real life

For all the dads who've held the fort this year, Happy Father's Day.

Penny with her husband and little girls




It’s 2am and I am woken by the sounds of two little feet shuffling down the hallway: flannelette against carpet. It’s bloody cold. And dark. I can hear the heavy breathing of my two-year-old daughter, between the sucking of her dummy as she makes her way closer to Daddy’s side of the bed.

I lie and wait for the usual scenario to take place.

My husband is now awake. He sighs and throws the toasty warm doona off him. I am feeling both thankful I don’t need to face the shock of the cold, yet I’m riddled with the usual guilt that I can’t help him. He stands up and put his t-shirt on, and in his nicest Daddy voice he says, “Come on Daisy, let’s go back to bed”.

Off they go into the night while I lie there feeling like the most useless, worthless, lazy mother in the world. The thoughts plague me actually.

“Get up and help him you lazy bitch,” she will say.

”But I’ve just had major back surgery, I’m just too sore and if I lift Daisy (all of 15kg) back into the bed I know I’ll set myself up for another painful day at home tomorrow, ” the other one reasons.

“Yes, but he always does it. You can’t work that poor man to the bone, he is exhausted,” she will reply.

Penny’s husband with one of his daughters

“But I would swap my chronic back pain with getting up in the middle of the night any day,” is the final thought, and usually the one that helps nurse me back to sleep.


Sometimes when I open my eyes again, my husband is still missing in action. That means he is sleeping on the floor of my daughter’s room (yes, the actual floor, with a thin blanket.

And he can usually sleep, too. I credit his five years in the army). I have told him countless times that we should just set up a little bed in our room on the floor for her or – god forbid – just let her sleep in the bed with us.

“No, no, I’m making progress,” he says, “She is nearly sleeping through again. If we let her sleep in our bed she will never want to sleep in her own bed.”

He is right. But it’s not fair that I can’t share the shifts with him. And I mean really, shouldn’t we cut ourselves some slack? I’m recovering from a spinal operation (four months out). And we had a second baby, Lola, just eight months ago (who – praise the Lord! – sleeps through the night). Maybe we just need to let the kid sleep in our bed.

By the time 6am rolls around, my husband has changed for work, fetched Lola, fed and changed her, fixed Daisy some cereal, and is scoffing some toast at the kitchen bench. He has put my clean baby in her rocker next to the couch so it’s easy for me to access her during the day, with minimal lifting. Daisy is also clean, fed and ready to start the day. All this while I stuff my face with painkillers and mentally prepare myself for the challenge of looking after two babies, whilst riddled with excruciating back pain. With a quick kiss and a “seeya, babe”, he is out the door and on the road at 6.45am. It’s amazing what you can achieve in 45 minutes!


So let me bring you up to speed. I had a pretty major surgery (one of the biggest they perform at Brisbane Private Hospital, so the lovely nurses told me before they wheeled me into surgery in early April) to fix my technically broken back. In short, I have a condition called spondylolisthesis and underwent an anterior lumbar interbody fusion (you can read about that here), meaning they access my spine from the front (think: c-section-type scar), remove a degenerated disc, insert a cage, a couple of screws and a graft to encourage two vertebras to fuse together:  a procedure with a recovery time of 1-2 years. (Yes, you heard me right.)

My husband had to take six weeks off following my surgery, and with little support from family (due to circumstances) and friends already up to their armpits in their own child-rearing, he set off to care for all three of us.

In those early weeks he performed the role of a single dad of two and the full-time carer of an invalid wife, who couldn’t get out of bed. He brought me breakfast, lunch and dinner. He cleaned the house. Fed the children. He changed them. And he played with them.

Penny’s husband once again

Of course it wasn’t easy. There was the anxiety (Me: “how am I going to look after them when he goes back to work?”) and stress (Him: “we just need Mum to get better”) and of course a background of continual toddler tantrums (Us: “have another biccie!”).


And we were all struck down with every sickness imaginable: conjunctivitis, tonsillitis, gastro, even a trip to the hospital when I had a middle ear infection and severe vertigo. I had to stand in the emergency department on my own crying and vomiting into a bag (while my back was screaming).

The girls were asleep in the car and it was just easier for my husband to stay in the car with them. Gone are the days of having your hubby by your side when you have kids!

When my husband went back to work after six weeks, I was beside myself with worry.  How on earth can I raise two babies with the strict order of “no lifting for three months”?  I lay on the couch praying that we would just get through the day… and of course, wishing my husband (insert: knight in shining armour) would come home.

I cut corners. We watched TV. Lola drank formula. She ate purchased pureed baby food. Daisy ate muesli bars for breakfast. We stayed in our pyjamas all day. Daddy found us just where he left us. The guilt (and pain) was often unbearable at times.

We got inventive. Every day was treated like a “rainy day”. There were tunnels, cubby houses and paper to be torn up. Those were the good days. I won’t lie – there was more TV to be watched. The weeks rolled on. And so did the tears.

The weekends were (and still are) an opportunity for me to rest from the physicality of caring for the kids all week, and get stuck into the required physio exercises I need to do to recover from surgery. When I’m not stretching on my yoga mat, I lie on the couch reading and flipping through TV channels, watching on as my hubby plays both Mum and Dad, cleaning, feeding and entertaining the girls.


He is particularly amazing at playtime. He offers Daisy’s short-attention span countless activities: they go from trampoline to sandpit, then inside for playdough and colouring-in. The toys are always on rotation: out of the cupboard come the musical instruments, in go the plastic fruit and vegies.

She naps, while Lola feeds. Lola naps, while Daddy prepares toddler snacks. Before you know it, Sunday night is here. My dear hubby baths the kids, brushes Daisy’s teeth, puts them both to bed, and finally enjoys a couple of hours to himself on the couch (where he often falls asleep from exhaustion), before it all starts again. Often I’m in bed before everyone, reeling in pain and knocked out on painkillers.

Penny Shipway.

In three years, I went from editor of a suburban newspaper (complete with champagne lunches, restaurant openings and art shows) with a healthy social life and ‘salon’ hair, who bought new shoes monthly and splurged on cocktails weekly, to a frumpy stay-at-home mum who does her own colour from a packet and who gets her kicks out of buying baby clothes and healthy food – online.

We don’t go out, our social life is virtually non-existent, and every day is about survival. I am still not without pain.


I once asked a friend: “What will I do? How will I cope?” She replied with: “We are humans, we survive, it’s what we do.”

So I ran with that. We are surviving, but we aren’t completely miserable. We have two beautiful girls who make us smile and laugh on a daily basis. Their shrieks, noises and giggles fill our house with so much vitality and life. Without them, it would be a house with no soul.

I am a lot more mobile now, but never without pain. Things have been really tough, but not terrible. All families struggle (with or without surgery or other life challenges). We may not get out much now, but my children cheer me up endlessly and I’m not missing out on their life. I’m living and breathing every second of it.

One day I will be able to repay my husband for all the effort he has put in. For being our hero. “For better, for worse, in sickness and in health.” One day I will be there for him. I will bring him breakfast in bed. I will give him time off to be with his friends, to go fishing and paddle boarding. I will cook him breakfast, lunch and dinner. I will jump up to our sick children in the middle of the night.

One day I will be his hero. Or perhaps I already am.

Penny is a freelance writer and mother of two from Brisbane. She likes long walks on the beach and is a firm believer of healthy body, healthy mind. She is totally addicted to celebrity biographies, peanut butter and red wine.

Is there a superhero dad or soon-to-be-ad in your life? Tell us about him!