Q: My husband and I are heading toward separation and possible divorce. We have a 2-year-old daughter. We want to do everything in our power to ease the catastrophic nature of this transition. What do we tell her? What should her father and I keep in mind regarding the potential effects on her development and well-being? My biggest question: How can we help her feel loved and supported and safe?
A: No. 1, you are not alone. So many couples with young children are in the same boat. No. 2 (and this is the most important thing I will say in this column, so pay attention): When you write, “We want to do everything in our power to ease the catastrophic nature of this transition,” this is the intention and love that will bring your family through this very hard time. This deep desire, when grounded in commitment and not fear, will lead you to make decisions that will be painful, brave and in the best interest of your daughter. With the intention of helping her “feel loved and supported and safe,” you will make every decision as it comes. You are making hard decisions right now that will go on forever. Don’t be afraid of that; this is the gig for every parent.
The first crucial question you asked is what you should keep in mind about her development and well-being during this transition. Two-year-olds are a delight in that they live right now. No past, no future, just now. Your daughter sees her primary caretakers as her sun and her moon. She is emerging as her own little girl every day, but 2-year-olds are known for their wonderful pursuit of being “just like Mommy” or “just like Daddy.” If you like to garden every Sunday, she wants to pick weeds with you. If Daddy puts on boots before work, your daughter will try on boots and clomp around like him. (I am channeling memories of my own daughters right now.) Two-year-olds want to be near their people. They want to be cuddled and roughhoused, they want to hear you and sing and clap and read, they want to smell you (how they bury their faces into their parents’ necks), they want to see you across the room while they are exploring. This is how children grow. They get a dose of safety from you and then venture forth. It’s elegant and simple and profound.
What happens when the parents are not together? Remember that a 2-year-old just wants and needs to be with her main attachments, so when she goes to Daddy’s house, she will be deeply attached to Daddy. Then she will get dropped off with you, and she will resist you and reach for Daddy. There may be a period when she does not want to come to you, then she will warm up (I don’t know how long it will take and what this will look like) and deeply connect with you. Then you will drop her off at Daddy’s house, and she may cling to your neck. And so it goes, the attachment energy bouncing back and forth. Exhausting, right? Even more so for her. Her brain is so immature that she cannot say to herself, “Three days, and I will see Mommy again.” Three days has no meaning. She doesn’t understand time. She is either with her people, or she isn’t.
Don’t panic, though. You can bring some ease for her in whatever living situation you choose. Here are some ideas:
1. When picking her up or dropping her off, take five minutes to hold her while you chat with your spouse. Talk about the weather, tell the other person how nice they look, and tell your spouse how you took Jane to the zoo and you saw lions and tigers and bears. I am asking you to make conversation. Don’t force Jane to stand or talk or do anything; just make small talk. If you are so bold, hug your spouse while holding your daughter. Why small talk and hugging? Your 2-year-old is taking in every movement and tone between the two of you, and when your tone is congenial and calm and friendly, you relax. And when you are relaxed, she can relax.
2. Keep your words few and simple. Don’t worry about promising things or giving long speeches. Say things like, “First you will go to the park, then watch ‘Sesame Street,’ then see Grandma, and then I will be here.” Have your spouse use the same language. Again, your little one doesn’t understand time, but it will give her brain a little anchor.
3. Have items that smell like you at her father’s house and vice versa. You can pack your (dirty) undershirt and put it on a pillow, or pack a lovey or a nightgown. Just make sure it smells like you. Likewise, have a picture of you at her dad’s and a picture of her Dad at your house, and put it right next to her bed or crib. Every night, say “Night, Daddy!” Some parents have recordings of them reading “Goodnight Moon,” and the child can hear your voice and feel soothed. FaceTime is also a lovely connection tool.
4. Don’t take your daughter’s rejection personally. There will be times when she will cling to your spouse, and there will be times when she clings to you. Don’t overly attach to either scenario. Stay as steady as you can, which requires you to . . .
5. Allow the tears. Yes, you will have to walk away from her while she cries at some point, and that will shatter your heart into a million pieces, but tears are healthy. Being sad is healthy. Her sadness, your sadness, your spouse’s sadness — all of it is normal and needed. Just keep hugging and nodding and breathing through it. It will get better.
6. Say positive things about your spouse. Share family memories. Retell her birth story. How you really feel about your spouse is for your therapist and friends; for your daughter, he is Dad.
7. Communicate with your spouse. Do what works for you, which means you might keep it informal or keep a schedule. This will help you get ahead of hard conversations, such as dating or traveling for you and your spouse, and development and discipline issues for your daughter. Get used to feeling uncomfortable; again, with time, it will get better.
As long as you keep your daughter’s best interests at heart, you will find your way. You and your spouse will make mistakes, but you will learn and adjust. I wish you the best.