Tag Archives: expectations

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. 

Ten things that have surprised me about pregnancy (#5-10)

Here is the second installment of the post I started yesterday – things that have surprised me about pregnancy. After I started writing these posts on Sunday, Mike and I talked about this topic over dinner. We agreed that, overall, I’d had a pretty good second trimester and been lucky enough to stay fairly healthy.

“Huh,” I said, looking at the food on my plate as we were saying this, “I don’t feel so good all of a sudden. I don’t think I can eat that.”

To cut a long and yucky story short, that was the start of a night when I broke my own personal record for the number of times I can throw up in twelve hours. I dropped five pounds overnight and yesterday I couldn’t make it out of bed until 5pm. We suspect food poisoning – though we have no idea what could have caused it – and today I’m feeling much better. I am at least showered, sitting up, drinking water, and eating toast.

Ah, surprises. Some of them are great. Some, not so much.

So here are six more things that have so far surprised me about pregnancy.

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5. I expected that morning sickness would strike immediately if it were going to strike at all.

It took me quite some time to really grasp the fact that I was indeed pregnant, and it seems that my body is not the quickest off the mark, either. If I were going to suffer from it, I thought morning sickness would hit me much earlier than eight weeks and I thought it would go away earlier than eighteen weeks. Alas, wrong on both counts.

6. I expected that I’d continue to enjoy a cup of coffee a day all through pregnancy.

I know traditional wisdom is that you should avoid all caffeine when pregnant, but most doctors and research now suggests that you can safely ingest the caffeine equivalent of one or two cups of coffee a day all during pregnancy. I love coffee and had already decided that I wasn’t giving up my morning cup… except that my body had other ideas. The day I got morning sick, right on week eight, I went off it overnight. All of a sudden it tasted revolting. It still doesn’t taste the way it used to.

7. I expected that I’d be hungry all of my 2nd trimester.

Food was such a weird experience for most of the first trimester as I veered between the two extremes of not being at all hungry and being completely ravenous (often within the span of five minutes), that I expected I’d be a lot hungrier than normal in my second trimester. I haven’t been. Sometimes I even forget to eat a small snack mid-morning or mid-afternoon. This is not to say, however, that I did not disgrace myself when I was consistently put in front of all you can eat buffets in Bangkok last week. On more than one occasion the only thing that stopped me from returning to the buffet for three more scoops of ice cream after I’d polished off my first dessert sundae at lunch was shame. Who says that peer pressure can’t be good for you?

8. I expected that disrupted sleep was something that would begin only after the baby was born.

I expected that the whole waking up numerous times a night to pee would start in approximately month seven of pregnancy instead of week seven. I still have problems understanding how a baby the size of a lima bean can really put that much pressure on a bladder. I mean, come on! I have now been waking up between three and six times a night now practically since I found out I was pregnant. Not cool. Not cool at all.

9. I expected that my sex drive would surge in the second trimester.

Most of the books I’ve read paint a picture of the first and third trimesters of pregnancy as virtual sexual wastelands but hold out this oasis-like vision of the second trimester as a time of unparalleled sexual desire and enjoyment. I don’t know how many accounts I’ve read of women’s transformations into total sex kittens the minute they hit week thirteen of pregnancy, so perhaps it’s understandable that I feel particularly ripped off to have so far had this expectation disappointed. For not only did my sex drive vanish so completely the minute I got pregnant that it became difficult to remember I ever had one, it hasn’t really returned to pre-pregnancy levels yet much less been catapulted into “sex kitten” territory. I will be especially peeved if this, like morning sickness, is merely my biology lagging behind the curve and sex-kitten-energy kicks in four weeks from now, right when I head to Australia and Mike and I say goodbye for three months.

10. I expected that the quickening would be unmistakable.

The quickening, for those of you who haven’t read 5000 pregnancy books, is the name given to the first time you feel your baby move inside you. The books do warn that it can be hard to tell whether those early flutters are the baby or something else, so I don’t know why I expected to feel the baby move in one, singular, weirdandwonderful moment. Maybe because “the quickening” sounds like such a singular “moment”ous event. Nope. I spent about a week trying to decide whether it was the baby I was feeling or gas. Now the baby moves all the time – particularly at 10pm when I’m trying to go to sleep and at 6a.m. when I’m trying to stay asleep.

I’ve tried to explain to Mike what it feels like. I’ve described it before as feeling like a sackful of eels squirming around in there, but as I’ve never actually had a sackful of eels tucked in my belly I can’t really vouch for the accuracy of that description. The most accurate physical description I can come up with is the completely unromantic, “it feels like giant bubbles of gas slithering around intestinal corners, but without any gas pain.”

The most accurate psychological description I can come up with, for me, is that it feels like fishing. As a kid I used to love going over to the river across from my grandparents house, baiting a hook, and fishing off the wharf. I would wait patiently for ages for that first tug on the line – that sudden, promising, tightening of the nylon under my index finger signaling that something alive was definitely out there underneath all that water. When the baby taps me from the inside I get that same feeling. Of course, given what ended up happening to the fish I caught, that metaphor has its limits, so we’ll stop right there.

OK, that’s it for this edition of “expectations that have been turned on their head by pregnancy.” Catch you later this week, perhaps from the road as Mike and I are leaving on Thursday night for a road trip down south, and do chime in below and let me know what’s surprised you about pregnancy or parenting. I love learning from others’ stories. 

Ten things that have surprised me about pregnancy (#1-4)

It’s a slow, sultry Sunday afternoon here in Laos and I’ve just finished unpacking after my week working with journalists in Bangkok discussing issues of trauma and resilience. It was an inspiring and exhausting week and there’s a post I’m mulling over about the blasphemy laws in Pakistan (among other things), but my head and my energy levels just aren’t there yet. Instead, since so many of you have been asking how I’m doing with the pregnancy, I thought I’d update you on that. In fact, while I’m at it, how about I just go ahead and tell you some of the things that have surprised me about pregnancy.

This is my first pregnancy, so I knew I was in for a couple of surprises, at least, but I didn’t venture into this territory completely unprepared. I knew I’d be trying to get pregnant in a town (indeed, a whole country) where the medical care is, shall we say, sub-ideal. Not even Lao women have their babies in Laos if they can help it, so we knew we would be at least partly on our own for most of this pregnancy. There would be no monthly doctor visits. The nearest good medical care would be (at best) one plane flight and eight hours “from need to hospital” away.

So I did my research. I brought more than a few books with us and, thanks also in part to donations from other expatriates here, I suspect I now have the most comprehensive English language library of pregnancy and childbirth books in the entire country. Not to mention that Dr. Google is ever at my fingertips. Let’s just say I was not completely uninformed about this thing called pregnancy.

And, yet… there have been numerous surprises along the way. Today and tomorrow I’ll walk you through ten of them. Today, here are the first four:

I expected that…

1. Getting pregnant wouldn’t take as long as it did

I feel ridiculous even mentioning this, as this falls squarely into the category of things I should not have been surprised by. All the research suggests that you only have about a 15-20% chance of getting pregnant each cycle, the average number of months it takes couples without any fertility issues to get pregnant is still five or six, and about 80% of these couples will be pregnant within a year.

Why, then, I was surprised when three unsuccessful months of trying ticked over I am not sure. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, deep down, both Mike and I believe that when we set our minds to something we can accomplish it with a minimum of fuss and in less time than it takes most other people. Logically I knew it was ridiculous to think that this would be true of conceiving a child, but the illogical part of me started to wonder right around the third month mark whether everything was OK. As we got pregnant after five months of trying I didn’t have to wonder for too long, but those couple of months gave me a very tiny taste of what an emotional roller coaster an extended battle with infertility might be.

2. Finding out I was pregnant would happen in one life-changing moment

I’ve written a whole post on the experience of finding out I was pregnant, so I won’t repeat myself here except to say that this one caught me completely by surprise. I had expected to have an earth-spinning, destiny-changing, confirmation moment. What I got instead was a week’s worth of wondering and then another couple of weeks of not really believing that I actually was pregnant.

3. I’d be a lot bigger by now

I’m 24 weeks pregnant today, about five and a half months. I thought by this stage I wouldn’t be able to see my feet and that I’d be feeling decidedly bulky, clumsy, and uncomfortable. Thankfully that hasn’t happened yet. I do have a baby bump, and it is a bit harder than normal to bend over or stand up again after I’ve sat down to play with the dog, but I’ve only gained ten pounds so far. In this tropical heat (and given the daily struggles my feet and legs already wage thanks to lymphedema) this slow and limited weight gain is good for all sorts of reasons. Yes, bigger is most definitely not always better.

4. I’d need a brand new wardrobe by month four

Or, if not a whole new wardrobe, at least some maternity pants, new bras, underwear, etc. Thankfully I’m still fitting into some of my regular clothes – like the four pairs of loose linen pants I bought right before we moved here. Although, I must confess that I am still fitting into these pants (most awesome purchases ever at $15 a pair) partly because they are drawstring, and partly because when I bought them I weighed, uh, two pounds more than I do right now. So I would like to personally thank Asia for stripping me of twelve pounds before pregnancy. Should any of you out there be struggling with this particular issue I can highly recommend moving to Laos – it totally works just as well as Weight Watchers.

And it’s a good thing all that walking and a healthy rice-based diet undid (or at least effectively curtailed) some of my addiction to ribs and hamburgers and take out Chinese food, because I don’t know where I would have bought maternity pants that fit here. The missionary community here does have a box of maternity clothes that are passed around among pregnant expatriates, so theoretically I shouldn’t have had any problems on this front. Except… I seem to be spiritually blessed in the area of “hips and ass”. I didn’t fit into a single pair of pants in this barrel even when I was only three months pregnant! I can now attest to the fact that all the breeding missionaries in this town are sizes 0-4, just in case you were wondering.

That’s it for today. Come back tomorrow for surprises 5-10, including my thoughts on that fabled surge of sexual energy in the 2nd trimester… And for those of you who’ve traveled this road before, what surprised you about pregnancy?

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Surprised by beauty

On Saturday we went on an adventure.

Kuang Si waterfall has been on our radar since we arrived. Before this week, however, it was always edged out by other fantastical adventures such as buying an ant-pantry, spending hours drinking pepsi and eating pig fat, or simply collapsing in a heap on the bed on Saturday afternoon and wondering if we will ever stop feeling quite so tired during every spare minute that we have.

But last week we had our first visitors in town, and on Saturday morning we had six spare hours before we needed to get them to the airport. So it was adventure time.

The 30km road out to the waterfall wound through villages, and small valleys cradling the precious rice fields. Everything was brown bamboo, or a determined bright green. Clouds skipped around on the mountaintops. The occasional, flirty, shower kept the worst of the heat at bay.

When we reached the falls we found ourselves faced with a choice. Should we walk up the paved road to the top of the falls and start there? Or should we start from the bottom and work our way up to the falls on the muddy path that ran through the woods alongside the river?

I got to choose and, somewhat to Mike’s surprise, I think, I picked the muddy path.

I would like to be able to say that this is because I am a naturally-adventurous, stream-fording, muddy-path-loving soul, and that given a choice between a paved road and a muddy path I will pick the muddy path every time.

But that would be a lie.

The truth of the matter is that I figured we’d go up one way and come down the other. And when faced with the prospect of something that I think might be slightly less than fun (a dentist visit or a muddy path, for example), I will generally choose to get the unpleasantness over and done with as quickly as possible and save the paved road as my reward.

Except, this time, the paved road didn’t turn out to be my reward – the muddy path itself did.

Just after we set off through the trees we came across an enclosure, a very large enclosure. I was stunned to see that it was full of black bears snoozing in bamboo hammocks and playing with tires.

“Where did the bears come from?” I asked.

“Rescued from poachers,” Mike said.

“Here??” I said. “I didn’t know they had bears in Asia.”

Mike did not seize the opportunity to mock me for this ignorance – possibly because he was too busy taking photographs of himself in front of the bear mural.


After the unexpected treat of bears, the muddy path took us first to an Elysian pond at the bottom of the falls. Big, braided, ropes of water from different hillside channels poured into a clear pool. The encircling trees leaned in towards the water – reaching for a drink. A cool spray drifted out and touched us.

Twenty steps up the path there was another pool. Then another. And another.

We kept wandering up for ten, maybe fifteen, minutes. Past pools, and falls so small they were just a wet step down, and falls so big they would knock you over. Past dripping trees. And ferns. And picnic tables. And charmingly stilted signs warning us where not to swim.

It was only after this walk up – after this long, slow, reveal – that we reached the source. And even after everything that had preceded it, I was unprepared for the sight of all that water – white with its power, pushing and rushing, tumbling fifty meters through trees and over rocks to start it all.

We went swimming after that, the four of us. We waded in, feeling our way forward over slippery rocks, yelping at the cold. We braved the currents, struck out towards the middle of the pool and found a fallen tree to perch on. We sat on rocks and talked. Or, in Mike’s case, at least, we covered every inch of that pool, exploring.


Expectations are tricky things, aren’t they? Mike has a saying I hear often (usually while he’s making fun of me): “Expectations minus reality equals disappointment.”

We’ve all had the experience of expecting great things from a movie, or a book, or a person, and then having the reality of our experience not quite measure up. It does hurt when reality falls short of expectations. Sometimes that hurt is nothing more than a minor, transient, disappointment. Sometimes that hurt is considerably more painful – the perfect breeding ground for misunderstanding, wounded feelings, resentment, and other ugly aspects of conflict.

The reverse can also be true. Sometimes when I have low, or no, expectations I am totally blown away by beauty that’s all the more thrilling because its sudden appearance is such a surprise. This was true of my travels in Turkey, and things that happened after I published my first book. It was true at the waterfall on Saturday.

On the other hand, there have also been numerous times when a little more forethought and a few realistic expectations would have prepared me to deal much more effectively with a challenging experience – so I don’t think that the answer to this dilemma is keying my expectations as low as I can force them to go and refusing to learn about anything new that may be coming down the track.

But, as for Saturday, I’m glad that I didn’t know what to expect. And I’m especially glad that we worked our way up to the most powerful, dramatic, manifestation of all that beauty the long way – walking through the trees, alongside the stops and starts of the pools and preamble falls. There was something about that process that felt mystical. It felt right. It felt like a preview of how we long for our very lives to play out.