Tim had a deployment when Jacob, our oldest, had just turned two. It was hard to know how to talk about it with him then—he didn’t have the vocabulary or the understanding. Tim gave him a small stuffed lion and told him to give it a squeeze anytime he missed him. “Whenever you hug him, you’ll know I love you, even if I’m not here,” he said.
That little lion got lots of hugs and kisses when Tim was away—some from Jacob, but probably more from me.
Neither of us knew how to deal with the emotions we experienced while Tim deployed, but at least I expected to feel all the feelings.
Jacob was angry, but also: he was two. It was hard to know how much was his personality, how much was circumstance, how much was the fact that he was a toddler.
I could tell you story after story of how their bond has strengthened in the year since Tim returned home, how the laughter our son reserves for my husband is belly-deep and rich in adoration. But there are challenges, too, especially when it comes to working out the big feelings our tenderhearted little boy has about his dad.
During deployment, to help normalize my husband’s absence, we read the wonderful book Over There, written by therapist Dorinda Silver Williams. Now that Tim is home, both he and Jacob reach for that book many nights Daddy’s on bedtime duty. This is both helpful and hard.
What follows is a recent conversation I had with Jacob.
As I listened to his heart, I realized his complex emotions were uncomfortably familiar to me: his anger, his sadness, his unspoken fear, his pain. I carry these in my heart, too. The difference is, I know it’s OK to feel them at once and that experiencing pain is not the same thing as lacking love — in fact, the opposite is usually true.
We were lying on Jacob’s bed in the gathering dark.
“Mommy? I don’t want Daddy to put me to bed. I don’t like him.”
“You don’t like Daddy?”
“Oh.” I paused, trying to remember all I’d read about what to do in a situation like this. Whatever you do, don’t freak out. “Daddy loves you very much and he loves spending time with you. You two seem to have a lot of fun together.”
“Yes. But I don’t like him.” He scowled at me. “I DON’T love him.”
My heart plummeted. “Oh yeah?”
“No. I don’t love him.”
“OK. Well, he really loves you.” I took a deep breath. “Hey buddy? Last night Daddy told me you guys read the book about when he was far away.”
” . . . .yes, Mommy. Oh, Mommy! That book makes me SO SAD.”
“It makes you sad to read it?”
“Yes, it made me so sad I wanted to cry!” His face crumpled, his voice cracking.
“Oh buddy, I understand. Because when Daddy was away for a long time you missed him?”
“Yes!” He was adamant, almost shouting.
“Hey buddy? Do you think maybe that’s why you’re mad at Daddy?”
He blinked. “Yes!”
“Yes? You’re mad at Daddy because he went away for a long time?”
“Yes, Mommy! That’s why I’m mad at him lots of times. Lots of times.”
“I understand that, buddy. Can I tell you a secret?”
“Sometimes that makes me mad at Daddy, too.”
His eyes widened.“But WHY, Mommy?! Why are you mad at Daddy?” He was crying in earnest, so I reached out and put a hand on his shoulder.
“I know this is a little confusing. But sometimes when we are really sad, or really hurt, because we miss someone a whole, whole lot — someone we really, really love — sometimes it’s just easier to be mad at them than let ourselves feel sad about it.”
“I am mad.”
“I understand, buddy. It’s OK to be mad.”
“Daddy and I love you very much. And Daddy’s going to be here for a long time, OK?”
“And if Daddy ever has to go away again we will tell you before he goes, OK?”
Jacob grabs the book off the shelf and hands it to Tim. Pasted on the last page is a picture of the two of them, right before deployment. Jacob is on his Daddy’s shoulders, on top of the world. “Let’s look at our picture, Daddy,” Jacob says, and leans against his arm.
Though it can be excruciating, we want our kids to tell us the truth of what they feel. We are building trust and showing them it’s not only possible, but in fact, healing, to love someone deeply even when it hurts.
There’s enough love in this home to hold us—to hold the hard with the good, when we’re together and when we’re apart. I know this. We’re going to be OK.
And you’d better believe I still hug that little lion for good measure.