When fantasy diverges from reality: Adventures with dolphins and babies

Almost two and a half years ago now, Mike and I were driving towards Akaroa in New Zealand. It was the second last day of our honeymoon. We were on our way to swim with dolphins, and I was grumpy.

I’m not sure when the grumpy started. Possibly when I woke up and it was rainy and cold. Possibly when Mike asked me in the car what I was particularly looking forward to about swimming with the dolphins – something I’d wanted to do for at least a decade. 

“I don’t know,” I said. “I just want to see them up close, and swim with an animal that’s as big as me, and pet them.”

“OK,” Mike said. “Wait just one minute. For starters, I don’t think we’ll be able to touch them. You might want to recalibrate your expectations a little.”

I stared out the window of the car at the fine misty rain that was drifting across the road and sulked. I had already recalibrated my expectations once that morning with regards to this adventure. In my decade-old vision of swimming with dolphins it was always warm and sunny. The water was always a clear azure and calm. The dolphins always swam right up to me with friendly clickings and basically begged me to hug them, or even ride them. This adventure – the adventure that my brand-new spouse had gone to a lot of trouble to research and book as a special treat for me – was not looking like it was going to live up to that vision.

Things did not improve when we reached the dock. Assuming any of them actually showed up, our tour operator informed us, we’d be swimming with the world’s smallest dolphins. They were about the size of a hefty Labrador retriever. Their skin was so delicate we could damage it just by brushing up against them, and under no circumstances were we to try to touch them. The temperature was about 12 degrees Celsius (53F). We were going to have to wiggle our way into 5cm thick wetsuits. The water in the bay was clouded chalky white that cut visibility to almost nil. The swell was 3m high and I suddenly realized that I was in dire danger of becoming violently seasick unless I downed some anti-nausea medication, and fast. I really want to like boats, but the truth of the matter is they don’t usually like me.

Luckily there was a pharmacy located at the far end of the dock, and with half an hour to spare before sailing, Mike and I headed down there to look for some anti-seasickness medication.

On our way back towards the boat that was going to take us out to look for these small-ass, fragile dolphins in the middle of a freezing rainstorm, Mike tentatively offered the following observation.

“I don’t have many data points yet on what you’re like on a day when you get to do something you’ve wanted to do most of your life,” he said. “But so far experience suggests that you’re a little… difficult.”

“Well, you keep telling people that I’ve wanted to do this for years,” I said.

“Well, haven’t you?” Mike asked.

Yes, I wanted to say. But, but, but… But not like this. It’s numbingly cold. And what if we can’t find these teensy little dolphins? What if we find them, but it’s too dangerous to get off the boat and swim with them? What if I get seasick and spend the entire time throwing up?

Faced with the sudden reality of a “swimming with dolphins” experience that promised to diverge sharply from a romantic daydream I hadn’t even fully realized I held, I did not deal with my fears and frustrations with rational grace. I doubt I explained this tangle of disappointed anxiety very well in the moment. Probably the only thing I did do well in that moment was scowl.

I found myself thinking about swimming with these dolphins very early this morning. I had just stumbled back to bed after being up for the fourth time and I was trying, unsuccessfully, to find a comfortable position to lie in.

My visions of having children have never been as clearly defined as my tropical dreams of swimming with friendly dolphins, but as I get closer and closer to delivering this baby I’ve been finding myself increasingly surprised by fears that surface at odd moments and longings related to a rooted, domestic vision that I have never lived.

Sometimes when I’m alone and awake in the silent void of 3AM I let myself imagine briefly that Mike is here instead of Laos. That we live in Melbourne. That we have no plans to move anywhere else in the near future. That after the baby is born we’ll bring him back from the hospital to our house, and that Mike and I are not facing another month apart and then a long trip across the equator just weeks after the baby is born.

Then come the fears, because even in the dreamy pre-dawn I never let myself fully forget that this is not the reality that we have chosen to fashion for ourselves.

What if the baby arrives before Mike does? What is labour and delivery going to be like? What if something is wrong with the baby? And, further down the track, what will it be like to watch over a sick child out of reach of good medical care? How will this little one complicate our peripatetic lifestyle?

Swimming with dolphins that day in Akoroa turned out to be nothing like I’d imagined. On the other hand, most of my last-minute fears never materialized, either. I didn’t get seasick. We did find dolphins. And the captain gave us permission to leap overboard into the churning sea if we were game enough to brave the threatening waves.

Five of the twelve of us were.

I was first off the boat – mostly because I knew that if I let myself hesitate too long before jumping, I may never jump. The cold was breath-stealing and the grey swell picked me up and then dropped me six feet at a time. It took most of my energy to stay upright and tap the small stones that I was holding together. The dolphins, the crew had told us, would hear the clicking noise and come investigate.

They did, too. One minute there was nothing but pale freezing waves, the next there was a small fin just to my left and a silvery shadow skimming past. They circled around for more than half an hour, darting so close in between us, dipping up and down like excitable aquatic puppies. They were always in motion, impossible to see clearly, but undeniably, exhilaratingly, there.

When we finally managed to clamber back on board the boat we had blue lips and couldn’t feel our fingers or toes. It was far from the tropical azure and gentle friendliness I’d wanted but it had turned into an adventure valuable in its own right – something altogether wilder and less controllable, but thrilling.

It’s raining and cold here today, too. Mike and I have been apart more than five weeks with a month still to go and the separation is wearing thin. Part of me, I admit, wants to sit here and stare out into the wet mist and dwell on all the ways that this adventure of having our first child is not turning out exactly as I find myself wishing that it were.

But then I think of the dolphins again. I wonder whether our adventures would still feel adventurous if most of them turned out just as we envision. And I remind myself that experiences we do not expect, perhaps don’t even want, can end up being magical, too. 

10 responses to “When fantasy diverges from reality: Adventures with dolphins and babies

  1. Lisa, This was so beautifully honest and poignant. I can relate to much of what you said and I’m often aware that I need to manage my own expectations of daily activities, life in Tanzania, hopes, dreams, the future….
    You are my blogging idol! I can only aspire to write as well as you do 🙂

    • Aw, thanks Katie! Yeah, you’re on such an interesting journey yourself – one that doubtless throws you into your own 3am cauldrons from time to time!

  2. I liked this post and can associate with the notion of having had different ideas about how experiences would turn out, but how they did being an adventure in its own right. With my first having just turned 16, my 5th newly born and just starting out on my new career times are different from my expectations all those years ago, but nevertheless exciting.

    • I am so in awe that you’ve had five kiddos, I can’t even tell you. And that you’ve done all this before you’re as old as I am now (barely, but you’re just younger than me if I remember rightly). Hope the new career is going really well and you guys are enjoying U.K. summer.

  3. Such a great Lisa. So true to real life. Adventures are definitely NOT adventures if you already have them planned out in your head.
    I remember when Peter and I were in Hawaii. Our first real trip that wasn’t with family or for work. We were on a cruise and Peter planned to go see Mount Haleakala at 3 am – making sure he would get the spectacular sunrise. Well, it was December in Maui and the waves were over 20 feet high. The ship had to abandon port and actually leave passengers stranded rather than get smashed into the dock. Peter’s 3 am trip never happened, but instead we made it into port the next day, rented a car and drove as far as we could up the mountain. The weather was spectacular right until the top, then in 5 minutes everything changed. The warm, sunny day evaporated into stormy clouds. Peter insisted on hiking the last few meters right up to the top, even though he knew we would see nothing. We ending up heading straight into a fierce ice storm. I curled in a ball trying to protect my camera and refused to go further. Peterwas stubborn and determined to make it to the top. Less than ten minutes later I could hear him running down, shouting at me to get down, the storm had gotten out of control. That’s when I stopped Peter and took a photo of his face being pelted with hail. He was NOT a happy camper but it is still one of my favorite photos of the trip and we recount this day often.

    Having this baby will be a HUGE adventure, Lisa, because it is your first, and it is the most amazing miracle of miracles.

  4. Ah, such a great STORY, Lisa. Every writer needs an editor… Not to say that you’re NOT a great Lisa…

    • Yes, they do! Good editors are wonderful people!! And, yeah, hiking and ice storms… I think that would have been another adventure when I needed to give myself a talking to about my attitude.

  5. So . . . I’ve been thinking about this post ever since I read it a few days ago. Dolphins and babies were even mixed up in my dreams last night. Such lovely writing. It makes me want to give you a big hug and then tell you that there’s a lot about babies that are not magical. Let the idea of magical go. In fact, there’s a lot of struggle and worry and pain and ‘working through’ of things. But it’s still somehow all OK. I mean, a lot people do this more than once, ya know? I just don’t happen to be one of them. 😉 xoxo

    • Yay, there are worse things to dream about than dolphins and babies I reckon. And, as for magical and parenthood – never fear. I’m not “expecting” magic. Most of the time, anyway. Glimmers of it would/will be nice though.

  6. Pingback: 30 great gifts for pregnant women and new parents | Lisa McKay Writing

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