Q I will soon be hospitalised in Dublin for at least 12 weeks, but maybe longer, due to pregnancy-related complications. I live about two hours away and already have a little 2-year-old boy. This means I could be apart from him for several months. I am hoping you might be able to give me some tips on how to prepare him for my departure and how to help him cope when I am apart from him. He will visit, of course, but I worry too about how he will even process that.
David replies: That is a very difficult situation to be facing, for your whole family. Will your husband or partner be taking care of him while you are hospitalised? Perhaps your son may also have to rely on extended family care? It will be essential, in preparing, that you set up clear and consistent care for him. You going is a huge change and so you need to minimise any other changes for him.
You will also want to try to explain to him about the fact that you have to be in hospital, but given his age, the reality of what that means may not sink in. So, having pictures, maybe even making a little scrapbook for him, and repeating it to him several times might help. Most likely, however, his dad will have to be the one to help him make most sense of it, once you are actually gone. Even the concept of time and the length of how long you will be gone for are unlikely to make sense until he experiences it.
Thankfully, with technology now, you will be able to video-call him regularly and you can have set and reliable visiting times too. If visiting you becomes as much a part of his routine as other things, then it will make it much easier for him. Indeed, any routine and structure that you can create will increase his sense of stability and might reduce distress or anxiety.
You might give him something small, like a special little teddy, to mind for you, that can be like a transitional object for him. This will be something he can hold onto in your absence, that might remind him of you, or it might be something that he knows is important to you and so he is caring for it for you, until you get home.
Children and families are resilient, and so you may be surprised by how well he copes for the few months. Ultimately, you have to focus on keeping yourself healthy (for the pregnancy) and so the biggest burden of his care and emotional wellbeing will fall to his dad or other carers.
You may then find that when you return, he may be equally unsettled and may have an equivalent period of adjustment. So, even though you are home, he might appear out of sorts for a while, perhaps appearing angry, until he gets used to the idea that you are back and that you aren't going anywhere else again.