Q: My husband was deployed when my daughter was 3 weeks old. We have done lots of FaceTime, pictures, videos and recorded books, but they haven't been together at all. She's 10 months old, and he's getting ready to come home. She's also starting to cry when anyone other than me or her day-care people are close. I know he will be hurt if he feels rejected by her. Is there anything we can do ahead of time or when he gets home to smooth the transition?
A: Let me begin by offering my sincere gratitude for your family’s sacrifice. I often think of the parents raising babies at home while their partners are far away and in harm’s way. It is humbling when I reflect on my own mundane complaints.
That’s wonderful news that your husband is getting ready to come home, and there is much you can do to help him connect to his daughter. To smooth this transition, you need to understand the developmental stage that your daughter is in.
Your 10-month-old may be crawling up a storm and getting into everything in sight, making you tired, but she is also beginning to communicate like a pro. She may be responding to her name, pointing and (this is really important) watching you like a hawk. Ten-month-olds are known for mimicking their parents; if you read a sad story in the newspaper and cry, your daughter may begin to cry. She is paying close attention to your speech, how you use your mouth and more.
It is also normal for babies to “just want Mommy” or “just want Daddy.” As babies grow, it is normal for them to fluctuate between reveling in newfound independence (crawling away) and becoming clingy and worried and overly attached to Mom or Dad. This back-and-forth lasts for a long time in childhood, with the arc increasing toward independence as the child grows (if everything is going well). Our culture often pathologizes this developmental norm with insults such as “mama’s boy” or “spoiled,” but they could not be more inaccurate, especially when it comes to a 10-month-old.
Your family demonstrates how technology is a huge blessing to our modern lives. Your daughter, while not physically with her father, has been watching his face, his mannerisms and his eyes for her entire life. She has been listening to the sound and cadence of his voice, and her young brain will recognize him when he comes home.
But does that mean that this recognition will immediately make her comfortable with him? No. Because a baby relies so much on all of her senses to find safety, your daughter will recognize your husband’s voice and face, but she will not know his smell and touch. Her extremely immature brain will pause and think, “Wait, I know this guy . . . but not really.” This moment of panic will send her straight into your arms over and over. Again, this is normal.
The only predicament here is how your husband will feel about this normal rejection. This is understandable, because for more than nine months, your spouse has been imagining reuniting with you and his daughter. I am sure he has been imagining the snuggling, the giggles, the pure joy of holding his sweet daughter. His heart has been longing for this.
But the more you push your daughter to connect with your husband, the more she may reject him and lengthen this attachment phase. What can we do?
1. Send this column to your spouse and help him understand what is happening to your daughter, developmentally speaking. Keep your language practical and matter-of-fact. Let him know that if the roles were reversed, the scenario would be the same. If his daughter rejects strong physical moves, it is not personal.
2. Also let him know that it is normal if he takes this personally. Agree that it hurts to finally get home and not get the reception his heart wants. Let your spouse know that you are there to listen to him without judgment.
3. Accept your role as the intermediary. You will be encouraging your daughter to attach to her father while also helping your husband transition to being home, as well as helping him deal with his disappointment. I don’t want you to work that hard at this. Just accept it for what it is. It is another part of your sacrifice.
4. When all three of you are together, do not force your daughter onto your husband if she looks reluctant, refuses to make eye contact with him or seems worried. As you hold her, hug and kiss your spouse. Speak to him in an animated manner. (It will feel fake and weird, but just do it.) I am guessing that your daughter will quickly warm up to him. Why? Her main attachment is you, and if you love and trust this man, well, so can she. She will also trust that part of her mind that knows her father, whereas if we force the relationship, she will resist him more.
5. Be ready for this to take as long as it needs. She may take to her father right away. She may be hot and cold toward him. She may resist him for a while. Neither you nor your spouse is in charge of how long this will take.
6. Don’t let this dynamic control your family. Your husband should take his daughter on long walks, talking and singing the whole time (remember, she knows his voice), and it is fine if you leave for the store and she stays with him. You don’t need to keep everything perfect. Just make sure to not push the relationship.