Dear Mr. Dad: My wife and I are going through a rough patch in our marriage. We’ve been talking about getting a divorce but are concerned about how it could impact our six-month-old son. Will it?
A: Since children are all different and respond differently to the stresses in their lives, it’s impossible to predict what the effects on any one child will be. That said, most children—infants included—are deeply affected by their parents’ divorce (or breakup if they were never married).
Although infants as young as yours can’t possibly understand what divorce is, they have an amazing capacity to pick up on the emotions of the people around them—especially their parents. What that means is that it’s not the divorce itself that affects babies; it’s the behavior that goes with it. For example, in high-conflict homes where there’s a lot of yelling and tension, babies are fussier and cry more. In these cases, the divorce can actually have a positive impact: separating two warring parties and cutting back on the hostility in the home could reduce some of the negative fallout.
After the divorce is over, the baby will continue to pick up on—and imitate—the parents’ emotions. Babies with a depressed mom or dad or a parent who is too distracted to pay attention to his needs often seem depressed themselves, exhibiting sluggish behavior, a lack of interest in playing, and decreased appetite. These babies may also lose weight, have trouble sleeping, be clingier, show no interest in people at all, be slower to achieve developmental milestones, and may even regress (meaning they lose skills they had previously mastered).
So what can you do?
Well, you’ve already taken the first step: you and your wife are obviously putting your baby’s needs first and are already communicating with each other in a positive way. The fact that you’re acting like grownups and are behaving civilly is huge and will make the next steps a lot easier.
- It’s critical that you and your wife talk about a schedule that gives each of you daily time with your baby. Because babies don’t have much in the way of long-term memory, going much longer than a day between visits increases the risk that he may not recognize you, and that will interfere with your ability to bond with each other.
- Understand that infants crave and need routines. Some they’ll set on their own, such as sleep, feeding, and crying. Others come from you, such as nighttime rituals and sleeping arrangements. There’s some controversy about whether it’s better for babies to sleep at one parent’s house and have the other parent visit only during the day. One thing is for sure, though, and that’s that babies are pretty resilient creatures and tend to adapt to their surroundings—as long as they’re getting their needs met in both places. If mom is breastfeeding, she’ll need to have the baby every day. But there’s no reason why she can’t pump a few bottles that you can give the baby when he’s at your house. If you do opt for the two house solution, make sure that the baby’s comfort items (stuffies, blankies, and so on) make the trip with him.
- Make sure when you’re with your baby, you’re really with him: cuddle, read, play, sing, and whatever else you usually do. Learn to recognize his needs and cues. But don’t try to keep him entertained constantly—he needs down time too.
- Take care of yourself. If you’re depressed, you can’t be an effective caregiver.