Jenny Searle* has been married to naval officer Guy for 23 years. During his military career, they’ve had children (Anna, 16, Harry, 14 and Theo, 11) and travelled the world. Back in the UK, Jenny reflects on family life in the forces…
My initiation to the Navy was at a ball at Dartmouth Naval College in Devon. I went with a friend, John, and wore a short, strapless dress with very high heels. I felt a few eyes on me, but as I was working in London at the time and felt I was a chic city chick, it didn’t bother me. I just thought: sleepy old Dartmouth. Afterwards, I discovered that John had been called into the commodore’s office and ticked off for not having briefed me on the dress code.
A couple of years later, when I started seeing Guy, I was oblivious of the protocol and had no idea what to expect as a military spouse. Early in our relationship, I wore the same strapless dress – which I’d adapted by sewing the sash on to the bottom to make it longer – to a Navy dinner. Guy told me off because my shoulders weren’t covered. He was horrified to hear that I’d once attended a military event in the dress slashed to the thigh.
All in the same boatGuy is an engineer and soon after our wedding we moved into married quarters (called a ‘married patch’). I loved living there. Making friends was easy and there was a ready-made support network, which was invaluable when Guy was at sea. Once we had children, I could not have lived off a patch while he was away.
It was great to be with people who understood exactly what it was like when your husband was at sea. The other women were incredibly supportive. Everyone knew the weekends were difficult, so the wives whose husbands were away would all get together on Saturdays and there were endless invitations for Sunday lunch.
The houses on married patches were allocated according to rank, so you knew exactly what rank somebody was by the house they lived in: the more important the officer, the bigger their house. Most of the houses we rented were built pre-war, so they were quite large albeit a bit antiquated. They were always painted magnolia throughout. Officially you couldn’t deviate from that, but they turned a blind eye as long as you painted the walls back again when you left.
In one house, we put in two stud walls to turn one enormous bedroom into two separate rooms. And we split a huge L-shaped sitting room into two, to create a playroom. Luckily, the people who moved into the house after us liked the layout, so we were allowed to leave it like that.
All at seaGuy has had three long deployments, when he was away for more than six months. A naval officer joins a ship for up to two years. During that time, they’ll have one long deployment. You don’t always know how long they’ll be away. Guy’s longest deployment was nearly nine months.
The last few weeks before he went away was horrible; that was the worst time. I’d want him to go so I could start looking forward to him coming home, but he’d just want to have a really special time.
You spend the build-up to their departure planning how you’re going to get through the next six months. I’d organise stepping stones: events to keep me going over the months. I’d visit friends at weekends, have people to stay and go away with my parents.
Normally you know how long they’ll be away for, but sometimes schedules change. During Guy’s last sea deployment, he’d been away for seven months. Ten days before he was due to come home, I was listening to the radio and the minister of defence stood up in parliament and announced that Guy’s ship had been diverted to help with the civil war in Sierra Leone on the coast of Africa.
I heard nothing from the official channels. Then, five days later, Guy rang to say that he didn’t know when they would be coming back. That was my lowest point. They were gone for about six weeks longer than planned: six weeks of not knowing when they’d be coming home. It was horrendous.
Alone with the childrenHaving a husband at sea gave me a huge respect for single parents. By the time Guy came home, I’d be at the end of my tether – especially when our children were young – but I can’t imagine it’s anywhere near as difficult as being a single parent. We had a stable income and there was always an end in sight. Despite that, there were some very tough times. Being apart at Christmas is really grim.
When Guy was at sea, forces staff onboard ships weren’t allowed to receive email because of security issues and our main means of communication was the weekly 'bluey' (an airmail letter), plus a phone call every fortnight or so. These days, it’s easier: parents can read their children bed-time stories through Skype on a tablet.
At that time it was even worse for the partners of submariners: they went away for six months, during which time they’d have very little contact and wouldn’t even know where the submarine is. Even if your husband died, you wouldn’t necessarily hear for some time because the security on submarines is so tight.
When the ship comes inIt’s lovely when the ship comes in: you dress up and go on board with the children and have a drink in the wardroom and a tour around.
Guy very nearly missed Theo’s birth. His ship was at anchor back in port, but couldn’t dock because the weather was so bad. He just made it on shore in time to get to the hospital.
Each time when Guy came home after a long deployment, it was like having another honeymoon. I’ve had several honeymoons throughout my marriage: all three of our children were post-deployment babies. Thank goodness he no longer goes to sea!
Trouble aheadThere are two things you never want to happen when your husband is in the military. One is a phone call from the commanding officer [CO] of the ship. The other is to see the padre [priest] walking down the path: it’s his job to deliver news of a fatality.
I never felt Guy was in real danger. The only time I’ve ever been really worried about him is when his ship had to make an emergency docking in order for him to have a minor operation in a foreign hospital. It was nerve-wracking when the CO rang me to let me know what had happened.
Our marriage is stronger because we've spent time apartGuy and I have always had periods apart. I think it’s good for relationships: it keeps you on your toes and makes you appreciate each other. When we first started seeing each other, I was living in London and he was in Somerset. Then he spent six months in Cornwall while I was in Portsmouth. During those times, we were ‘weekending’: he’d drive home after finishing work on Friday and go back to work on Sunday afternoon. It was awful: by Saturday night, we’d feel the depression setting in because we both knew he’d have to leave in a few hours.
Why are my shoes in the garage?There’s been a lot of research into how military families cope with separation. One naval wife did a doctorate on it, which has been condensed into an information booklet for families. It contains advice such as: don’t have a hissy fit because your shoes aren’t where you left them when you went to sea six months ago… which in my experience is exactly what happens!
Returning spouses also have to be briefed about how things have moved on with the children, such as the role of the naughty step. It takes time for everyone to adjust. I had to get used to being part of a partnership again. Sometimes it’s easier to be consistent with children if it’s just you.
It can be difficult for partners to adjust to family life after being away for a long time. Once the euphoria of coming home had given way, I think Guy found the first few weeks quite difficult.
He went away to sea when Harry was a baby. When he came back six months later, Harry had no idea who he was. That wasn’t great, but I don’t think his absences really affected the children too much.
We were lucky that most of Guy’s sea career took place when the children were very young, which meant they accepted his absences as normal. They need him around a lot more now, so I’m glad the Navy no longer requires him to work away.
There's only room for one high-flying career in a marriageWhen Anna was born, we sat down and talked about how we wanted our family life to be. We agreed that it was important for children to have the stability of at least one parent at home with them. It was inevitable that Guy would spend time away, so I gave up my career in public relations and decided I wasn’t going to go back to work, at least not until the youngest started school. Since then, I’ve only worked part-time.
I’ve never resented giving up my career. The only thing I’d have gained from it would have been the money and that wasn’t as important as the children. Plus, if I’d carried on working, we’d never have had the opportunity to travel.
We were fairly unusual among military families in that none of our children went to boarding school. I’d have missed them too much.
Moving onEvery single job in the Navy changes every two years, so we’re used to moving quite often. The transitions were usually fairly smooth, but we had one very unpleasant situation when as a result of another naval officer breaking his leg, Guy’s job changed overnight.
I’d just had Harry – who wasn’t the easiest baby in the world – and we'd just moved to a married patch in order to be as near to Guy’s ship as possible so he could spend all his time ashore with the family.
A fortnight after moving, we were told that Guy had to relocate to do a different job, nearly 200 miles away. So I was stuck in a new area with a crying baby, an 18-month-old daughter and a husband who I only saw at weekends. The Navy couldn’t move us again because there wasn’t anywhere on the patch near Guy's new job for us to live. And because he'd only been posted for six months, I wasn't allowed to go into private rented accommodation. So we just had to sit tight until another job became available and we could be together again. It was awful. I had postnatal depression and I completely went to pieces.
A military educationWe moved a lot when the children were very young, but I don’t think it has adversely affected their education. The Navy is very accommodating when it comes to schooling issues. Other military families aren’t always so lucky. I remember one RAF family who were due to return to the UK from a foreign posting in the middle of term with three school-aged children, and they had no idea where they were being posted to, so they couldn’t even research schools. The poor woman was tearing her hair out.
Our dream life in LisbonBy far our best experience as a family was the three years we spent in Portugal. Going abroad was incredibly bonding for all of us. The children blossomed during our time in Lisbon. Spending three years in an environment that relishes and nurtures children massively boosted their confidence. The warm climate was a bonus, too.
I found living in an international community absolutely fascinating. There’s lots going on, which is great for the whole family. You get an amazing insight into different cultures: every month, one country would organise a celebration based on their culture, so the Spanish threw a fiesta; the Americans gave us an Independence Day party and we did an Easter egg hunt.
Because Lisbon is a capital city, as well as the military families there were people connected with international business, plus all the diplomats from the various embassies. I remember taking Theo to the birthday party of the Saudi ambassador’s daughter.
We got friendly with an East German army officer: I spent hours grilling him about growing up in a communist country. The next day, I’d be having a cup of coffee with a woman who’d grown up in the Yugoslavian war. Having the opportunity to form perfectly normal friendships with people from other countries was just incredible. It really challenged our notions about cultural stereotypes.
It was good for the children as well. They learned a lot about life. For example, at their international school was a little boy whose mother was a typist at the Zimbabwean embassy. She hadn’t been paid for six months and was very hard up, so the school made sure he was well fed and looked after. We talked to the children about that: you can tell them about the terrible things that Mugabe’s getting up to, but if they can see what’s going on for themselves and relate to it, it’s a very powerful educational tool.
Going abroad as a military family is a very safe way to experience another culture. We didn’t have to deal with any of the bureaucracy that’s usually involved in an international move. That was all managed by the embassies on our behalf, so we really were cotton-wooled from the harsh realities.
Our American nightmareWe loved Lisbon, but sadly our time there had to come to an end. Our next posting was to the USA.
I found the Americans we met very blinkered. I feel terrible about saying it and I know this isn’t true of the whole country, but during our stay we came up against so many stereotypes. We lived in Virginia, six hours’ south of New York City. The death penalty still exists there, and people are electrocuted on a regular basis. Once, at a girls’ night at my house, we were discussing the subject and one local woman was adamant that the death penalty stops people from committing crimes. She also refused to accept that more black people than white people have been executed for crimes they didn’t commit.
There are people in the States who think Obamacare is mad. They cannot see that there is something fundamentally wrong with a society that will let a child die because his or her parents can’t afford to pay for health care.
The standard of living is low and the country is technologically backward. Each time there was a storm there’d be a power cut because all the power lines are overhead because nobody pays enough taxes for them to be buried underground.
The state education system in Virginia is Victorian. They have no break time: the children have no fresh air from the moment they walk into school at 9am until they leave at 3pm. And then they wonder why they have to give kids Ritalin to enable them to sit on their seat for the whole day.
The state of the nationThe laws are completely mixed up: at parties, people would get hanging drunk then get into their four-by-fours and drive home, weaving down the road. And yet I was not allowed to drink a beer on my front porch in the evening (although I could in my back garden). You’re not allowed to have alcohol in the front of your car: it has to be carried from the supermarket in a brown paper bag, then locked in the trunk [boot].
Friends of ours were staying with an American family in Texas and they all went to church. The priest handed each child a little gauze bag containing a toy foetus. The idea was that over the next nine months, the toy would be replaced by a slightly bigger one, to represent the next stage in the baby’s growth.
This took place in the country where they talk about the sanctity of life while shooting people outside abortion clinics and sending people to the electric chair… I spent my time in America in a permanent state of wanting to scream in frustration. Ironically, we had brilliant holidays there, but the nuts and bolts of life were very difficult. Now, when Theo’s friends find out he’s lived in the US, they are quite envious, but he thinks it’s a crap country. Similarly, Anna doesn’t show any desire to go to an American university.
I miss the military wivesWe’ve been back in the UK for two years now. We’ve finally bought our own house and the children are happily settled at school. However, I desperately miss the military wives’ friendships and our social life: the ease with which the military families spend time together.
Guy only has another three years in the Navy before he retires and he’s unlikely to be posted abroad again. Although I know that part of my life is almost over and I have to move on, I’m already nostalgic about our time as a Navy family. The Portuguese have a word for it: saudades, which means homesickness.
*Names and identifying details have been changed.
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