|Press = Beverley Turner: Observer article on modern-day 'good' motherhood c/w fatherhood (29/01/06)|
The writer and broadcaster was at home looking after their baby as her Olympic oarsman husband James Cracknell rowed the Atlantic, but then came the call to fly to Antigua
Sunday January 29, 2006
As an Olympic widow, I was used to handling such parental mishaps singlehandedly. But to watch James plan this journey voluntarily was hurtful, confusing and, at times, infuriating. His motives were entirely honourable: to win the race and enjoy making a BBC documentary and write a book. But I still felt a disgruntled outsider watching him prepare for a feat that might cast me in the role of widow.
On the flight, I reread some of the letters I had received from other women whose partners had willingly embarked on perilous journeys. 'There were days I could stamp my feet at his selfishness and focus,' wrote one, 'but, like you, I couldn't let him go without my approval. I didn't want him worried about us.'
Themes resurfaced: tidiness in the home as a control strategy; the delicious freedom of planning your week without considering a significant other; the satisfaction of mastering power tools (at the stroke of midnight on New Year's Eve, I was proudly making a child's bench) and the danger of resenting the errant loved one.
For months, I had acted as a conduit to news about James, and I was not alone in not always doing this with gusto. 'It played with my self-esteem,' wrote one woman. 'It made me question my value, my achievements. It made me look deep inside who I am, what my ambitions are and whether I am on track to get them.' Every woman spoke of the difficulties of adjusting to life on their partner's return.
In a wider context, I felt blindsided by issues pulled into focus. How could the father of a small child be free to embark on such a long, dangerous adventure? How had parenthood deprived me of a quiet bath, yet left James free to pursue his dreams? As Natasha Walter wrote in last Thursday's Guardian: 'Even when people do recognise the economic, political and social inequality that still prevents women making free choices, they tend to shrug their shoulders. The language of biological determinism is often lazily used to excuse this inertia.'
Biological determinism strode right into our front room when James announced his race plans and not one person questioned his parental responsibilities. When I publicly made this observation last November, it was largely misinterpreted as deriding James as a bad father. That is certainly not the case. It is simply exasperating that cultural expectations of parental roles still differ so dramatically.
I recalled Alison Hargreaves, the first woman to climb Everest without oxygen, who died on Pakistan's K2 in 1995. The fact that a mother should undertake such a feat caused outrage. It was irrelevant that her two children were in the care of a devoted father.
By the time I arrived in Antigua, four of the 26 competing boats had capsized in pounding waves, leaving their two-person crews bruised and bleeding, clinging to upturned hulls or drifting in life rafts. James and Ben had capsized 10 days earlier and, after one hurried phone call to the race organisers, had lost all means of communication barring rare VHF radio contact with nearby vessels. The boat's GPS satellite navigation system allowed us to watch a red dot move slowly across the website map. Either they had survived or the whale they had befriended was towing their corpses along.
There was no guarantee that they would complete the remaining 400 miles. Lying on the beach at the luxurious Carlisle Bay hotel did, however, make the wait more tolerable. I had arrived at the island's swankiest resort carrying a toddler who was wearing just an adult-size pyjama top from the plane and a plastic bag containing vomit-soaked clothes. My black suit was damp with baby sick, and the combination of Croyde's pallid complexion and attendant aroma told the hotel manager all he needed to know.
Travel sickness was about to become a theme of my week when, on 19 January, we Cracknell-Fogle supporters boarded a motorboat at 2am to watch our boys row their final miles.
We left the harbour behind and as my sea sickness pill took effect, I lay in the cabin for a nap. I awoke an hour later to a vision of hell. The calm seas had transformed into furious 20ft waves that thrashed at us and threatened to tear the full moon from the sky.
For the first time, I could truly understand the traumatic conditions they had endured. All those brief, tearful calls that James had made while I had my hands in the sink or a deadline to meet suddenly made sense. No wonder he was promising more quality family time and longer holidays.
How had he coped with these terrifying conditions? And who the hell would he be when he got home? More pressing questions were afflicting my fellow passengers, such as: 'Is there another bucket?' and: 'How do I throw up decorously without falling overboard?' Most managed the latter with grace and the skipper washed red wine and mahi-mahi fish off his shiny new deck.
By now the rest is history. James and Ben were skinny, tanned, exhausted but elated. James had horrendous fungal sores on his bottom. Fortunately, he barely knew his arse from his elbow as he had taken so many painkillers in the previous 72 hours, and he stumbled around disorientated for two days. I spent my evenings administering lotion and talc and making sure he took his three lots of antibiotics.
This is our first weekend back home. Croyde, rather than staying with grandparents while I'm at the radio show I present, got to hang out with Daddy.
I may not be crossing oceans any time soon but that is certainly a step in the right direction.