When Daddy Goes Away

By Naomi Aldort, author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves, www.naomialdort.com

Q: My husband will be going away for eight weeks in the near future. I am wondering how I can ease the stress of this separation on my 20-month-old son. My son is quite verbal, very sensitive, and very spirited. He is aware that Daddy is going to work, and has shown signs of stress already (potty training regression). What can I do to help my baby?

A: A baby who is loved and cared for by his mother and expresses his feelings fully can handle a lot more than we realize. Instead of wanting your baby not to experience anxiety, be present for his emotional expression. Children constantly heal themselves if we don’t get in their way or try to stop them.

Let your toddler go back to wearing diapers fully if he needs to, and support any crying, whining, and self-expression. He must go through the experience of missing dad, not avoid it. If you try to cheer him up and “avoid” the feelings, he learns that feelings are scary and that it is horrible to feel them. What heals him moment by moment is fully expressing himself.

To validate without drama, be sure that you don’t make up ideas that he is not feeling. If he cries and asks for his daddy, validate and reassure. He may be afraid that you would go, too. You can say things like, “You want Daddy to be here. Mommy knows,” and, “Mommy will never go. Daddy goes and come back.”

Drama is when you say things like, “Oh, you miss your daddy so much, poor thing, what a bummer…” Drama scares children. You want to give your toddler a sense of peace so he learns, “I have the power to be without daddy.” He does have that power because he is loved and has you always with him.

Be careful not to plant your anxiety in your baby’s mind. At this age, the child is present moment by moment and feels happy in the moment. It is possible that what you see is a response to your anxiety more than to dad’s trip. So, keep your attitude positive and powerful. He can handle daddy being away if you can handle what he feels about it.

As for technical ideas to ease separation, try video chatting and phone calls even before the trip, to get him used to seeing daddy on the screen and hearing his voice. However, some babies are better off not being reminded about the person they don’t get to see, so try and see how he reacts.

How much your baby anguishes over his dad’s absence is a reflection of your attitude. It is the same as when the toddler falls without injury. He will look at you to check what he is supposed to feel. If you rush toward him alarmed, he will cry. If you smile and do nothing, he gets up and keeps going. Be at peace and open to his emotions, and your baby will learn from you that he can go through this experience powerfully and joyfully.

8 thoughts on “When Daddy Goes Away”

  1. Thank you for this post. In a few weeks, my husband is leaving for over 4 months. We have a 15 month old and I wonder constantly about how this will affect her.

    Your answer gave me hope and a sense of responsiblity for my feelings and that how I act about the situation will greatly change the way she views and reacts to it too.

    Thank you again.

  2. I don’t think the response has given any practical advice, so I shall make a few suggestions.

    What about using Skype so that Daddy and son can talk every day (This was an option I used when my own husband spent several months away from home).

    What about initiating a bedtime routine reading a book, then have Daddy record a CD of stories to listen to.

    What about taking photos and placing them around the house. We created a photo album full of photos of Daddy and Daughter which become part of her play toys.

  3. I love how she explains just being present with her son’s feelings, without trying to change them , and calmly validating his feelings. This is so, so, so important.

  4. My children are four and five years old and have spent more time away from their father than with him because of his work/travel situation. This has been a huge source of trauma and sadness in our family. We have tried everything from therapeutic play to making our own books on the subject. we have made every use of technology including live ichat book reading and regular ” digital” visits. Nothing seemed to relieve the pain for my daughters not to mention the difficult transitions when dad would come home.
    I found the article very helpful in that it is vital for the attitude of the parents, namely me the mom who stayed to be ” positive and powerful” that has many meanings for me, including learning to have enough self worth to acknowledge my own feelings about the lifestyle and how to be true to my own happiness within it. I also thought that the ” drama” concepts introduced were very insightful! It is very difficult as a parent not to try and sooth your suffering child but the subtle language of ” you’re so sad, what a bummer” to ” you are sad, mommy knows” creates a huge difference in the child’s ability to process the experience on her own terms!! Correctly validating feelings leads a child to learning from challenges rather than becoming broken spirited. I have seen a huge difference in tantrums and transitions with my older child when I subtly change my language to simply validate her feelings rather than add to the ” drama” by relating to her or adding my own exclamations of remorse or how to feel better! We can’t “fix” feelings! Thanks so much! Very interesting!!

  5. @Cass: Thank you for the excellent suggestions. I especially like the one about recording a CD of the voice. @Naomi: Thank you for a wonderful article. While I am not personally dealing with my partner leaving for an extended period, I found it relevant to other important people in our daughter’s life that have gone away. Such as close relatives on extended stays with us. She seems to look to us for guidance as to how to feel when they leave. What are your thoughts on the parallel?

  6. Wonderfully expressed advice and I wish you all the best with this. My husband generally leaves for 4-5 days at a time, but his trips are every other week. His absence is hard on me, and can be confusing for our three small children.

    I will second the advice in not adding to the drama. It’s okay to admit that you miss him, too. But reinforce how much Daddy loves both of you whether he is in the house or not.

    I also suggest doing small things suggested by Cass, like putting a special photo next to the bed so Daddy can “sleep” with him. If you can record a video of your husband reading a favorite book or singing a song, that can become a really fun way to cheer up the little guy when he wants to “see” Daddy. We hold hands for a prayer before dinner, so when Daddy is gone, the older girls reach out and pretend to hold his hands. (They came up with this on their own, and I’ve always thought it was a special ritual.)

    It’s not easy, but your son may surprise you if you can lead the way. Our travel situation and the frequent absences has helped me redefine the idea of family. Even though my husband leaves, his love remains and now my children understand this too.

  7. Thank you all for the comments. I do want to clarify that, yes, I did mention video chat (Skype is a video chat program) but I did not mention photos or rituals for a reason. these actually ad to the drama and tell the child to be anxious. “We need the photo because we are having a hard time not seeing daddy.” Likewise, “including” daddy in a bedtime routine may again inflate missing him. We want to empower the child to live with reality. In reality daddy isn’t with us at bedtime. Why pretend? We pretend in an effort to sooth the pain and so we teach that it is painful and that we need to distract ourselves from feelings.

    When daddy is away, he is away. We can be happy while missing him. We can be happy going to bed with mommy. And, we can miss him and be present to that feeling with no distractions. The idea is not to treat it like a problem. Embrace the feelings rather than imply that they need soothing. Video chat is simply a way to connect daily, which, like the phone, is available in reality and can be enjoyed. However pretend tricks
    counter the goal of loving the feeling and feeling capable of being with it.

    Instead of offering “tricks” to avoid feelings, empower the child to feel and to be with it the way it is. Missing daddy is a wonderful feeling of love and connection.

    Naomi Aldort

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