The Atlantic

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

In a couple of weeks, my husband will be going away to work on a cruise ship for eight months. We have a son who just turned two. We adopted him through foster care, so we have received a fair amount of training on trauma-informed care, attachment styles, etc. However, rather than making me feel more prepared for this separation, this background has only made my fears more acute.

Our experience as foster and adoptive parents has been exceptionally smooth so far. We picked our son up as a newborn from the hospital and adopted him nine months later without any hiccups. He has known us as his dads his whole life and has attached deeply to both of us. I have a day job, and my husband—an actor and performer whose gigs are usually in the evening or on weekends—has been able to be home with our son almost every day since birth.

I am concerned that sudden separation from one of his dads for eight months will be a shock to our son and may have a lasting effect. We will, of course, videochat regularly, and I plan to talk to him about his other dad as much as I can. But what other things can I do to minimize the negative impacts on his emotional well-being—both immediate and long-term? And how do I manage my own stress and anxiety as a single dad who’s so used to relying on a highly involved and supportive partner?

Doug
Salt Lake City


Dear Doug,

Your son is very lucky to have parents who are so thoughtful about this temporary change in his life. Understanding the concept of parent-child attachment is valuable—for any parent, not just parents adopting a child through foster care—because it presents a model for how children come to feel secure. But instead of stoking your fears, I hope it can reassure you that your family will do just fine with this transition. So first I’ll explain that concept, and then I’ll explain what lessons it holds for the months ahead.

You’re right that attachment matters, because attachment styles are developed early on in life based on how children and their caregivers relate. In a famous and still influential experiment known as the “strange situation,” the interactions of mothers (this was the 1960s) and their one-year-old babies were observed through a one-way mirror. At some point, a stranger would be introduced to the baby with the mother still present. After a while, the mother would leave the room and the baby would be left for a short period with the stranger. The baby’s behavior would be observed, and then the mother would return to the baby.

Not surprisingly, babies reacted differently to each step of the experiment. These differences often corresponded to different attachment styles—secure or insecure. For securely attached infants, their mothers were a “secure base” from which the babies could explore their surroundings and also come back and engage in play. When it was time for their mothers to leave, these babies may have cried or reached out for their mothers, but they weren’t frantic and recovered quickly, trusting that their mothers would come back. While with the stranger, the babies were able to be soothed but clearly preferred their own mothers. And when their mothers returned, the babies were happy to see them, and soon felt safe enough to crawl away and explore again.

Insecurely attached infants—categorized as either avoidant or anxious—reacted differently. Avoidant babies showed little interest in playing with their mothers, seemed to be equally attached to both mother and stranger, displayed almost no distress when the mother left the room, and avoided contact with the mother when she returned. Anxiously attached babies seemed apprehensive even before the stranger was introduced, became extremely distressed when the mother left the room, weren’t easily comforted by the stranger during this time, and remained upset even after the mother returned.

Sure, some of this could be due to temperament, but a certain pattern emerged. Mothers of avoidant-attached infants tended to be disengaged or unresponsive to their babies’ needs; these babies therefore didn’t attempt to get their mothers’ attention, having learned that their overtures would likely be ignored. And mothers of anxiously attached babies tended to respond to their babies inconsistently, toggling between attention and neglect; these babies seemed to learn that the only way to get their mothers to respond to them was through distress.

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.

Yes, these eight months might be challenging for all of you, but they could also be a time that you look back on with nostalgia—a time in all of your lives when, despite your initial worries, you not only survived, but thrived.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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