“It’s just life – not something we really think about.”
For Rani Smith, balancing work at A&O Consulting alongside home life with her son and visually impaired partner means living to a different dynamic.
As the videoconference comes to an end, Rani Smith’s three-year old son, Ashton, clambers onto her knee – dressed in pyjamas and all ready for bed – and looks shyly into the camera.
It’s a fitting way to end a call in which she has been describing her busy working life as an Executive Assistant to the head of A&O Consulting in Australia, and trying to achieve a good work/life balance for herself, her partner Drago, and their son.
“Ashton keeps us on our toes,” she says with a smile.
These are not normal times.
But this is a family used to juggling home and work life.
Drago is registered legally blind with severe visual impairment. Although he has some vision, helped by top-level visual aids, he cannot work and there remains a worry that his sight could deteriorate further in the future.
After 13 operations he has decided to leave it at that. “He’s got to the point where he doesn’t want to tempt fate and have any more issues. Recovery after the procedures is often lengthy and painful. So he’s decided now to let it be.”
Drago, who was born in a small village in Croatia, lost his sight when he was just a year old after contracting a virus. His family moved to Australia around that time in search of a better life, and as a child he attended a specialist school to learn Braille, in addition to all the skills he would need to cope with life as a visually impaired person.
Ashton is in day care three days a week and Drago looks after him for the other two. “That means I can work full time,” says Rani. “If I couldn’t we would find it difficult financially.”
A different dynamic
Next year Ashton will go into a pre-school programme and they plan to send him to day care for more days in the week. “The kind of learning and development he can get in that setting is probably more than we can offer him at home.”
Although Drago does receive a disability pension, the pressures of maintaining a single-income household are real. But Rani plays them down. “I wouldn’t say it was challenging. It’s just a different dynamic.”
There are special things that need to be taken care of as part of that dynamic. They need to live close to accessible public transport. The house needs to be kept pretty tidy to make sure there are no trip hazards that could send Drago flying. Ashton needs to understand that when he is out with his dad, he needs to stay close and not run off.
On a typical day Rani and Drago will take Ashton to day care together, then she will go off to the office – about 30 minutes away. Drago picks up Ashton in the afternoon, does the household chores and the bedtime routine.
Any driving duties fall to Rani, of course, although they have been living with her parents as they prepare to move to a new house and have received lots of help. “I heavily rely on them, particularly for driving,” she says.
The two of them met eight years ago, brought together by mutual friends. One of Drago’s great friends runs International Wrestling Australia promotions and was married to one of Rani’s old school friends. “We had met a few times at various social events and then my friend invited me away for the weekend, which was my introduction to wrestling. Drago and I got to know each other more and we just clicked. We have been together for six years.”
Wrestling has been a huge passion for Drago for more than 20 years and he has established himself as a talented commentator for shows staged at clubs or agricultural shows.
How does he do that given his condition?
“He sits close enough to the ring, knows all the wrestlers and the moves and thanks to his very thick glasses can make out enough to carry it off. It’s something he’s got into and really enjoys. He gets up in front of thousands of people and has the gift of the gab,” she says.
“His real problem is with peripheral vision. If I was walking up to him in a crowd he wouldn’t be able to pick me out.”
A great team
Rani, once a keen international traveller who lived in many different countries before settling down, relaxes these days by baking, cooking, doing food photography and reading, although during lockdown there has been little time to do much of these as she juggles work and home life.
Working full time is going well and she is grateful for the support she gets from a “great team”.
“I work with a fabulous MD and team. They are very understanding of my situation. When I do need to drop everything – say when Drago can’t get to Ashton quickly to pick him up or if there is an emergency – the team is totally great,” she says, adding that she always strives to make up for any extra time she needs to take off.
It does, she says, put a lot of pressure on her around working full time, keeping up the family finances, being a Mum, running a household and being the sole driver. “But we make it work well.”
“To be honest, to me and Drago, it’s just life. It’s not something we really think about.”