Returning home from deployment is reason to celebrate — and the addition of a new baby makes homecoming even more exciting! But getting used to being a father and seeing changes that motherhood has brought to your partner, combined with the other issues that come with a return home from deployment, can make this a stressful time, too. There are steps you can take to make the transition back home and into fatherhood as happy and stress-free as possible.
What to expect
Although you're returning to the same home, it may seem very different from the one you left. Infants may be small, but they have a way of making their presence known in a big and wonderful way.
- A new baby means more visitors. With your homecoming and a new baby in the home, you may have more visitors than usual as friends and relatives drop by to see the new baby and welcome you home from deployment. In addition, the bottles, an infant seat, a crib, baby swing and toys may make your home feel more crowded than you remember. Remember, these are good changes as it means your family is expanding.
- Your partner may be more independent. While you were gone, your baby's mother probably discovered she is capable of more than she realized. This is the case with most partners who adjust to being on their own during deployment. It's also true of new parents. Having gone through both of these experiences, she is likely to be more confident and self-assured than she was before you left. Acknowledging her growth will help your relationship grow stronger as well.
- You'll have additional expenses. With an extra family member to feed and clothe, you'll need to be prepared to budget properly.
- Things may take time. Your infant needs time to get accustomed to you. Until that happens, your baby may cry, fuss or pull away from you. Know that this is normal and that soon, you and your baby will establish the connection you desire.
How you may feel
It's normal for a service member to feel displaced upon returning home. Your partner has had to become accustomed to managing without you and the two of you will have to readjust to your household roles and responsibilities. You'll also have to figure out new ones now that you have an infant to care for.
- Your reunion may go well but symptoms of stress could appear weeks later. After the initial rush of happiness and relief at being home safely, you and your partner will begin the process of sorting out your roles as a family. Your adjustment to life at home may be more difficult if you experienced violent action during deployment.
- Your baby will cry, but don't take it personally. All babies cry; it's not a reflection of your parenting skills. If you feel yourself becoming frustrated, this is a good time to let your child's mother take over. If she isn't home and the baby is warm, dry and fed, put the baby in a safe place, such as the crib, and close the door. Turn up the music and allow yourself a few moments to calm down. Every new parent experiences these moments; you're not alone.
- You may feel guilty for being away during your partner's pregnancy and the first weeks or months of your child's life. Remind yourself that being away from your family was not your decision, but a result of your duty as a member of the armed forces. Your child will grow up to understand the importance of your service and sacrifice.
- You may have mixed feelings. Don't be disappointed if you don't feel an immediate connection to your baby. As you get to know each other, an attachment will develop. It's also not uncommon for a new baby to stir feelings of jealousy. You may resent that the baby takes up so much of your partner's time, and you may feel like a third wheel in the relationship. This can be particularly difficult given that you have just endured a long separation from your partner and may have experienced hardships during your deployment. Remember, the baby's needs must always come first because he or she is totally dependent on you both.
- You and your partner may feel exhausted much of the time. Newborns sleep 16 or 17 hours per day, but rarely for more than a few hours at a time. Until your baby starts sleeping through the night, typically between three and six months, you and your partner may feel tired and at times, irritable. Support each other through this time and remember how precious each stage of your child's life is.
Ways to ease the transition
As you become involved in the care of your baby you'll become more comfortable as a father. In time, you, your partner and your baby will grow together as a family.
- Talk with your partner. After a long absence, you need to get to know each other again. Now that you are parents there's a lot to sort out, such as how best to care for your child. You've both had new experiences that may have changed your priorities and your ideas about roles in the marriage and the family. Talking now can help you lay the foundation for a newly strengthened relationship.
- Talk with your baby. The more you talk (or sing), the sooner your baby will get used to you. Say anything -- talk about your day, recite nursery rhymes or describe things in the room. The sound of your voice will be soothing and reassuring to your baby.
- Participate in your baby's care. Learn how to change a diaper, feed and dress the baby. Take turns with your partner getting up with the baby for night-time diaper changes and feedings. Caring for your baby is an important part of the bonding process.
- Do chores with your baby. If your baby is old enough, strap her into a baby carrier or sling and vacuum the floor, rake leaves outside or water plants. The activity will keep your baby entertained while the two of you get used to each other's company.
- Enroll in a parenting class. Many installations offer Baby Boot Camp programs for new parents. Check with the New Parent Support Program or Family Support Center.
- Talk to other fathers. It can be comforting to talk with others who have gone through the same experiences. You may pick up some tips or simply feel reassured that others have dealt with similar issues.
- Bring the baby to medical checkups or go with your partner when she brings the baby to the doctor. Pediatrician appointments offer an opportunity to learn about the baby's care, to ask questions and to learn what is and isn't normal for a baby.
- Make an effort to spend time together as a couple. Hire a babysitter or ask a friend or family member to watch the baby so you and your partner can enjoy time alone with each other.
Post-combat stress and a new baby
Many service members return home with combat-related stress injuries and continue to experience depression, insomnia, nightmares, anger and other issues. Dealing with the presence of a new baby and the responsibilities that go with it may intensify these symptoms and feel very scary. If you're having trouble adjusting after combat, it's important to seek help early.
Your partner may be able to recognize your need for assistance before you do. Be open and listen to her concerns. She's in the unique position of having known you before and after combat experiences and could be able to help in your recovery. Contact the Department of Veterans Affairs, Military OneSource, TRICARE or your installation's community support services for help in learning to deal with your emotions and gaining control of your life again.
Most importantly, enjoy this special time as a new father. Congratulations!