My husband has just come back from four nights away. For many families, there’s nothing unusual in that. Weekends away and work trips are regular occurrences, and many families take them in their stride. It is unusual for us, though. In the four years since the boys came to live with us, I’ve never spent a night away from them, and my husband has only been away twice, each time for two nights.
At first, we wanted to avoid unnecessary disruption, aware that dramatic changes in routine can provoke anxiety. After a while, always being there just became part of our routine, and in any case, opportunities rarely arose for trips. Still, I wasn’t anticipating any problems this time. We’d told the boys well in advance that dad was going to be away, we’d marked on the calendar when he’d be coming back, and they’d be at school anyway so wouldn’t notice too much, we thought. And, while I was expecting it to be tiring, there was also a part of me that was secretly looking forward to the chance to show I could manage on my own without any meltdowns.
For the first couple of days, everything seemed fine. The boys – who are now nine and seven – missed their dad of course, but there was little change in their behaviour. They took a little longer to settle at night, but seemed otherwise untroubled. But on the third day, the youngest started playing up. He snapped at me when I picked him up from school, and when I told him not to be rude he snapped at me again. I waited until we got home and then spoke to him again, but he was at first defiant and then angry, stomping off to his room telling me he hated me. His behaviour is normally pretty good, but although this was unusual it wasn’t unheard of, so at first I didn’t make any link with his dad’s absence.
It was only later, after we had made up and had a cuddle, that I asked if he was missing his dad. “A lot,” he said, and I saw the relief in his eyes that I knew why he was upset. We spoke about how it can hurt to miss people, and how his dad was coming home the next evening, and he spent the rest of the evening preparing the party he was going to throw for his dad’s return.
That seemed to explain his behaviour, but there was a similar meltdown after school the next day. This time I was the worst dad in the world, he never wanted to see me again and he wished I was dead. This was quite extreme for him: normally if I so much as stub my toe he’s in tears that I might be hurt. I managed to remain calm at first, but in the end it proved too much and I got cross with him. This made it worse, of course, and he ended up stomping off to his room again.
Torn between wanting him to stew in his own rage and not wanting to leave him alone for too long, I waited until I’d calmed down before following him up. He was still pretty angry, so I asked him again if he was missing his dad. Although he said yes, it seemed like there was something more, so I asked him if he was cross with his dad for going away. I could tell straight away that I’d struck a chord. It wasn’t fair, he said, that dad had gone on holiday without us.
My husband was on a work trip, but it suddenly struck me that we hadn’t made that clear to the boys. I’m sure we’d told them dad was going away for work, but we obviously hadn’t rammed it home. Or at least, not enough. Later, he came out with something even more heartbreaking: he thought his dad had gone to get a new baby, and was going to bring it home when he returned.
The youngest loves being the baby of the family. He comes into our bed to re-enact his birth every weekend, overwriting an unpleasant memory with something happier. The thought of there being another baby horrified him.
It struck me how much we now took for granted. In the early days, we went to great pains to hammer home exactly what was happening at every turn, to the point where I’m sure the boys switched off. Every time we went away, we took a calendar with us to mark off the days. We took pictures of home, their introduction books and reassured them at every opportunity that we would be going home. Eventually they started to believe us. But four years into what has so far been a very happy and stable placement, we had become complacent. We had forgotten that those fears that many children with their backgrounds have, of being abandoned and of being replaceable, hadn’t disappeared, they’d just been dormant.
It was a useful reminder that healing the scars left by their early years is a long-term, perhaps a lifetime, project, and that we can never go to too many pains to explain exactly what is happening and why.
There was still time for the youngest to organise his party for his dad. I helped him blow up balloons and he got handfuls of glittery stars to throw. And when his dad walked in through the door – without a baby – there was as much relief as joy in his welcome.