It had been about four months since our lives had been irreparably split open and we were on the sofa together, watching TV.
It had been four months since I gave birth, since the exertion of labour tipped my illness into ‘severe’, since the world outside had become closed to me; friendships paused, visits indefinitely delayed. It had been four months since Jon had started an extended compassionate leave, the meals faithfully turning up on our doorstep.
And now, here we were, cuddled up on the new sofa, the brown leather creaking but not yet cracked. The baby was miraculously asleep upstairs. We nestled into the luxury, and switched on the TV to switch off from our lives.
David Attenborough’s disembodied voice presided over the bleakness of a polar landscape, and the camera panned slowly over a colony of thousands of Emperor Penguins.
“It is not the female but the male Emperor Penguins who hatch the eggs, enduring the long months of freezing winter.”
The men were raising the baby. We listened in: somewhere else on God’s created earth there was another couple where the traditional roles were reversed. (Even if they were penguins). God created male penguins to hatch the chicks. And it shouldn’t matter, it shouldn’t make any difference, but I found myself already cheering for those penguins who did things differently.
“The babies are hatched now so they will keep the chicks warm until the females return with food.”
The male penguins were shuffling slowly, preserving their energy for the sake of the child.
We had been shuffling. There are times when that is all you can do, when life is an arctic wind so cold it steals your breath and punches you and makes your bones ache, while everyone else is off sailing in the Mediterranean. You merely transfer your weight from one foot to the other, concentrating on staying alive, huddling wherever warmth can be found, praying that help comes in time.
“And at last the females return, sleek and fat from feeding all winter.”
I watched the female penguins and despised them for their comfort, for their laziness… I stopped myself. Their laziness? That wasn’t a word that had come out of David Attenborough’s mouth but my own heart.
I had been lying in bed for months now, staring at the beige walls while Jon ran round and grew pale. He had been the one to pick up the baby whenever he cried, teaching me how to hold him and change him and bathe him.
It should have been the other way round – at least, that’s what story after story of the harassed mummy friends and joking midwives presumed. We cover up our resentment of sexism in the workplace by telling ours in the home: the man is always the good-for-nothing incompetent who wouldn’t be able to survive one week at home without the wife. Cue knowing winks and hollow laughs and nudges, and a gritting of the teeth and getting on with it all. Useless men. Now I was hearing that narrative told back to me – I was the useless one.
“They are a team,” David Attenborough was saying, and I blinked back the guilty tears. Of course they were, of course they are – you make it work, you play to your strengths without resentment, you both love and protect your child. You deal with the long winters in the way you know best.
Love is not a competition, it is a mutual surrender of rights and privilege. Love is not a record-keeping of wrongs; it is a covering-over of one another; bearing, believing, hoping.
The females were arriving with the food at long last, essential for the chick’s survival.
I was getting better, slowly, hopefully: I could walk a few more paces than last week, I was panting less when I stood up, and I was still feeding him – the one thing I could do whilst lying down. Maybe the time was coming when I could relieve some of the burden, help Jon more, staunch the flow of guilt.
“After their long time apart, the male and female penguins reunite.”
They seemed to be nuzzling. ‘Can penguins kiss?’ I wondered.
There were no words (because they are penguins, I reminded myself) but David Attenborough was explaining that now the chick would be transferred to the female so she could feed it while the male went off to hunt. He must have been pretty hungry by now, what with all that shuffling and enduring. It had been hard, but the end was now in sight.
The male opened up his pouch, and we saw a glimpse of the tiny chick, all-squeaking and blinking as it saw its mother for the first time.
“It is imperative the transfer is made as speedily as possible. The ambient temperature is so cold that the chick is in danger of freezing to death if it is exposed for more than a few seconds.”
The mother penguin was approaching, her pouch open – but as she moved forwards, the male was moving back, away from her. It was so cold – why this delay? Then the mother approached again, their bodies brushing, and the chick cheeped helplessly as it was finally transferred to its mother’s pouch.
David Attenborough’s explanation was tenderly whispered: “After so long with the chick, it seems it is hard for the father to let go.”
The penguin loved his chick. Oh, how he loved him – and I loved him for it. And in that instant I was overwhelmed by the power of love; love that can surprise you in the middle of a white bleakness, love that says I do and then just does, love that endures when everything else has passed away.
I wiped off the hot tears in silence as they trickled down my cheek and looked sideways at Jon and he was crying, too. We held hands and watched the penguins as we wept.
Over to you:
Small confession: I was lovingly preparing this as a draft for something else – and pressed publish by mistake. Oopsies. If you enjoy it, I’d love it if you could share it far and wide!
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