Monday 21st September 2020, it’s 05:30. There’s something really depressing about most train stations, but especially this one, right now. It’s drizzling and cold and i’m stood on a COVID-Secure platform at Chester waiting for the 05:51 to London, off to start my new job after 9 months “off”. The bleakness of the platform, the lack of greenery and any form of nature is in stark contrast to where i’ve spent the last 6 months.
Today marks the end of 247 days and nights without leaving Elsie’s side. We had planned to travel for all of 2020 and had started thinking about extending that into 2021, but even though our plans have been cut short I feel incredibly fortunate and lucky to have spent so much time with her.
After arriving back in the UK in March we spent the next 6 months living in a cottage on the dairy farm where Kirsty grew up. It was very different to Bo. Elsie looked confused by the sudden drop in temperature – 38’ down to around 12’c, but we quickly settled into a new pattern of life, slowing things down and enjoying the outdoors, the freshness and beauty of South Ronaldsay.
Elsie began to get to know Brooke and Ruairidh, two of her many cousins, who lived 200 metres up the road with Kirsty’s brother Erlend and his wife Sarah, as well as Hugo the dog, George the cat, Jessica, May & Emmy the caddy-lambs, and Poacher the horse. Granny and Papa Wood were 100m “doon” the road, and we were surrounded by the sea, miles of hilly green farmland, hundreds of cows and thousands of amazing birds.
After our epic journey back from Sierra Leone we decided to self-isolate for the first two weeks, not wanting to be the ones who brought Corona to the islands. Getting food and beer deliveries to our front door was a novelty, and while the world changed we felt very fortunate to be where we were.
Kirsty still had a 3 day-a-week job, so for 3 days-a-week it was full-time Daddy Day Care. Which was hard bloody work at times. But I got a front row seat as she started to take her first few steps, say her first few words, learn how to give us little hugs and kisses, learned how to make animal noises, and I got to witness the look of excitement and amazement as she saw cows up close every day coming in for milking. I was right there when she wanted a cuddle so she could do a poo, and to reassure her as her bottom lip quivered, that everything was going to be OK when none of the 5 little ducks came back. I buzzed off her boundless energy, her love for swings, her love for banging on pots and pans and stacking tins of beans, her general eagerness and her excellent sense of humour. I never expected my 18 month old daughter to be so funny. She was a lot of fun to hang around with, and she taught me to be more patient, enjoy simple things and live more for the moment.
But her sleep was atrocious, and Kirsty and I were totally knackered. My journal entry from 30th March just reads “Bad night last night. Me and KJ both reached new lows on the whole sleep thing. Tough tough night.”
We recently figured out that in the last 12 months Elsie has slept in 17 different places.
Throughout our 6 week trip around Mexico she would wake regularly during the night, but this seemed fine as we had plenty of time to catch up on sleep after really bad nights. When we got back to London in December 2019 we knew we were moving to Sierra Leone in January, so we didn’t instil any routines, and muddled through. But we were tired all the time.
In Sierra Leone we decided to co-sleep to keep Elsie under our mozzie net, and it felt safer having her in with us. For the first time in months she slept really well; when she woke she could nuzzle into Kirsty, get a quick feed, and drift off back to sleep. Perfect. We wished we’d done co-sleeping sooner, but it’s a bit dangerous if you’ve had a drink.
When we got to Orkney we tried to get her to go to sleep in a cot, but failed miserably. She flat out refused. She was always a restless baby who hated being swaddled, and to protest she would bash her head into the side or the top of the cot.
Getting her off to sleep had always been hard work, and she would wake regularly even once we’d got her off. The burden was on Kirsty to get her back to sleep, as Elsie was exclusively breastfed and had grown accustomed to cuddles and feeds with Kirsty. Elsie wanted nothing to do with me during the night. So, already exhuasted, we spent a couple of weeks barely sleeping, waking constantly, lifting her in and out of the cot, getting pushed out of our bed by her sprawling like a dog, and getting so tired that we were struggling to be nice to each other sometimes.
We’d had enough, and decided to get help. We got some advice from a sleep consult, of the softly softly kind, who gave us the advice and guidance we needed. Before lockdown it suited us having no routine; we wanted Elsie to be flexible and able to easily deal with changes to her routine, to stay up til 10pm while we ate at restaurants and be happy sleeping anywhere. But lockdown changed all that, as suddenly we were confined to our small bungalow and I wanted her asleep at 7pm each night so we could enjoy some peace and quiet.
We never let her cry out, although sometimes we wonder if we should have. I have no regrets, because in every other aspect Elsie is an awesome baby/boddler/toddler, but the one thing we probably did do, that we wouldn’t again, was jump in too soon when she woke up. From day 0 we always stuck her straight onto Kirsty’s boob whenever she woke up. We thought that rather than risk her “waking up fully”, we’d “knock her out” each time by feeding her immediately. That was great in the short term, but long term it meant she would only go back to sleep after cuddles and a feed with Kirsty. So many times over the last 12 months i’ve felt truly bad for Kirsty and wished there was something I could do to help ease the burden on her. I was totally knackered at certain points, but she was worse. But Elsie was totally reliant on her mum to get her back to sleep, she couldn’t self-settle.
So we hit upon creating a big floor bed – a double and a single mattress on the floor and we all co-slept again. Combined with a routine for the first time in her life, she started sleeping better and going down at a reasonable time. Things have slowly got better from there, and now we get 1 bad night in 7, rather than 6.
Orkney is windy!! There are 3 wind turbines on the farm, and the first thing i’d do each morning was check how fast they were spinning. In our 6 months there I can count on one hand how many times they weren’t whizzing around.
One year when we were heading back at Christmas I was certain our little prop plane was going to crash into the raging seas. It was very early morning, still dark – there were 5 passengers and the pilot. We took off from Aberdeen after an hour sitting on the runway, getting rattled around, while the pilot decided whether or not it was OK to fly. We eventually landed in Kirkwall after the worst flight i’ve ever been on – it felt like we were inside a washing machine and to this day I don’t know how the plane managed that journey. We landed in the dark in Kirkwall in 57mph winds – it was hard even walking the 200m to the terminal building. As we drove over the Churchill barriers back to Kirsty’s home, waves were crashing over and battering the car. Kirsty’s parents barely noticed. Just another normal December day in Orkney.
Most people will remember Spring and Summer 2020 for the excellent weather that Orkney had. I had to wear suncream a few times, and my hat most days. We lived a fairly simple but very rewarding existence in our little cottage on the farm. Kirsty worked her remote job, I started an online course to re-learn my programming skills of yesteryear, and we hung out as a family.
Friday’s were exciting – a break from routine! I did the Tesco big-shop; queues to get in, no guarantees of stocked shelves, a one-way system, the smell of hand sanitiser, face masks and avoiding other people at all costs. Such strange times. Friday night was pizza night and as my mates will attest I got very good at making homemade pizza.
We got to see lots of Granny & Papa Wood and hung out lots with Elsie’s big cousins Brooke (aged 11) and Ruairidh (aged 9). We went on long walks and lot’s of awesome runs, and got to experience the beauty of living in nature. I loved it. The freshness, quietness, wilderness and the abundant wildlife all around us was inspiring and something totally different for me. I never thought I would value so highly things like being able to watch the sunset & sunrise, hear the sounds of oystercatchers, curlews, lapwings, see the fields change through seasons, daily runs along clifftops and walks on unspoilt beautiful beaches. Maybe one day we’ll end up living there, it’s beautiful and life feels more straightforward.
My 2 days a week of up-skilling and job hunting went a bit too well and I landed myself a new job 🤦♂️. It was an amazing opportunity and the type of job I really wanted, but one that meant we had to move a bit closer to London. So, sadly, we had to leave Orkney.
Exactly 6 months after arriving in a cold dark Orkney I find myself standing on a cold dark platform at Chester, missing Berriedale Farm and away from Elsie for the first time in ages. Freedommmmmmm. I slept 8 hours uninterrupted that night. The things we take for granted.