On penguins and parenting

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:

  • When were you last unexpectedly overwhelmed by love?

    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!

    Liked this post? Do stay in touch – subscribe by email or like my Facebook page.


    , , , ,

    39 Responses to On penguins and parenting

    1. Janice 25th March, 2013 at 5:11 pm #

      This is so beautiful. So beautiful. (Selfishly, I’m so glad you pushed publish so I could read it this morning!) It made me all teary eyed.

      I can’t formulate why, but there’s something lo compelling about the depth of the love and the harshness of the environment and the depth of sacrifice. So moving.

      • Tanya 31st March, 2013 at 11:29 am #

        THANK YOU. Xxx

    2. Pat 25th March, 2013 at 2:52 pm #

      Beautiful! Thanks for sharing Tanya. I watched the show about penguins a few years back. Amazing!

      • Tanya 31st March, 2013 at 11:29 am #

        It was an awesome show, wasn’t it?

    3. Mark Allman 25th March, 2013 at 2:29 pm #

      Your words here “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.” are a beautiful description of love. You should feel no guilt Tanya; I am sure Jon felt it a privilege no matter how hard it was to love you in the way you needed it at the time. That is when love manifests itself the most beautiful to me… when we love those we love when it is hard to do so; when they may not be able to repay in kind as if that was something you even thought about. To love them through the hard; the pain; when they are not their best; even when they may be a bitch for that’s when our love ones need love the most. We should count it a privilege that we are in a position to love them through it all. Love is easy when the sun in shinning and clouds dot the sky and Love is never so beautiful as it is when we love when the clouds are dark and the storms are raging all around.

      • Tanya 31st March, 2013 at 11:29 am #

        Lovely words in your comment, Mark. You’re right, it is in the ‘for worse’ rather than the ‘for better’ that love really shows itself the most beautiful. Thank you.

    4. Joanna 25th March, 2013 at 1:59 pm #

      ‘Love is not a competition, it is a mutual surrender of rights and privilege.’ This is all so beautiful, Tanya. Thank you

      • Tanya 31st March, 2013 at 11:27 am #

        Thank you so much, Joanna.

    5. Jo Inglis 25th March, 2013 at 1:06 pm #

      Simply beautiful & EXACTLY what I meant in my tweet yesterday about God speaking in the spaces between the words.
      Listening to Phatfish’s O God of love (how good it is to be loved by You), the Anthems version while reading – I’m undone by it all, holy stuff :’-)

      • Tanya 31st March, 2013 at 11:27 am #

        Thanks so much for those words – I loved what you said about God speaking in the spaces. I like it when he sneaks in sideways. This, for me, was a meditation on 1 Cor 13. I love that you were listening to Phatfish’s ‘how good it is to be loved by you’.

    6. Jillie 25th March, 2013 at 12:51 pm #

      Tanya…This is beautifully written. The bottom line is that you both dearly love your son, and all sexist stereotypes aside, you both do all you can to love and nurture him well. That’s all that matters.
      I know of a family situation right now, much like your own. It involves my own son and his dear wife. And the new baby in their family after 12 years of marriage. Both of them doing all they can to welcome, bond, and care for this precious little one. It is beautiful to behold! Both working together. What family is all about.

      • Tanya 31st March, 2013 at 11:26 am #

        Stereotypes can be so stifling, can’t they? I love it when families are allowed to be themselves – the one you describe sounds an exciting one.

    7. Alice 25th March, 2013 at 12:06 pm #

      Blimey, this shows the beauty in the midst of bleakness so well. I’m grateful for a penguinish husband. xxx

      • Tanya 31st March, 2013 at 11:24 am #

        Hurrah for penguin husbands!
        Thanks, girl. X

    8. Shona 25th March, 2013 at 11:34 am #

      Tanya you write so beautifully and vulnerably and I appreciate it. One of my children had ME for three years from the age of 7. She is just about recovered now. One of my other children developed a chronic pain condition 6 mths into that period, so we’ve definitely experienced the Arctic and seen others ( literally and metaphorically) sail in the Med! Thanks for this today. Your contribution to team Marlow is not about getting out of bed and doing things. It’s so much more than that.

      • Tanya 31st March, 2013 at 11:23 am #

        Thanks so much Shona – and I’m so glad your daughter is just about recovered from M.E. now. It must be so hard to see your children go through that.

        And yes, you’re right, about how I measure my contribution, about how we measure our contributions in life. It’s about so much more than doing.

    Leave a Reply

    Please send me my free ebook and updates