Attachment theory informs pretty much every way we relate in the world, and a lot of the work of therapy involves helping people adjust outdated attachment styles that get in their way. But it can also be grossly misinterpreted by modern-day parents: The goal is to be generally attuned to your child, not to raise him so that he doesn’t experience any sadness, anxiety, or discomfort.
With that in mind, let’s go back to your son. A toddler like yours will handle this transition well as long as your family still feels stable to him—essentially, as long as he feels safe. Part of that safety comes from his secure attachment to both of you, and part of it will come from your providing him a way to make sense of this change. One very effective way to do this is to make a short book that you can read together before his dad leaves and (likely many times) throughout his time away. Break down the story into its simplest elements, and add some fun pictures or hand-drawn illustrations on each page, like this:
Here’s Daddy [picture of Daddy]. Daddy is going on a big boat [picture of a cruise ship] and then he will come back home [picture of all of you at home]. On the big boat, Daddy is going to sing and dance for the people on the boat [fun picture of Daddy singing/dancing]. Here’s us [picture of you and your son]. We will stay home but talk to Daddy every day while he’s on the big boat [picture of Daddy’s image on the laptop]. When we talk to Daddy, we can blow him kisses, or tell him about what we did that day [pictures of blowing kisses, activities you might tell him about] and Daddy will tell us about his adventures on the big boat.
And so on. You could bring up the ports the boat will dock at, how long it’ll be till Daddy returns, the “special friend” (the babysitter) who will come to play while Daddy’s gone, and all the snuggling, giggling, and reading you’ll still do together each night. Whatever you decide to include will reflect the day-to-day of your lives for the next eight months and show your son that some things will change and some will remain the same, but in the end, everything will be back to normal.
As for your well-being, this approaching absence might actually be harder on you than on your son. Now’s the time to shamelessly call on your community and enlist their help as you plan ways, while parenting solo, to exercise, have a meal with a friend, and see an occasional movie—knowing that doing these things will make you a more patient, capable, and sane father. Invite close friends over to play with your son (two-year-olds are adorable for an hour or two) while you shower or nap. And just as you’re taking care to keep your son connected to his dad during this separation, don’t forget that it’s just as important for you and your husband to stay connected—share the events of your days, send flirtatious texts, and remember that videochatting isn’t just for toddlers. Part of being a good parent means not losing yourself in the act of parenting.