By Lizann Lightfoot
I stood shivering in the early light one morning in February, waiting for my husband to return from his deployment to Afghanistan. In one arm, I held our infant son, tightly bundled in a winter onesie and a fuzzy jacket. In the other hand was a sign, “This guy can’t wait to meet his Daddy!”
Our son was six months old, but he had the misfortune to be born one month into a seven-month deployment. So my husband had yet to meet him. He had seen plenty of pictures and waved to him over two blurry Skype calls, but other than that, they had very little contact. I worried about how the baby would react to Dad, who was essentially a stranger.
Luckily, I had an idea what to expect. . . this wasn’t my first deployment baby. Our older son was born just before my husband’s other Afghanistan deployment. Even though my husband was there for the birth, he basically had no connection to his son until the baby was seven months old.
Despite their separation, both of those babies warmed up to Dad right away. Now they are older. Even though Dad has deployed additional times, they each have great relationships with their dad.
Are you worried about how your deployed spouse will connect with their kids? Do you ever wonder how military kids can have a strong relationship with a parent who is frequently gone? Here’s how you can help to bridge the time and distance.
Stay connected during the deployment
Use technology. Be creative in connecting a deployed parent with their baby. Use Facetime, Skype, email, Google chat, and any app that will allow them to see or hear the baby. The program United Through Reading allows a deployed parent to record themselves reading a book to their child, then mail the DVD to their family. A baby will benefit from seeing their parent and hearing their voice throughout the day.
Send letters and photos. Even if your technology connections are great during deployment (and if they are, lucky you!) old-fashioned mail and photos are still an essential way to stay connected. Write letters frequently about what the baby did that day, new milestones they have reached, and what their favorite routines are. When my husband was in the desert without internet, I would print out new photos every week and mail them to him, so he could see how much our kids were growing and changing. He told me later that he treasured every one of those pictures and hung them up around his cot.
Make a baby-themed care package. A new dad who missed his baby’s birth may have trouble feeling like the baby is “real.” Include items that have the baby’s sweet smell, like a onesie or a blanket they have slept with. A baby hat will show how small their head is. Send a T-shirt or pillowcase with ink stamps of the baby’s footprints or hand prints. After baby’s first haircut, send a lock of hair.
Tell the deployed parent what to expect. The more they know about their child’s routines, the easier it will be for them to adjust after homecoming. Tell them whether baby is taking a bottle, eating baby food, or even finger food. Let them know how many naps baby takes each day. Describe the bedtime routine (or show them on Skype!) so they will be able to jump in without feeling so lost.
How to connect when you return home
Give parent and the baby some space. At homecoming, everyone is eager to meet and hold a new baby, but babies don’t always want a “stranger” to hold them. You both should be prepared for the baby to be shy or even cry when meeting their deployed parent. We were lucky that both our sons let Dad hold them right away and even smiled for him! But the rest of the day, he gave them some space. I would sit with the baby on my lap while Dad sat nearby and talked to me. Once the baby got used to him, our older son crawled right over to Dad.
Let them have baby duty. Once baby has warmed up to the deployed parent (this may take a day or two), include them in all the baby responsibilities–feeding, changing diapers, bath time, and bedtime. Be prepared to hang out nearby and answer lots of questions from the parent who is doing this all for the first time. . . but don’t hover and criticize little things. Each parent will have a different way of doing things, and babies actually benefit from a little playfulness and unexpected variety in their routine. Allowing a new dad to develop their own style and routine with their baby will help them both to develop a strong bond.
Lizann Lightfoot is an associate editor at Military One Click and a Marine Corps spouse. She can be reached at email@example.com.