Ziggy

The dog is struggling. It’s day 4 and he’s freaked out. He’s a special little soul really, big in size and bark but pretty sensitive on the inside. He and I are somewhat inseparable – or we were until recent months. He’s supported me through tough deployments, warmed my feet when I tried to not use heating to save money in the Highlands and is our energetic adventure companion.

He came into our lives about 2 months into our marriage. A little bundle of red fur picked because when we went to see him he got up, walked around and bit then promptly spread himself over his brothers and sisters and fell asleep on top of them. I liked his style. Don’t ever be under an illusion you can visit puppies and leave without one. He was born on the day David Bowie died, so his name is Ziggy Stardust. He’s quite possibly the reincarnation of David Bowie.

He’s a Labrador so he’s pretty smart, I had grand ideas about training him to do all sorts of stuff. He was house trained in 3 days and he’s only ever done 2 poos in the house. The most useful thing we taught him is to wee on command, so we use the phrase ‘be quick’ and he knows that means wee. A fellow army wife taught me that. She also cautioned ‘choose a phrase that you can feasible shout from your back door, shouting ‘wee wees’ isn’t really ideal’. We also taught him voiceless commands so he’ll sit if you raise one finger in the air, and lie down if you point to the floor. He’ll roll over if you pretend to shoot him whilst saying ‘bang bang’.

He might sound quite well trained but the truth is he picks and chooses when he listens. He’s got selective hearing. He’s also really really cheeky. He has a knack of picking something up he REALLY shouldn’t have, inciting an automatic reflexive reaction to jump towards him to grab it off him. This turns into a game of chase, which he loves. He did this for example with the toilet brush once. Picked it up, horizontally in mouth, stood there with a twinkle in his eye until I noticed him then sped off round the house at a rate of knots. Brush coming in contact with the wall left right and centre. Recently he jumped into a fountain at the local park whilst under the care of his beloved dog walker, he swam round it leisurely before jumping out once he’d decided he was ready.

The truth is I totally love his spirit. In my mind he’s got a thick Scottish accent and a cracking sense of humour. He’s a total nutter. We always say he’s likely to die in a blaze of glory, going the extra mile to fetch a ball and ending up in a pickle. Once he jumped without warning onto the wall of a viaduct as we walked along it, we were SO high up. My husband and I froze, held our breath and just stood still until he nonchalantly jumped back down again. He could have easily plummeted to his death.

Obviously I love him dearly. He stopped me feeling lonely during a tough deployment and has been my shadow since he joined our pack. When I was so pregnant I could only waddle to walk him he just slowed right down and pretended he didn’t really want to run much anyway. When I was close to labour he was my biggest concern as we didn’t have anyone to look after him. Thankfully my parents saved the day. When I was in hospital recovering from a c-section I experienced the weirdest hormone crash whereby I had uncontrollable urges to laugh hysterically (SUPER painful in that situation). The only thought that would sober me up was the thought of Ziggy not being around. On returning from hospital with our new addition Ziggy pretty much ignored me for the first few days, I think he knew I was in a lot of pain. He didn’t know how to act. He ignored the baby too. Then gradually he started to check on the baby when she cried. Now he’s realising in our daughter he’s got an ally, who’s got an endless supply of cuddly toys. Just wait until she hits the high chair, he’s no idea he’s about to become a very useful hoover. He’s found his place in the pack.

Now though in lock-down he’s confused. I think he thinks we’re the last people on earth and he can’t cope with the pressure of protecting us. We tried some agility training today, he humped me. He sat with his head in his paws most of the afternoon contemplating, I imagine, the end of the world. The one good thing he has going in his life is food but we’ve cut it down as he’s doing less exercise. Perhaps he’ll go on hunger strike. I didn’t really think about home enough before lock-down. I wish I’d bought him his food and a few new tennis balls. So please send your ideas for entertaining our four legged pal, he’ll be extremely grateful!

Yo me quedo en casa

We are currently in a stage of ‘lock-down’ in Madrid, the only permitted travel out of the house being for medical care or food. People are using the hashtag ‘ Yo me quedo en casa’ (translates as ‘I’m staying at home’). We all know why so I won’t dwell on that. Actually I think it would be better not to use the term lock-down, instead we should call it ‘period of hygge’ and feel cosy about it (if we can).

Instead some reflections as I’m thinking a lot about people with anxiety in our current situation, I’m worried situations like this are huge triggers. I’m also concerned for those who can’t work from home for whatever reason and who will face unmanageable situations based on loss of income. I’m thinking about the elderly and people with underlying health conditions who are becoming invisible as they retreat indoors and have better things to do than vocalise through social media.

Sharing my thoughts so far as there’s time to reflect at times like this.

Firstly it’s not the first time myself or my partner have been in lock-down. We both individually have experienced this for security reasons. My partner whilst on operations and myself whilst based in the Central African Republic. The country experienced a coup, pretty much overnight a curfew was enforced and soon after a lock-down. In this country there was no clean water from the taps, electricity was intermittent and I shared my tiny flat with a flock of cockroaches. Every night I would calculate how many bottles of water I had left, I pretty much ate plain pasta 3 times a day. I had to listen to what news I could (mostly received via text message) to understand how the situation was unfolding. Villages around the city where I lived were being burnt to the ground and all we could do was watch the plumes of smoke in the distance gradually get closer and closer. It was the most stressful time of my life, my hair started falling out in chunks and I had awful insomnia. Eventually I was evacuated from this situation but many of my colleagues and friends in that country couldn’t leave, the violence that followed claimed many lives. This is not a post about that, but it gives me perspective on our current situation.

This time the situation is so different. We are healthy and we are not in a violent situation. We are also parents to a 3 month old so our decision making has taken on new dynamic, we want to minimise risk for her first and foremost. Our responsibility is to our family and to the wider community. Whilst we are healthy day to day many others are not. We don’t want to be responsible for spreading a virus to someone with a weaker immune system.

In someways the decision by the Spanish Government and Community of Madrid to put a lock-down in place apart from essential activity brings clarity. We are now allowed out of the house in a car for hospital visits, visit to relatives to help them, travel to work for businesses allowed to remain open and food shopping. Travel on foot is less restricted so you can take the dog out however all parks are shut so we’re limited to roads for dog exercise.

At all times we’re expected to practice social distancing, it’s a bit weird as you have to actively avoid people which goes against human nature but everyone is doing it so at least you don’t feel rude! Before the lock-down, with less clarity, we felt worried about leaving the house and unsure about upcoming trips away. As a result of the situation we cancelled a trip to San Sebastián (this weekend) and a ski trip (week after next). The Government decision means we didn’t have to debate whether to go in these trips or not.

We had a good idea that this situation was coming so here’s what we did to prepare:

2 weeks before lock-down

⁃ Stocked up for 2 weeks

⁃ Made any necessary appointments – for example we had to register Carmen with our local municipality, we did things like that more quickly to make sure it was done

⁃ Looked at the diary at upcoming commitments to see what we could bring forward, postpone or cancel

⁃ Limited people coming to the house but our dog walker and cleaner came as normal

⁃ Everywhere we sat for lunch or a coffee we used wipes (baby wipes) to clean the table and hands. We couldn’t get hold of sanitiser or alcohol wipes in shops and online orders had a month or more lead in.

1 week before lock-down

Nursery’s closed so the lady in place to support childcare couldn’t come as has little ones at home. My husbands place of work closed for 2 weeks but his lectures will continue virtually. As we both work (me from home mostly) childcare was a bit tricky. Here’s what we did:

⁃ Reached out to a good friend to help out on days where my schedule was busy. We trusted she would let us know if she felt or suspected she was sick

⁃ Chunked up our time so one of us could work for a few hours while the other looked after the little one

⁃ At this time we could still move around freely so we got out to the park with the dog but avoided gatherings

⁃ We continued to visit bars and cafes but felt a bit uneasy about it

⁃ We found a shop selling sanitiser, I paid 9 euros for 2 of the smallest bottles you’ve ever seen

⁃ Our WhatsApp groups were going bonkers. So much fake news and this is the first time I’ve realised I can’t tell what is true or not. I am part of a mums in Madrid group which I love for peer support and advice, as well as a military spouse group. After receiving a deluge of confusing information I decided to not read news related updates on WhatsApp and instead rely on official updates from the government

1 day before lock-down

⁃ We started to suspect a lock-down was coming. At around 10pm we received a message indicating it was likely we’d be confined to our houses soon. We did a quick stock take of food in the house and my husband did another shop at 11pm. He said it was so busy, exactly not where you want to be. The only meat available was rabbit and giblets (no thanks!).

⁃ Before lock-down was confirmed we cancelled our cleaner and dog walker. I will continue to pay our cleaner even though she can’t come as she’s in a really vulnerable situation and I’m worried about people like her.

⁃ We went through all the things we could possibly think of that we might need. We think we’ll be ok in terms of supplies but it brings peace of mind to know we can go food shopping.

⁃ We checked on our elderly neighbour and told him to call us if he needs us to do his shopping. We also spoke to Isaac, a lovely man who lives on the street who stands outside the supermarket everyday. We wanted to make sure he knows what’s going on. We’ll continue to buy him something each time we do our shopping, he never asks for anything and he’s helped us out on more than one occasion (like telling my husband to look for me when I ventured out 3 weeks post birth with baby and dog and a freak thunderstorm happened)

Day of lock-down

Lock-down started on Saturday, but there was no specific restriction on travel by car or foot to start with. The parks were really busy, everyone with the same idea to get out in the open. In Madrid most people live in flats and parks are the centre of the community as, for those without a garden, they are a haven. We went for a walk in the morning, I felt quite uneasy and tried to keep my distance from others but it was hard as there were quite a few people. We then went to buy fresh meat to put in our freezer, weirdly chicken has been consistently sold out. I guess it’s the cheapest meat so people have snapped it up.

At around 2.30pm we found out the parks were likely to close so my husband took the dog out to let off some steam and enjoy the green space before it shut. At 4pm it was confirmed that we were to stay inside and parks would close.

We decided to spring clean the house and have thrown ourselves into doing this the last couple of days. We feel it’s important we feel we’re in a relaxing space so we’ve cleaned and tidied quite intensely! The house needed it, we’d been so focused on getting prepared for this that the house was a real mess.

What I’ve learnt so far

Two days in and I’ve learnt the following:

1. There is so much unknown that it is quite overwhelming to try and second guess what might happen. So for now we are concentrating on what we do know and focusing on that. We’ll be in this situation for definite for 2 weeks, after that who knows, we’ll deal with that when it comes.

2. It’s eery to be outside. Madrid is like a ghost town. Usually our area is lively and social. Madrileños (people who live in Madrid) are warm and welcoming. Now there’s hardly anyone on the street. When we do spot someone we keep our distance but we’re still saying hi as we pass people which is really common in Spain. It’s a bit freaky being out of the house when you do need to go out, I don’t like it very much.

3. After the initial rush the supermarkets are quiet and for the most part well stocked. We have two supermarkets in walking distance.

4. I continue to avoid reading news I receive on WhatsApp and have asked on more than one occasion for people to check their sources and if they can’t verify refrain from circulating news from unofficial channels. It’s causing people to feel unnecessarily upset and overwhelmed.

5. There’s lots to do! I’ve made a list of things we need to do, the things that always fall to the bottom of your to-do list. This is keeping us busy and focused. We also have a 3 month old so she’s keeping us busy and happy with her constant smiling.

6. Setting a routine is important, I know this already from working from home. I’m getting up early as usual, getting showered and dressed as if I would be going out for the day. I find this helps with mindset.

7. Finding a good box set is good! I learnt this during my lock-down in CAR. We’ve just started a Handmaids Tale, a bit apocalyptic true but also a great distraction.

8. Exercise is important, I’ve been getting my exercise mostly from dog walking and postpartum Pilates (which is SO GOOD) so now I need a new routine. I also have post pregnancy weight to loose so don’t want to turn into a potato.

9. Make a meal of it. Enjoy the mealtimes, take time over that coffee. Time is moving in a weird way, sometimes fast sometimes slow. There’s an opportunity to reconnect and let things move at a slower pace…embrace that!

10. I wish we had more board games and jigsaws! We have a few games but would be nice to have more! I really wish we’d bought a chess set, we’ve been saying for ages we should.

11. Now is the time for reflection, there’s a lot we could worry about but our health is most important so that’s what I’m focusing on. I’m making sure I’m taking my vitamin pills and that me and my daughter are taking our vitamin D supplement. This is the type of thing that’s easy to forget to stock up on so get some in! I’m also regularly cleaning things like my phone, keys, door knobs, pram handles and dog lead. Things I touch when I’m out and about.

12. Generally being eco conscious is paying off – using cloth nappies, reusable cotton wool pads and small things like that means stocking up is much easier as we don’t need to worry about those things.

13. Being empathetic to others is important. For example we struggled with breast feeding at first but now we are able to do it. In the process we feed both formula and Brest milk, but if we needed to I could feed exclusively breast milk. So I just bought 2 weeks of formula supply because some people can’t or don’t breastfeed, I would be really anxious if that was me so I don’t want to hoard vital supplies I don’t really need.

14. We’re also preparing for the start of a working week where we both work from home without external childcare support. We are going to define ‘working hours’ and when one of us is working the other will look after our daughter. Lock-down is family time. My husband had 5 days of paternity leave and that was spent in the hospital as we recovered, so this is a good bonding opportunity for us all.

15. Spain is awesome, Madrid rocks. Everyone is looking out for each other. At 10pm on the first day of lock-down people took to their balconies to applaud hospital staff. At 8pm daily the Community of Madrid (kind of like the council) will live stream a yoga class for people to get involved with at home. As an aside free exercise classes take place in parks under normal circumstances and they are particularly focused on keeping older people active. I love this city.

Things I wished we’d thought of:

1. Fitting in a trip to the garden centre. We’d been saying for ages we wanted to get some plants for our outside spaces and now the garden centres are shut. Nothing to worry about of course but would have been a good project.

2. Similarly there’s a few house jobs which could use some paint. I only have a tiny bit in so wish I’d bought some!

3. I had stuff to send via the post office, presents and things that require going into the post office rather than just a post office. Really trivial but now it’s annoying me.

4. I wish we had got the phone number of a particular neighbour who is quite elderly and we see walking his dogs. We didn’t see him for a few days but then yesterday I heard him outside so quickly shouted to him across the street to get in touch if he needed something and did he want our number? He was totally chill and gave the impression (with a smile) that I was a mad woman.

5. My husband wishes he’d had a hair cut, you know how much those military types love a sharp do!

6. Dog food, we forgot dog food. We probably have enough but we’ll try and get more. It’s true what they say, when you have a baby your dog stops being your first born and becomes a dog. So we sort of forgot about preparing for him (and we feel bad about it as he’s got puppy eyes going on)

7. I wish I’d bought more tonic for my gin. When last did a food shop there were only 3 cans.

So we’re fine, actually more than fine. We’re healthy at the moment, we can continue to work (but remotely) and we have a nice roof over our heads. Many are not in this privileged situation and those are the people I’m thinking about the most.

Deployment & Christmas

This year around 7,500 British troops will be deployed over Christmas. For every soldier posted overseas there is a family missing them, it could be a husband, wife, children, boyfriend or girlfriend,mother and father, sister or brother…the list goes on. After spending 6 months apart from my husband this year I feel very grateful that he is around at the time of year when families get together and enjoy each other’s company.

A few years ago the military was more visible in the nations Christmas celebrations and coverage. We saw news snippets and stories from Iraq and Afghanistan. Troops enjoying a Christmas lunch cooked in a field kitchen and opening care packages sent from all over the world. Now, with the changing nature of the U.K. military, we don’t see so much coverage of what our troops are up to.

I’ve realised in my almost 3 years as an army spouse that families play such a pivotal role in the health and well-being of our military personnel. This time last year we were gearing up to move from the Highlands of Scotland to the South West of the U.K ahead of my husbands deployment. There was a certain pressure to see people, make sure that we spent time with family, caught up with friends who we might not see together for a while. Amidst all of the socialising there’s a lot of planning, when do we move, how do we move, what about my job, do I actually want to live alone for 6 months or should I move in with my family etc, etc. Then you’re trying very hard not to argue with each other, conscious of the long months ahead you’ll spend a part you try to keep the equilibrium. On top of that I was acutely aware that my partner was heading off to a job and a country that could potentially be quite stressful, I wanted him to feel prepared and calm. I wanted to make sure we minimised the things he might worry about back home.

Preparing for deployment is stressful and emotional. Then once your partner is away you are flying solo, often trying to settling into a new community and location at the same time. Spouses left behind on deployments carry the responsibility of creating a stable environment for their children, trying to keep things going on an even keel, balance budgets and maintain a healthy relationship with their deployed spouse. This involves fractured phone calls as signal cuts in and out and thoughtful care packages, crossing fingers that when you pop it on the scale it will be light enough to be sent free of charge.

It’s a juggling act to say the least and it can be a lonely journey. I’ve always found the hardest comment to deal with (usually from those not within the military community) is: ‘you knew what you were getting into when you got married’.

It’s an insensitive comment and very misjudged because no-one, military or otherwise, knows what is heading their way when they get married. Life itself is an unpredictable journey and marriage is about learning to sail the voyage together. Being a military family means you are reminded more often of the unpredictability of your situation. How you fare in the journey depends on the strength of your relationship, the support of your family and community and the belief you have in yourself that you can make it through the long lonely months.

Midway through my partners deployment he sent me a photo, and this Christmas a family member had it framed for us for a Christmas present:

Gavin Williamson the Secretary Of State for Defence officially promoting my husband to Major. This photo means a lot because behind it is years of commitment from us both, hours of conversation discussing whether staying in the army is the right direction for us and moments of doubt where we wondered if we’d made the wrong decision. This photo also represents the moments you miss as a military couple, the achievements you hear about secondhand because you just can’t be there in person. So in this photo, which captures a fleeting moment, I see achievement of a goal that we’ve been aiming towards for a while and I feel so proud, I feel that in some ways the hard times are worth it.

So if my experience of deployment has taught me anything this year it’s that the disruption of deployment affects families long before, and long after, the duration of a deployment. So over Christmas I’m thinking of all the families who have a loved one deployed, all of those who have a deployment on the horizon and all of those who are grateful for the return of their loved one. You might feel uprooted at times but you can do it, and at some point I hope it feels worth it as it does for me when I look at this photo.

There’s an experience we share as a military community an appreciation that things don’t go to plan, in fact that having a plan is not always very helpful.

Yes – so be it

We are often over stretching ourselves, trying to cover all bases at work, keep the home ship sailing and feeling like we should fit in feeding our wellbeing through yoga, hygge or mindfulness.  We think we need to learn to say ‘no’ to plans which we can’t fit in, ‘no’ to things we think we might not enjoy in order to make more time for ourselves and our ‘main’ priorities.  Yet these main priorities are often not focusing truly on what we need.

Whilst my husband was deployed and time alone stood before me like a deserted plain I learned an important lesson.  To say ‘yes’ to things I felt I didn’t have time for.  I’m almost obsessive about time in a day.  When I was on my own I became more so, going to bed I could picture the next day in blocks of designated time, each piece of work, a task at home or a meal perfectly slotted in.  My problem the next day arises when those timings inevitably start to slip, leaving me feeling behind and chaotic.  Letting go of that mindset for me is difficult, but time and time again when I throw caution to the wind and accept a last minute coffee date which pushes my timescale out of sync I ALWAYS feel so much better.  It’s a strange thing, I’m actually very spontaneous and will do some pretty adventurous things, but I also like to be prepared.

The word ‘yes’, by the way, derives from Olde English when it meant something like ‘so be it’.

If I hadn’t said yes enough over these past few months I would never have discovered Cambridge Folk Festival after an invite from a good friend.  It was such an amazing opportunity to reconnect with the power of music, and the power of women.  I now have such vivid memories of the weekend.

One week I had been extremely busy, driving back and forth and spreading myself too thin.  When the weekend rolled around I had planned to keep Sunday totally free and watch the entire series of Killing Eve in one go.  8 hours of tv.  The dream.  Or so I thought.  A text from a friend looking for an adventure buddy on the weekend led me to exploring Marlborough and catching up on all things army wife life and beyond.  We spent a lovely afternoon pottering through a forest followed by a tasty lunch.  What I needed was fresh air and company, not 8 hours of nail biting tv.

On another occasion I waited until the very last minute to decide whether to head to London for the weekend.  I’d been invited to two different 30th birthday parties one on Friday and one on Saturday, all my best pals would be there.  But I was dog sitting for a friend and had two dogs to entertain. I thought it was too tricky to juggle the situation.  After finding a kennel for one dog and calling on my super dog walker for the other I set off for an incredible weekend in London.  Staying with my good friend and her partner I felt so happy for them, it was a while since I’d spent time with just the two of them and they are so in love.  I returned from London rich on the love from all my pals.  On Monday evening the friend I’d stayed with called me,  she was engaged and I was over the moon.  How special to spend time with them just before they take the next step on their life journey.

The picture for this blog post is a list of things that feature in my ‘perfect day’.  At a conference I attended recently one of the workshop sessions was a meditation session.  Usually I would bypass that for something more commercial,  but that day I said yes to the meditation.  As part of the session we were asked to write down what our perfect day looks like.  Note how 8 hours of tv is not featured.   Then we were told to make a star by all the things that fall to the wayside when we are stressed and feel ‘busy’.

When things get hectic I just about manage to walk my dog, because it would be unfair not to, and eat healthily, because otherwise I’ll run out of energy.  It’s scary how much I neglect, and how if I said yes to different things I’d be fulfilling my perfect day more regularly.  Even more scary…most of the things I do regularly like answer emails, check social media or watch a (guilty pleasure alert) show like Real Housewives of Somewhere are not on this list at all.  Yet they are what I do more of when I’m stressed and busy.  The mindfulness session ended with us working on fitting a small element of each of our ‘perfect day’ activities into our day or week.

I’m saying yes to following that through.

Living out of a suitcase

I’ve been living out of suitcase since I could first travel by myself. From an early age I knew the small town I grew up in was not the place I’d spend the rest of my life. Straight out of school I was on a plane as fast as possible with a big bag and even bigger dream. I don’t really feel like that’s come to an end, and if anything army life perpetuates the constant cycle of movement from one place to another. Many army families live in places they don’t come from, so to keep contact with friends and family requires travel. This happens mostly at the weekend. When others take an opportunity to pause, we’re off on an adventure to touch base with important people in our lives. Couple this with a job which requires at least one or two trips away a week and suddenly home feels like a stopping point in route to the next destination.Of course this situation is not unique to army life, but it’s something we have to learn to embrace. That’s not always easy but I think as you start to embrace I think it gets easier to live in the moment and be grateful for the little things. Home is a feeling of security and comfort, and you can find that outside your own four walls. Life in general is different now, we can travel much further faster, we can talk ‘face-to-face’ online and we can connect with people around the globe. So maybe there are some benefits to being able to pack your life into a bag and spend quality, real face to face time whenever possible. I think army families are particularly good at this, so when it feels hard remember that it’s the small moments that matter and sometimes you need to go seek them out.