Jim Moran is saying goodnight to his 22-month-old twins, Arran and Callum. Normally he takes them up to bed, but tonight he’s a time zone away, so they’re saying goodnight via computer camera. They wave to each other, and Callum blows a clumsy toddler kiss.
That’s a big improvement from when he first began travelling for his job, says Jim. “When our older daughter was little, there was mostly just the telephone to keep in touch. And that’s difficult. When they’re very young they don’t really talk on the phone and they don’t quite understand who it is on the other end. It’s hard. Now I can see the smiles on their faces and that’s always good.”
It’s great for the kids too, says Jim’s partner, Debbie, but they still miss their Daddy. “In the evening it can get quite bad. They know he’s meant to come home then.” Debbie gives the twins a photo of Jim to look at in bed, and she says sometimes they make the hand sign they’ve learned that means “all gone.”
When a parent is away, it’s hard for toddlers to understand where mom or dad is and when he or she will return. (For the purposes of this article, “mom or dad” is now going to morph into a male, since at this age it is most often dad who’s travelling.)
Scott Branch is children’s services coordinator for the Esquimalt (BC) Military Family Resource Centre. Talk about travel — military personnel can be posted for months at a time. Branch has lots of ideas for helping toddlers with a parent’s absence, but he starts by addressing the spouse at home.
“We want to make sure that she’s taking care of herself and making some social connections, not becoming isolated. You need to keep up your own energy level so you can look after the child 24/7.”
Branch agrees that video teleconferencing has been a boon to families. But it’s only one way to stay in touch with a toddler. Some other ideas:
Toddler wallet. “You always hear of the parents having pictures of their child in their wallet,” says Branch. “Why not the other way around? Put pictures of dad in her room, or collect some photos in a little toddler-sized photo album that’s just for her.”
Read me a story. “We have a program here where dads come in, pick a few books and read the stories while we videotape them. We leave the books with the child so he can play the video and have the storybook in front of him and have dad read the story to him.” Lower-tech versions — dad’s voice on audio tape, reading a book or telling a special made-up story (maybe about him and a certain special toddler?) — also work.
Memory box. This provides a place to keep reminders of things that happened while the parent was away. “When dad gets back they can open it up together and talk about what’s happened,” explains Branch. It could include a photo of your child’s first time in the pool, a birthday party memento, or the finger splint from that bad booboo he got. “This is great as they get older,” says Branch, “because they can do it themselves too — report cards, swimming certificates, the program from the play they were in.”
Countdown. No, toddlers don’t have much sense of time, but they enjoy putting a sticker on each square of the calendar and they can see the remaining spaces until it’s the day daddy comes home.
Branch cautions parents: “It’s a transition leaving but the transition coming back can be harder. You expect so much but it’s not always there. You may get a ‘Who’s that stranger in my house?’ reaction.” Just as your toddler needed to get used to you being away, she may need time to get used to you being home again.