or rescue. He had a go!

I have also since spoken to his swimming instructor. Apparently, he was swimming too fast in his lesson this week and he needs to slow down a bit at this stage to finish…ie slow and steady wins the race.

As much as I sound like a nervous Nellie in this post, I was pretty together because I had taken these precautions. That still doesn’t mean your heart doesn’t flutter when your boy swims in his first carnival.

Battery People

When you are outside the system, you can develop a different perspective.

That’s what’s happened with me and “work”.

Although I work in paid employment one to two days a week, I am definitely not part of the rat race. I only dip my little toe in the water.

This hasn’t been by choice but is the result of my numerous health problems as well as wanting to spend time with the kids. I also write quite furiously and that is a job in itself but at this point it is “unpaid” and as such “doesn’t count”. I also volunteer both at the school and on the Status of Women Committee at our local council. I am busy, work hard, am inspired and very motivated but largely operate outside the   9 to 5 grind.

I am also able to do this and have a roof over our heads because my husband plays “the rat”. He commutes one and a half hours each way on the train to Sydney every day. He also works one Sunday a month and is also on call. He puts in long hours at work and is also my carer.

All of this means that when it comes to work, I am more of an observer and outside the system.

So this is my question: why has work turned into such a religion for so many, many people? An obsession? The only source of meaningful fulfillment? I know for many it is sheer necessity but work certainly has a cult following. Why?

I understand the need to buy your own home. Provide well for your family and be able to indulge in a few niceties. Nobody wants to go without. We all need to put food on the table and be financially independent.

However, I’m not just talking about work itself here but more about attitude.How work is put up on such a mighty deis in our society, when it’s really just a means to an end.

Furthermore, this definition of all meaningful work as “paid work” is extremely narrow. It has nothing to do with being industrious, productive or innovative. It’s all about exchanging labour for money. For some reason, being paid somehow turns work into “work” with some kind of golden halo.

But is money the right yardstick for measuring fulfillment? The more you are paid, the more you contribute to our society. The more important you are.

Perhaps, we should ask Mother Theresa?

What I am seeing is actually a new form of slavery. That’s a strong word but how else can you accurately describe the 9 to 5 rat race especially when you consider that the 9 to 5 part of the equation has now spun out of control. So many are now leashed to work almost 24/7 via mobiles phones and email?

Is that your definition of fulfillment?

A lot of my friends have chickens at home. They insist their chickens roam free range. The chickens have to be free but what about people? What are we doing to ourselves? Are we the next generation of battery hens locking ourselves up in our cubicles at work?

We don’t want to admit to it but there’s more than just a bit of truth, isn’t there?!!

When was the last time you went for a stroll along the beach? Fed the ducks? Smelt the roses? Do you even know whether the sun is actually shining outside or even on the inside? How in tune are you with your own emotions?

Do you even know your own children, your partner or even yourself?

Or do you know your job like the back of your own hand?

Work can be so comfortable like an old, worn pair of jeans. Work is often so much easier to fathom than people. We usually know what we’re doing which is certainly much easier than managing relationships.

I’m not saying I have all the answers but I’m certainly asking a lot of questions.

It has taken me a long, long time to reach this point where I’m no longer dependent on paid work for my self-esteem, identity, sense of belonging and feeling essentially “human”.

I literally had grief counseling when I had brain surgery 15 years ago. I was told I was a “human being, not a human doing”” As much as that all sounded great at the time, it didn’t change how I saw myself. Who I was to myself as a person and that was not only as a working person but as a professional, a career woman, an achiever. I certainly didn’t relate to this new person in a tracksuit and sneakers being driven to and from rehab appointments by her mum. I was 28 years old. Why would I? I was a free and independent woman. I’d just been living on the other side of the country. I’d live overseas. I was well and truly my own person. I really grieved for that person and felt such an intensely painful sense of loss. For awhile there where I didn’t know whether I would ever regain some semblance of a “normal” life back, I felt like I had died and this shell, my body, had just gone on living. I didn’t relate to this new me at all.

It is true what they say about how time heals. Certainly, I recovered almost fully form the brain surgery and went back to work. Met and married my husband. Had kids. Picked up another rare and life threatening medical condition. Life goes on.

Through all of this, I slowly came to realise that work wasn’t everything and that I was still essentially me whether I worked or not.

Fortunately, I got into photography. This not only got me out of the house. It gave me a new and perhaps even more exciting identity. I was no longer the “invalid”. I somehow became a photographer. People were much more interested in talking about photography than work anyway. I had been working with marketing databases and really that was very boring and not me anyway.

Fast-forwarding just a little and getting back to the here and now, even though most of my work is unpaid at the moment, I can also get just as lost in my work as the next person. I write poetry, songs and stories while having breakfast with the kids and switch off and go into the zone. I can chat and chat and chat to my friends instead of focusing on the kids at times as well. I can also place myself in a stranger’s shoes and sometimes “understand” them better than my own family or close friends. That doesn’t make any sense to me either but it happens. I struggle to get the basics done and yet write, paint and play my violin. I can’t remember the last time I went to the beach even though it’s only metres away although I do indulge in a hot chocolate and a chat with my friend in at the boutique at least one morning a week. It’s also been a long time since I last fed the ducks.

I do put in a lot of time with the kids but like anyone I could always do more…but I could also do less. Moreover, it’s not just about doing either. It’s about love and being there. That is as much a spiritual connection as it is physical. You know when you are loved. Well, maybe not. Things do get lost in the translation. Love is a lot more complicated and tricky than any of us ever believed possible when we walked down the aisle to “Here Comes the bride” or gave birth to our beloved offspring.

I remember what my GP told me not long after our son was born. It’s about being a good enough parent… not the perfect parent. This applies to your spouse as well. As much as we’d all like to be perfect and I am really, really hard on myself at times, I have to remind myself that good enough is sufficient. I don’t have to be Supermum or Superwife… just me in all my quirky, technicolour glory. Most of the time, I can’t pull off being somebody else anyway. I trip over both feet and land face first in the mud.

So many of us are really struggling to find a meaningful work life balance whether that is in paid or unpaid work. But no matter who we are and what we do, we all need downtime and the opportunity to be free range or we risk becoming battery human beings. I ask you whether any amount of money or status is really worth selling your soul?

Lastly, we all need to respect anybody and everybody in unpaid work. We are all equal . Whether we are paid or unpaid for our labour, doesn’t reflect our character, our values or our contribution to our family, our community or the environment.

I would particularly like to elevate mothers who generally make many, many sacrifices not only to bring up their own children but also to volunteer and contribute to the community even through doing the reading at school or helping out on canteen. Many are doing this in addition to some form of paid work. Yet so often, I hear people putting mothers down. It really is a disgrace. Without our mothers, we wouldn’t have no people anymore.

I would also like to note that I do feel this post was somewhat “inspired”. I wrote it this morning in one go after breakfast and it’s barely been edited. I thought it should pretty much be read as is and readers could make their own conclusions and comments.

PS. You won’t believe this. Speaking of being inspired, after just writing about taking time out to feed the ducks, my husband was just putting out the garbage and called me out the front. There was a pair of wild ducks at our front door. It was all a bit freaky to be honest. I write about feeding the ducks and then there they are like a home delivery service. We have lived in this house for over 12 years and I can’t remember ever seeing ducks here before. It’s all a bit freaky if you ask me!

Taking time out to feed the ducks.

If any of you are familiar with the work of writer and cartoonist Michael Leunig,  he often incorporates a duck into his work. I think he even has a rather quirky duck with a teapot on its head. This moment seemed very Leunigesque. It is after all 10.00 o’clock at night. What were they doing here? Were they looking for a bit of a last minute takeaway snack?

Yes, I fed the ducks a bit of bread and the dog is currently doing circuits round the lounge. Somehow, I don’t think he is looking for friendship.

Good night and best wishes,


You can visit Michael Leunig at http://www.leunig.com.au

PS After having the ducks turn up last night, I ended up with even more serendipity today. A friend called up needing some scenic beach photos so I actually ended up walking along the beach in the sun with my camera. I have had quite a stressful morning with our son and that was exactly what I needed.

Self-portrait at the beach… another touch of serendipity.