A local reader recently wrote in asking whether we could cover separation from the mom perspective. This mom is relocating across the country for work this summer, will be separated from her husband and child, and found little online in the way of tips for handling separation, particularly as a mom. I am grateful to my guest contributors who chimed in for collective editorial, offering tips to prepare for and handle separation.
BEFORE YOU GO...
Talk about the separation in advance. It’s understandable that you might not want to bring up stressful topics with your child, but it’s important to prepare them for the separation. Go with an age appropriate level of detail; for example, tell your child you are leaving, where you are going, the departure date (in terms of tomorrow, next week, next month, etc.), when you will be back (they may not have the long-term concept of time, but familiarizing them with units of time will help the parent who is staying at home), and how much you’ll miss the child.
Have fun with geography. For preschoolers and up, make a game out of the above discussions of separation. You can look at maps together, or even better, play together with map puzzles, where you can make a game out of connecting your two locations while you talk about where you are going.
Update your technology. Make sure your computer equipment is up to date and ready to go. If you're a one-computer family and you'll be gone a long time, consider getting a second computer for easy communication. Get any equipment or software fixed or upgraded before you leave town and make sure you have high-speed Internet.
Be explicit with your partner. Think about what information you will want updates on while you are gone. Parents process the information about what their kids are doing differently, so if you're calling for an update, and your partner has no idea what specifics are important for you, certain things may not be on his/her radar. Make a list of any particulars (e.g., developmental milestones) so your partner will know what kind of updates you’re interested in.
Prepare for transitions and routines. If the partner who is leaving is solely responsible for any regular activity (e.g., bath time), transfer or start sharing the responsibility for that task to the partner who is staying sooner rather than later, to help smooth the transition.
Allow your child to embrace the feelings. Distraction is a key parenting technique when a child is upset, but it’s also healthy and normal for children to be able to express sadness and work through it before moving on, particularly with something major like a parent being gone. For example, you can acknowledge the feeling by saying, “I know you miss Mom… I miss her too,” and then suggest looking at favorite photos, or making a card or piece of art for her. Activities like this will allow your child to feel what they are feeling while finding a positive and constructive outlet for their sad feelings.
FOR THE PARENT WHO IS HOME...
Save some fun rituals for the parent who is away. Whether it’s via a song, a place that child and parent like to go together, or a shared activity, allow for preservation of special rituals between your child and the parent who is away. These acts can serve as important time touchstones. For example, associating simple projects with one parent (“We'll make muffins together when Mama is home this weekend”) can help create a sense of stability even in separation.
Bonding with backups. If you are fortunate to have grandparents or other relatives nearby, ask for help, or accept help when offered. The presence of other family members not only can create a fun sense of newness or distraction via novelty, but also serves to enhance intergenerational or cross-family bonds.
Get a small treat for each day of separation. Depending on how long the separation is, signify each day (or every few days, or once a week) with a small treat. Keep the gifts small for most days (e.g., colored pencils, hair ribbon, glitter nail polish, bubble mix), but every now and then, make the day's present something a little more significant (e.g., a book or DVD). Put each gift in a small paper bag and label the bag with the date. Then put all the bags in a big bag or box and have your child open one present for each labeled day.
Mark the calendar. Create a big calendar on a piece of poster board to visually demonstrate how many days there are until the parent returns. Give your child a cool sticker to put up at the end of each day that passes. This will offer a tangible means for the child to see or count how many days, sleeps, etc. until the other parent returns.
Call in daily. Ask your partner to use speakerphone if possible, so you can hear everyone at the same time and feel like a part of the household even in absentia. (Speakerphone is also easier for small children who may not have mastered the art of holding and speaking into a telephone.)
Schedule video chats. Video chats offer a wonderful way for kids and parents to connect visually. The frequency and length will depend on your child’s age, but even brief video chats (or babbles!) with a baby/toddler are a wonderful way to keep the traveling parent’s image near and dear.
Record yourself. Record yourself reading your child’s favorite bedtime story to help ease bedtime rituals and provide a reminder of you for your child.
Keep photos of your child with you. Photos can help ease the ache of separation and you don’t need to haul around a brag book. It’s easy to store photos in PDAs and phones, and if your partner has the right technology, ask if he/she can snap and email you photos periodically.
Send mail. Kids love receiving mail. While you are away, send simple notes; if you like, enclose a fun pack of stickers or other small treat every now and then.
Don’t forget about your partner. Consider some small surprises for your partner as well. And after your child is in bed, try to connect again over the phone for a grown up chat to nurture your relationship too.
Try not to take it personally. Accept that your child will bond more with your partner or other adults in your absence, and try not to be hurt or offended. Things will happen while you're gone, and it's best to be excited and supportive about them (for example, “You went to the amusement park with Daddy? That's great! Tell me all about it!”). Your child loves you and will still love you once the period of separation is over.
Try to get beyond the guilt. Allow that this will be a difficult time. Cry if you have to. Call as often as you need to. And while you’re away, plan some things that you haven't had time to do since having the baby and try to get beyond the guilt and enjoy yourself. Don't punish yourself for leaving...kids are resilient and you will get back to your former closeness when you return.
Create a historical record. No doubt you will experience a range of emotions and experiences while separated from your child. Whether via handwritten journal or a blog (be sure to set up password protection if you’d like to keep the blog personal to your family), consider writing about this unusual period for your family. It will be something you all can look back on in the future, and will provide a novel outlet for you, since no doubt you probably haven’t had much time to journal since your baby arrived!
FOR THE PARENT WHO IS AWAY...
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Do you have a tip for handling family separation? Please feel welcome to leave a comment below!