Dear Mr. Dad: My husband is deployed overseas right now and we just had our baby girl. He was home for the birth, but had to leave only 20 days after. He really doesn’t seem to take much interest in her. We talk over Skype all the time but he still keeps some emotional distance between him and our daughter. How can I let him know that he’s a father and help him actually feel like one?
A: First, my sincere thanks to you and your husband (and your daughter) for your service to our country. Thanks also for trying to help your husband—he’s lucky to have you in his corner. There has been a lot of talk lately about supporting our military families and I applaud the efforts of Michelle Obama and Jill Biden to bring those needs to light. But despite their good work, almost all of their efforts have been aimed at supporting the families back home (which is incredibly important).
Unfortunately, there are almost no resources that focus on the needs of the deployed servicemembers themselves. That’s precisely why I wrote my book, “The Military Father: A Hands-on Guide for Deployed Dads.” Military dads (and moms) need as much support as they can get to help them maintain strong relationships with their children and spouse. And don’t be fooled: This isn’t just a nice-to-have kind of thing. Research has shown that when servicemembers feel connected to and needed by their family, and feel like they know what’s happening at home and are an important part of it, some of the effects of PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) can be reduced. On the flip side, feeling disconnected, unimportant, unneeded, unloved, or unappreciated aggravates PTSD and contributes directly to the increased rates of divorce and suicide in military families.
Sadly, the dynamic you so poignantly described is very common among young military dads. When you think about it, it makes pretty good sense. There are a number of things that could be going on. To start with, your husband may be feeling rather useless and he may be putting up all that emotional distance as a way of protecting himself. After all, he’s thousands of miles away while you’re there every day with the baby. In his mind he’ll never be able to catch up, and his daughter will never love him as much as she loves you. There’s also a good chance that your husband has heard stories from some of the other dads in his unit who’ve been through multiple deployments. They may have told him how incredibly painful it is to come home and have your baby or toddler cry or run away and hide instead of giving you a huge welcome-home-daddy hug.
He also may be trying to protect your daughter. If he’s concerned that he won’t be coming home (and it would be surprising if those thoughts didn’t cross his mind), he may have decided that there’s no sense in getting too attached to her—or for her to start getting too attached to him. An irrational—but completely understandable—line of thinking.
So what can you do? Remind him often of how important he is to you and your daughter, and how much you need him. Tell him that you show the baby his picture and talk about him every day. Send him pictures, handprints, and other reminders (don’t try to get the baby to say Hi to daddy on Skype. Babies are notorious for going on strike—and screaming or crying—when they’re supposed to be performing).