By Amy Rakowczyk, SDN Staff Writer
You’ve probably seen numerous articles discussing the medical marriage and what to expect during training. However, another aspect of medical life that often goes overlooked is when children are part of the medical family. While there might be a good amount of advice out there for maintaining and strengthening your connection as a couple (please see the end of this article for a few SDN articles on these topics), what about the relationship between your medical spouse and your kids?
Coping with a parent’s frequent absence, unavailability, and lack of attention can be quite challenging for children. They are emotional intelligence novices, just beginning to be aware of their thoughts and feelings, while simultaneously discovering how they fit into the world and relationships. They have not yet learned how to process difficult emotions in healthy ways or understand why they are feeling what they are feeling.
Very young children—primarily those under age 2—may not yet demonstrate any obvious negative behavior changes when the parent is away, but once your child enters toddlerhood, a whole range of behaviors can emerge. Depending on your child’s stage of toddlerhood and their personality, they may exhibit more tantrums, misbehaving, acting out, or even lashing out physically at you or themselves. Behaviors you may have not seen in awhile could resurface, like biting or hitting, or new ones could develop.
Your child may have a lot of tears and tantrums before they begin to understand why they are upset, and then communicate that to you. In our home, when my oldest is really missing her dad, it shows up as a really hard day where she doesn’t listen, wants constant attention, throws fits over the smallest things, and is extra sensitive. It might take the whole day for her to finally utter, “I miss Daddy.”
If you’ve experienced this too, you understand how challenging and heartbreaking it can be. You already might be tired from solo parenting, feel low on patience and more on edge in general. Then add extra behavior challenges from your children, and you’ve got a pretty frustrating and upsetting situation for everyone.
For older kids, their coping strategies will be different, since they have a bit more experience in hard emotions. Again, each child will express things differently, but you could see a range of behaviors such as pulling away from you and/or your spouse; signs of depression or anxiety; more frequent or elevated conflicts with siblings, friends, or peers; or lashing out.
It is important to note that if you feel very concerned with your child’s behavior, please seek out professional support. Listen to your gut on this. If you feel your child needs extra help, please find it! Mental health is just as important as physical health.
With all that being said, challenging behaviors are not just a product of a child missing their medical parent—so don’t curse this medical journey just yet! Our children will have countless struggles throughout their lives; a parent’s frequent absence can simply exacerbate their already complex world.
Even though each person’s life has its share of challenges—our children included—life can also be incredibly fun, exciting, and fulfilling. Medical families are in a prime position to be aware of the necessity for extra attention and care in nurturing our relationships with our children. We can also do an incredible service for our kids by showing them how to respond to difficult situations with strength and compassion, which will serve them well for the rest of their lives.
So, what are some creative ways to help your kids stay connected to their medical parent? How can you provide opportunities for your child to preserve, find positive outcomes, and stay connected with their medical parent? Here are a few ideas you can try out!
1. Text pictures just saying “hi,” or share a fun or silly moment. This is a simple, easy way to help keep the medical parent involved in day-to-day activities.
2. Save the celebration of a milestone moment for when the medical parent comes home and it can be celebrated together with their child.
3. Make videos for each other! Personally, I noticed my daughter would start getting really glum around dinner time, and I realized it was because my husband was on a rotation with late hours so he was often missing dinner. I asked him to make a video saying our dinnertime blessing, and we started playing it before each meal. Of course we still missed him, but it was a way to feel like he was still a part of our day. She would watch it over and over again! You could do this with bedtime stories, songs, prayers, or other things that fit with your family.
4. Start a parent-child journal. Find or make a notebook where your child and medical parent can write or draw to each other. Your child will be so excited to check the journal and see what new thing is there for them. Of course, this comes with some expectation, so only do this activity if your spouse is able to commit!
5. Find moments for impromptu meet-ups. Look for opportunities to have even five minutes of face time and hugs. Can you make a quick stop at the hospital during a slow time (with your spouses approval, of course!)? Can you meet up at a park for a couple minutes during lunch break? If your spouse gets home after the kids have gone to bed, what about waking them up for a late-night pajama party and story time? Your kids will be thrilled!
6. Get your kids involved. Consider your family as a team, where each person has a role and is a part of making the team strong and happy. Discuss with your children that you all will have to get creative in seeing/connecting with the medical parent. What are things you all could do? This is especially helpful with pre-teen and teenage kids. Help them understand that a relationship takes work, and help them find opportunities to stay connected and show their love.
I hope these ideas will spark some creative inspiration and help your family continue to come together, even during the hardest moments. With the holidays approaching, now is the time to try out some fun and inventive ways to keep everyone involved and included, even when you’re not always physically together. Happy Holidays!
SDN Articles On Strengthening Your Medical Marriage
About the Author
Amy Rakowczyk is a medical spouse, mother, writer, singer, and former voice instructor. She currently resides in Galveston, TX with her husband and two young daughters. She enjoys helping other spouses navigate the world of medicine and actively participates in support groups and activities. Her husband is a Family Medicine resident at UTMB Galveston and did his medical training at The Ohio State University.