“I don’t want YOU!” my three-year-old thrashed and screamed at bedtime one winter night in January. “I WANT DAD!”
We’d just had a nice, long stretch of having my husband home. Then he was gone again, leaving me alone with our newborn and toddler. We were all feeling his absence.
As it turns out, long stretches of time apart such as deployments aren’t just hard on romantic relationships. They’re hard for the entire family. The good news is: I’ve watched my kids learn and adapt to these separations over time. Here are seven things that helped ease their transition into temporary life without Dad and cope better with his absence.
1. Talk about the separation in an age-appropriate way
I don’t tell my kids how long my husband will be gone. My son has no concept of six months, and telling him Dad will be gone a long, long time would just upset him. Sometimes my husband’s return date gets pushed back even further. We’re also vague about what my husband does—“Daddy goes to sea to protect us.” Different people share more or less with their kids based on personality or age. Trust yourself to know what’s right for your kids.
2. Be honest about your own emotions
My kids pick up on my mood very quickly. Facing a separation can cause stress and tension in even the most peaceful household. It’s important to reassure kids that it’s going to be OK, they haven’t done anything wrong, and it’s OK to feel sad or angry. Your own stress can even be a good bridge into this conversation. “I’m sorry I’ve been distracted. It might seem like I’m grumpy. I’m feeling sad that Dad is leaving next week. It’s hard to be away from people we love. But you know Daddy loves us too, and whenever he leaves, Daddy comes back.” It sounds a little forced, but I’ve said it.
3. Keep the absent partner present
We had a photo of my husband made into a “Daddy Doll” for each of our kids. He recorded himself telling them he loves them and tucked it inside. Any doll that looks like the departing parent would work. Also, it felt a little corny at first, but I try to keep my husband in our routines. At bedtime I let them watch videos I took of Dad reading them bedtimes stories. We pray together for Daddy. Then they give their Daddy Dolls hugs and the doll kisses their cheeks and says he loves them. Like I said, corny—but my husband’s big fear it that the kids will forget him, so it puts his mind at ease.
4. Set expectations and emphasize the positive
My kids are little, but from a young age my son liked to know what’s going on and what’s coming next. Who doesn’t? He visibly relaxes when I set expectations about Dad’s deployment in a positive way. “This year, Daddy will celebrate Christmas with his friends on the ship, and we get to spend extra time with Grandma and Pa and see your cousins.” It’s better for my kids—and myself—when I stay focused on our blessings in the middle of a separation.
5. Set and celebrate milestones!
The same things that help me wrap my mind around a long deployment seem to help my kids. Long periods of time can feel overwhelming, so I mentally compartmentalize around milestones, usually holidays, visits, or fun plans. Then I focus on that next milestone instead of the whole marathon.
6. Plan for the extra-lonely times
I asked my parents to visit after my husband left last time for a big deployment. “I’m sad Dad is leaving, but I’m happy Grandma and Pa will come to help take care of us,” I told my son. They visited during a previous separation, and dropping them at the airport turned my son into a sobbing mess. This time, I had a plan—we went to a nearby park and waved goodbye to the airplane as it took off, then went to lunch at his favorite restaurant-with-a-playground. Having a plan let us experience our sadness within a framework of normalcy, rather than feeling like everything had turned upside down again.
7. Kids need long distance communication too
This one is hard. If your kids are old enough to read, they can send and receive emails. But with pre-readers it can be tricky. That’s why we do the bedtime routine with Daddy Dolls. If possible, have the absent parent send pictures or videos. Video some tickle time before they leave to replay as needed. I take a picture of my son holding crafts he made at preschool, then we mail them to my husband who takes a picture of himself holding it. My husband also buys the kids presents when they pull into port so they’ll know he’s thinking of them. Many ships offer a program where they’ll record a DVD of a parent reading a book to send home to the kids.
With some planning and thoughtfulness, both parents can make separations easier on the littlest members of your family.