Acceptance, Challenging Beliefs, Family, Friendships, Relationships, Teaching & Learning

“… I’ll give you something to cry about”: How My Father Taught Me to Surf in The 80’s

My father has always had a deep love for the ocean, and in particular fishing and surfing. These were passions which were passed down by his father and upon becoming a father himself it was his great ambition to continue the legacy on to his own children. And what a lovely wish it was.

The day my father taught me to surf was a gloriously sunny day. It was the mid 80’s and I would have been about 10.

Now I know what you’re thinking,

“1985? You would have been pretty cool just hanging out at the beach wearing your Brian Rochford Fluro-Pink Cossie, smelling of Reef Oil and humming hits from your favourite record Choose 1985. But now you’re being taught how to surf? OMG Leanne, for a 10 year old you were really taking cool to a totally new level!”

Choose 1985.

Choose 1985. Was up there with Summer of ’87 as my favourite compilation. I’m pretty sure this was the first compilation that I ever owned that was by the “original artists” and not some povo knock off’s.

I know right! But unfortunately that’s because you are thinking of this….

Tricia Gill  Photo:Simone Reddingius www.jettygirl.com

Tricia Gill
Photo:Simone Reddingius
http://www.jettygirl.com

 …when my reality was actually this.

Waveski "Goat Boat" Rider Photo: www.travelblog.org

Waveski “Goat Boat” Rider
Photo: http://www.travelblog.org

Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against a Waveski but they are called a ‘Goat Boat’ for a reason. It didn’t matter that there was no one around for me to impress (my father always sort out remote and desolate surf spots), I still wanted to be a cool surfer chick.

Prior to the surf lesson I was happily shredding up waves on my Moray Mach 7 Boogie Board. Ah, how I loved that board.

Me in my mind…

mach7

…me in Real Life

stregis-boogie-board

So I do understand that as he watched me mucking around in the foam, my father would have found it difficult to imagine that I was possibly having as much fun as he was out the back on the big waves.

My time had come. He grabbed me and told me that he was going to take me “out the back for a screamer”. It didn’t take me long to work out why he called them “screamers”.

My father fully trained me on the use of the made-for-adults device,

“Make sure you paddle as hard as you can.”

And then he went through a detailed safety induction,

“See this clip, if you get into trouble pull it open to get yourself untied from the ski, but only do it once you’re underwater. Otherwise it might smash you in the head and knock you unconscious.”

And then to round out my training he thoroughly assessed my capabilities,

“You’ll be right, stop being a sook.”

So after my comprehensive instructional it was really time to put all that theory to the test. He popped me upon the “fibreglass beast”, strapped me in and then dragged me through crashing wave after crashing wave by hanging on to my little foot strap thingies (which were wayyyyy too big for me).

Note the foot strappy things.  Pic: www.capacitysports.com.au

Note the foot strappy things.
Pic: http://www.capacitysports.com.au

That was it for me, I’d had enough. I pleaded to go back into the shore but it was too late,

“We don’t quit.”

Once out-the-back there was a moment of reprieve from the set which gave me an opportunity to cough up the 80 litres of sea water I had just swallowed.

And then in a mad attempt to either, distract me, get me excited or build some last minute confidence, he alerted me to the wave he had spotted for me,

“See that one? That big one out the back? Whoa, it’s huge. This one’s gunna be a real screamer. Here it comes”.

Things the detailed training program didn’t cover:

  • A check to see if I weighed enough to lift the nose of the ski by leaning back to avoid it nose-diving.
  • What to do when you don’t weigh enough and the “beast of a floatation device” nose dives.
  • What to do when you slip through the seat belt and the “beast of a floatation device” is about to belt you in the back of the head.
  • How to avoid the razor sharp paddle from smashing into your face whilst undergoing a nose dive.
  • How not to panic as you try to un-strap yourself from the “beast of a floatation device” whilst upside-down and under water.

Whilst underwater, thoughts of my beloved 1st Grade Teacher came to mind. I can’t remember his name but he was awesome. He was young and fit and he was a Surf Life Saver.

He told us heaps of stories about the people that he had rescued and there were two stories that I always remembered. The first one was how he had to shovel the vomit out of people’s mouths with his fingers before he gave them mouth-to-mouth, and the second was how,

“After the struggling part ends, drowning is actually one of the most peaceful ways to die.”

Convinced that this was the end I remembered those wise words and readied myself for my inevitable demise. How poetic it would be, being taken at sea.

Yes even as a youngster I had a flair for the dramatic. Apparently the reality was much closer to me be under for only 30 seconds in about 3 feet of water with my father right beside me.

Never the less, I had now tasted the far and distant fringes of a near death experience. Rather than see my second chance at life as an opportunity to “Carpe Diem” I was instead determined never to take a risk again.

My father knew that if he left me to sit on the shore and ponder the big questions of life, like why Corey Hart wore his sunglasses at night, I would always have a fear of the surf.

Corey Hart: "I wear my sunglasses at night So I can, So I can  Watch you weave then breathe your story lines."

Corey Hart: “I wear my sunglasses at night
So I can, So I can
Watch you weave then breathe your story lines.”

So right about here my father figured he had two choices,

1. Quit

  • He would have to “give in” and let me have my way by leaving me on the shore.
  • He would have to admit that maybe his way of teaching me things wasn’t the best or the only way.
  • He would have to trust that I would overcome my fears to try something out of my comfort zone without being pushed to.
  • He would have to leave the beach that day knowing that I’d had a “loss” that he’d created and hadn’t helped me to overcome.

2. Don’t Quit

  • He would have to continue on and drag me out the back and then literally throw me in the deep in.
  • He would have to trust that he knew what was best for me more than I did in that moment.
  • He would have to believe that he could help me overcome my fears and that I would leave the beach that day with a “win” under my belt.

When you look at those two choices it is no wonder that my father chose the latter, he knew, after many years of throwing me in the deep end, that if he pushed me to persevere that I would get there.  He also knew from experience that with his help I would overcome my fears and learn this new skill.

A few weeks ago I wrote an article about our loved ones wanting us to change or else. The two options that my father had perceived above are also underlined by the perceived need for change below.

 1. I Quit = I Need to Change How I Do Things

2. I Don’t Quit = You Need to Change How You Do Things

With the benefit of hindsight my father would now argue that there was indeed an option c) available to him that day. I could have quit my whining a bit and understood what he was trying to do, and he could have quit his disregard for my fears a bit and we could have met in the middle. We both could have changed how we were doing things.

But today I am just focusing on the sentiments of option b) you need to change. And what I am really interested in is when the “or else” part is added to the end.

To be clear I bring with me no judgement of the path my father took, not just because he is my dad and I love him, but because I would argue that the “or else” part offers us a choice. At that point we can either get-on-board with the change that is being requested of us or we can choose to accept the “or else” part of the deal and refuse to participate.

So my father made his choice, whilst I was still in tears after the first wave he grabbed me and back out into the surf we went.

He put me on another screamer, I got dumped and then I was really screaming. This cycle of dump/screamer/screaming would continue to go on. The more I got upset the harder I made it for myself and the more frustrated he became.

My father was stuck; I was obviously ill prepared but he had also greatly miscalculated the risks regarding my chances of failure. He needed me to overcome my fears and he did that the best way he knew how. He created a new fear which he thought was greater than my fear of the surf. So out came the old,

“If you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about”

So here we were, “change or else”.

I had a choice; I could have accepted to have received the “something to really cry about”. Having taken the “or else” option plenty of times growing up, I knew that a smack (it was the 80’s) and a time out on the sand would have been much easier to cop than to have to face my fears. And I also knew that the chances of him “giving me something to really cry about” were minimal in this context, I was 99% sure he was bluffing, which are great odds as a kid.

Through all my carry on, my tears and my pleas not to go out the back any more; I knew that I didn’t want to take the offer of the “or else” that day. I wanted to try and therefore I consented to change and I can’t imagine that I would have faced my fears to that extent without someone beside me who was relentless in their belief that if I stuck at it I would get there.

That day I did catch a wave and not just any wave but a real screamer. Only this time I was finally screaming with joy just as he had hoped I would.

In that moment, the entire struggle was justified by my father and forgotten by me.

So the question I ask today is, “Can we really force our loved ones to change if they don’t want to?” Aren’t they consenting by not choosing the or else part? Just as I did as a kid, is it possible to consent whilst pretending that we don’t?

Now I get that this is a really grey area, I’m not suggesting that it is acceptable to threaten children with corporal punishment to do things against their will. This beach story was nearly 30 years ago and even my father’s stance on smacking children has completely turned around.

But in our society we do threaten children all the time with an “or else you won’t be able to play on your iPad”, “or else you won’t get dessert” etc.

And have you noticed that a lot of the “or else’s” are left really vague? I would argue that this is the case because so often what we mean is,

“you need to do this thing or else, I will get upset”.

We don’t really want to add an actual consequence because we aren’t really interested in following through with our threats. We just want our point of view understood as one that we are really serious about.

It is such a common criticism of parents that I hear,

“No wonder the kid is out of control, they never follow through on their threats”

And I do see parent’s threatening misbehaving children all the time with,

If you don’t behave we are going to pack up and go home right now, I don’t care that we just got here.”

I would argue that this “not following through” is a good instinct, it’s an evolution from the way our own parents reacted by cutting off their noses to spite all of our faces.

Threatening less or ceasing to make threats that you don’t have a desire to follow through on in the first place is what is missing from the new model of parenting.

But equally I get how hard it is not to reach for this old faithful when the kids have spent the day winding you up and pushing your buttons. It is really hard to parent differently from our own parents, it’s hard wired into us.

I also think it is important to ask the question “Do our loved ones really need to change in the first place?” What would have happened if I was left to my own devices that day on the beach? What if I had never experienced a screamer out-the-back? Would I have been any worse off?

For the record to this day I do feel very confident in the water as well as oh so respectful of the power of the ocean, but would that have happened anyway because of my heavy exposure to the beach?

The path that my father took me on did come at a cost; he no doubt would argue that it was a very small cost and this many years later on I would tend to agree with him.

But I have strong memories of always being scared to try new things with him. I was never able to trust that he would listen to me when I told him that I was terrified. But in his defence, I kept coming back for more even though I knew what was likely to occur.

In essence I was saying,

“Dad, I’m happy for you to show me how to do this new thing but you need to stop ignoring me when I tell you I’m scared, or else.”

My father always chose the “or else” option.

I’m guessing that for him it was more important to push me through my fears once I’d started something then to worry about if I’d come back for more down the track. Or maybe he was super confident that his ends would justify his means and I’d keep lining up to be pushed out of my comfort zone.

The ideal is obviously a position of compromise in relationships and a two-way communication style that omits ultimatums. I would also be so bold to suggest, and you’ll disagree with me here but just let me plant a seed,

“that we need to reach a place where we can accept that our loved ones know what is best for themselves no matter their age or their circumstances.”

I know, it’s a hard one to swallow, and it’s a concept that I’ve only just come around to and often I do the opposite with my loved ones. The “I know what’s best for you” drum beats very loudly within me.

But until we reach that place, then I would argue that we can’t get this stuff wrong.

By being able to refuse our loved ones suggestion to change and by having the option to take up the “or else” part we can hold just as much power as our loved ones in that moment.

Or conversely if we chose to act then surely we take on just as much of the responsibility for the outcome as they do…maybe more?

Relationships are growth machines and they constantly plant seeds for us to develop, grow and change; it is because of the magic of the “or else” part, we get to choose the when’s, if’s and how’s.

Leanne xx

NB: To be very clear I am in no way speaking about the forcing of our loved ones to change in ways that are defined as emotionally, physically or mentally abusive. Such behaviour should never be tolerated and you should seek immediate help and support if either yourself or a loved one are at risk. Google “Domestic Abuse Help” in your local area.

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Acceptance, Challenging Beliefs, Friendships, Relationships

What Baby Gammy has Taught Me about the Freedom of Difference

Photo Credit: Damir Sagolj, Reuters.

The other night Four Corners aired a report by Debbie Whitmont about the Surrogacy Business in Thailand with particular respect to Australian families.

The future of surrogacy in Thailand has been well and truly rocked by the alleged abandonment of baby Gammy. For those of you unaware of the story; it was alleged that Gammy, who was born via a surrogate in Thailand to Australian biological parents, was abandoned and left with his surrogate mother due to being born with Down syndrome.

There has been a tremendous outpouring of support for baby Gammy and a continued interest in the case as there is still so much that is unknown. Baby Gammy’s story has raised so many important questions with respect to how children are born and raised in our modern world.

Inspired by baby Gammy; today I wanted to push all of the legal and ethical questions aside to focus on our societies’ perceptions of children with special needs and the freedom that comes with the acceptance of different points of views.

Baby Gammy’s birth has raised many questions in me and made me reflect deeply upon my own beliefs, thoughts, fears, misconceptions and behaviours. I put my hand up to say that “I freak out when I see a child with special needs in a supermarket”. I don’t want to stare or make a fuss, I don’t want to seem uncompassionate or disinterested and I often find myself awkwardly smiling and trying to gauge the response of the parents. I am genuinely unsure of how to respond in a way that doesn’t make anyone feel uncomfortable or unseen.

Then I got to thinking about how I respond to children without special needs in supermarkets. I never seek the interaction; I interact naturally and when the situation calls for it. If they speak to me I speak back, if they stare at me I smile, if they bump into me I make a joke about it.

I’m also guided by the parents, if a parent is in a bad mood and dealing with a misbehaving child I don’t think,

“Oh I better interact with this family somehow otherwise they’ll think that I am disenfranchising them from our community.”

If I’m coming up an aisle about to walk past a family who isn’t paying any attention to me; I don’t think,

“What am I going to do once I get to them? They are standing in-front of the frozen peas and I don’t want to appear rude by asking them to move. Should I talk to the child first before I ask the parents to excuse me? I don’t want them to think that I don’t care about their child. Maybe I’ll just come back for my peas.”

I would never behave in such an awkward, calculated and conspicuous way; I would just be myself, I would act naturally and I would take my cues from the situation.

This all got me thinking about how we respond to the birth of children without special needs and what would happen if we behaved the same way upon the birth of children with special needs? What if we let the situation and the context dictate our responses?

In the past I haven’t shouted out any loud messages like “special needs children are born perfect as they are!” I’ve no doubt taken pity, offered sympathy and sentiments of commiserations; I’m sure behind closed doors I’ve made broad generalisations about how a special needs child “would ruin your life”. And if those words didn’t come out of my mouth directly then I have definitely allowed them to be spoken in my presence unchallenged.

I can’t speak to the realities of raising a special needs child, and that’s kind of my point. I would argue that none of us could understand the complexities until we were in that situation. I wish to be clear that I am only speaking of these ideals to the context of our collective society.

A close friend of mine gave birth to a normal, run-of-the-mill, healthy child yesterday. When we all heard the news her Facebook wall was littered with sentiments of ‘congratulations’,‘ how wonderful’ and ‘how exciting’.  I wondered if we would share the same sentiments if she gave birth to a child with special needs?

Raising any newborn child is difficult, I don’t wish for the sleepless nights and total upheaval that my girlfriend is about to experience upon myself, but I certainly wouldn’t think it appropriate to offer my sympathies to her. I strongly believe in her ability to be a mother to this child and I know that she has the support that she needs to do a good job.

If in a few days, weeks or months time she comments to me on how difficult she is finding it then my sympathy and support would be offered, but it is in a context of her seeking it. There are so many variables in how someone raising a child with special needs, or without, is going to be able to cope. The family and support networks available, access to medical care, education, practice, experience etc. Surely these things would make the journey of caring for a special needs child different from family to family?

So what if we offered special needs families the option to have us offer our excitement, our congratulations and our joy from the beginning? If it wasn’t appropriate because they told us they were struggling then we could offer them our compassion and support. But ultimately it would be their context and their needs that would guide us rather than our hypothetical projections of what it must be like for them.

I get that in practise this is awkward stuff, this is why I’d encourage us to have those conversations with our friends and families before such a situation arose. We are so good at asking the question “Would you go ahead with a pregnancy if you found out the child had special needs?” but rarely do we ask “If it happened, how would you like me to respond?”

To ease some of the awkwardness we could start having a different type of conversation behind their backs. What if when we were having those discussions with our mutual friends about their ‘situation’; we focused on the positive aspects that our loved ones were not yet able to see? What if we started to tell stories of hope and appreciation rather than pity?

“I heard about Bill and Jenny’s poor bub. Isn’t it dreadful? I can’t even image how difficult it is going to be for them. Their lives are never going to be the same; it must be so stressful for them. I don’t know how they are going to be able to cope.”

 What if we offered something similar to these sentiments as a new response?

 “Yes I don’t think I could cope but who knows how’ll they’ll find it. They are amazing people and I’m sure they’ll surprise themselves. I’m excited for them because if any family can thrive with a special needs child it’s them.

I know this is not the child they were expecting but what a blessing and joy he has been. I’ve already learnt a lot and I’ve had a lot of my misconceptions challenged, and he’s only 3 months old. This child could possibly be the greatest thing that has even happened for all of us, I am really looking forward to being a part of his life.”

We don’t know how things are going to turn out for Bill and Jenny, but the same is true for all families. Their family could break under the strain or they could thrive. As their friend what service do I offer them by focusing only on their potential future struggles? It’s not like if I don’t point out the potential difficulties to them that they’ll never know they exist. Why do we feel like “telling it like it is” is a helpful approach? You can’t “tell it like it is” about the future because there is no ‘is’ yet.

This is a really complex issue and I’m not suggesting that having a child with special needs is something that every one should choose or even consider. I have no judgement about the choices that parents make, every family is different and every set of circumstances is unique. Even as this story about baby Gammy unfolds it is appearing that his life has taken a much better turn than if his biological parents had taken him.

I’m simply suggesting that as a society rather than focus on the struggle as our first point of call that we allow space for an alternative more hopeful viewpoint for families. Surely we can offer optimism to others even in situations that we would find undesirable for ourselves?

Isn’t celebrating the birth of every child something that as a society we would want to aspire to?  Maybe this is a moot point; maybe upon the birth of a special needs child within our sphere of family and friends we would extend our congratulations and appreciation very naturally. Until that moment comes we are only speaking in hypothetical’s.

We’ve all over heard or participated in a conversation with friends and family behind closed doors that has been sparked by a prenatal Down syndrome test. During these hypothetical’s, declarations about “a zero desire to raise a child if the test came back positive” as well as “abortion being the only sensible option” are made. I don’t think for a minute that the decision would be so cut and dry if ever that choice had to be made for real. But maybe it would be, I’m not judging either way.

What is there to judge about people making decisions about what is best for them based on their own personal situation, needs and beliefs? I dream of living in a society that is able to do just that. Because the more capable we are of pursuing our own happiness free from guilt and shame the sooner we’ll stop caring about the choices that others make that are different to our own.

It is the allowance of a different point of view that I am arguing for. When those hypothetical’s come up; I can voice an opinion that for me the experience of having a special needs child may be one I see as difficult and unwanted, but I can also offer an acknowledgement that this wouldn’t be true for every family.

The truth is also that some families are thriving and have found it to be the greatest blessing of their lives. Why not tell those stories with our family and friends in front of our children as well?

It is the blanket belief that we hold as a society hold that “special needs children are always less desirable than children without special needs” that I am rallying against.  For some people the statement may be true, but equally for others it won’t be. So let us only declare which statements are true for us and let others decide for themselves.

Let us create a space where parents with special needs children can celebrate all that their children have enriched their lives with without us projecting our hypothetical fears upon them.

The reason we find it so difficult to muster hope and optimism for others is because we are searching for solutions to what for us is a hypothetical problem. We cannot possibly predict how others are going to rise to challenges or the amount of help and support that becomes available to them until we witness them in the situation.

We can never know the wonders or challenges that lay ahead in the future, just as we cannot know what drives the decisions of others and nor do we have to.

But to allow for a broad spectrum of difference in those decisions, and to offer people real freedom to make decisions that are different to my own which are free from my projections…well that’s a world that I’d like to welcome baby Gammy into.

Leanne xx

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