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Co-Parenting in the Time of Corona Virus

By Lisa Brick

“Parents, although your hearts may ache and lots of courage it may take, be brave, it’s for your children’s sake, your courage will see you through.” 

- When You Hear the Siren Blow, a “safety song” written for the children of America during WWll (with slightly altered last line)

It isn’t as if co-parenting post divorce wasn’t challenging enough before Covid-19.  You and your spouse have different ways of handling situations. You have different ideas about acceptable and unacceptable behavior. One of you may be more effective adhering to schedules and being responsible for remembering what to pack for the coming and going of the children. One of you fudges the truth for convenience or avoidance sake. This is nothing new and now, you have the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic spiking the responsibilities and the stakes around co-parenting. 

Adhering to the recommendations for social distancing, hand washing, keeping hands away from faces, wearing face coverings, and sheltering-in-place can make the difference between sickness and health, and in some cases with adults and children who are particularly vulnerable, between life and death. How is it possible to navigate this time of fear and upheaval in a way that supports you and your family’s well-being? This is no easy goal yet it is a worthy one. 

Regardless of the facts outlined in a companion article about the virus and the Covid-19 infection it causes which you can access by clicking here, at least what is considered factual to date by the scientific community, the Covid-19 pandemic has catapulted divorcing and divorced men and women into unprecedented co-parenting territory.  Co-parents are having to renegotiate hard-won parenting agreements and routines as work, childcare, schooling, and the ease of children commuting between households has been upended.  

There are difficult choices to consider, let alone make. There are a myriad of situations which make adhering to those hard-won parenting agreements and routines unhealthy ones in this new reality.  Here are five (5) scenarios that may require a change in your custody schedule. 

  1. I or my ex is a critical services provider (delivery, healthcare, transportation ,food worker, etc.) and can not shelter-in-place.  One of us is exposed to potential infection every day and by continuing the co-parenting plan we have, is exposing our children to contagion.   

  2. My ex has two young children with his significant other and they have two nannies that come and go every day.  My older children are exposed to - I’m not even sure what - when they are there.  

  3. I am taking the threat of Covid-19 infection seriously.  My ex does not see it as the threat I do and does not make sure she/he or the kids wear masks when they go out or stay the 6 ft. recommended distance when they are biking, walking, or running.  They can get sick and then expose me. Who would take care of us if we all got sick?

  4. I or my child falls in one of the high risk categories. I feel stress all the time that my ex is not taking sufficient precautions to keep either of us safe.  

  5. I, one of our children, or the ex is sick with Covid-19.  If this is the case everyone has already been exposed. Even without symptoms any one of you could spread the virus to others.  What happens to our parenting plan now?  

Let’s look at them one by one and see what the options are. The options are not easy ones.  They take putting the children’s welfare before anger or resentment over past or present actions.

  1. If you or your ex is a critical services provider who has much more exposure than the other it is worth looking at protecting your children by allowing the parent without or with considerably less exposure to have full custody until this pandemic enters a less critical phase.  

  2. If there are more people coming and going in one of your households but no one is at high risk of complications from contracting Covid-19 handling your fears of contagion is more valuable emotionally and healthier for the family than allowing those fears to create additional stress and fear for all involved. Remember, unless you or your children fall within that vulnerable population the threat to them from contracting the virus is minimal AND the chances of everyone in the family contracting it within the next year or so is high. The virus is not going away anytime soon, even once there is treatment or a vaccine. Again, any serious health threat to healthy individuals appears to be minimal.  

  3. My ex and I see the threat of contracting Covid-19 very differently. Refer back to the previous example and remind yourself that UNLESS SOMEONE IN THE FAMILY FALLS INTO THE HIGH RISK CATEGORY contracting the virus is not life threatening. You can not control a situation for other people. This strategy did not work in your marriage and will not work now.  What you can do is:

    1. Educate your children about what they can do for themselves if they want to do their best to postpone getting sick until there is a treatment or a vaccine.  

    2. If your child is old enough, provide him/her with a mask and teach him/her how to use it.

If you defy the custody schedule due to your fears there may be repercussions further down the road. It is possible by taking unilateral action you could win a battle but lose the war in the long run.  

  1. If either you, your child, or someone in your household is in the high risk category and you can document that the ex is engaging in unnecessarily risky behaviors and will not change those behaviors even after you have made your logic and requests in writing, you may find it necessary to take unilateral action and withhold visitation or transfers to protect your or your child’s safety. While unilateral action is a last resort you may determine that such a resort is necessary and appropriate. Speak with your attorney prior to taking unilateral action to better understand the full range of possible consequences.   

  2. If you, one of your children, or your ex has already come down with the virus who is in the best shape at the moment to care for the family in terms of energy, space, comfort, and financial resources?  If one of you has the means to keep the sick family member isolated this would be the safest option of where the sick person is cared for. In this case a sharing of resources will go the furthest in keeping everyone else as healthy as possible.  

Children are acutely aware that life has been disrupted. They too are feeling insecure, even if they are not necessarily showing it. During this time of insecurity and disruption children need to have a relationship with both parents and, if possible, see both parents working together for the sake of all involved. Yet, if that is impossible during this pandemic, particularly with anyone in the vulnerable high-risk categories, the safest plan is to shelter in one place. Make sure it is absolutely necessary for medical reasons, not emotional ones, to deny a parent his/her child for any part of this crisis.  If there is fallout as a result of this difficult choice the parents will have to deal with it once life has returned to its new normal.  

If it is necessary for you OR your ex to face the painful reality of being away from your child or children during this acute phase of the pandemic for a greater good it is useful and in the best interest of your child/children to be willing to consider and grant accommodations to make up for lost parental time once this critical phase is over.  Everyone is sacrificing, including the parent who now has their child/children all the time during shelter-in-place. Being cook, teacher, mediator, entertainer, and caregiver 24/7 with no break and no help is a sacrifice, no matter how much you love your children. Working with the public and being exposed to large loads of virus, experiencing the tragedies it inflicts, getting exhausted as demand overtakes ability, and being separated from your family is a sacrifice. 

It is not necessary for children to lose extended periods of time with his/her parent because both parents have been serving a greater good for society. This is a situation where there is sufficient sacrifice to be evenly distributed over time.  It is in the best interest of ALL involved to make accommodations in the months to come for the parent sacrificing time with his/her children to make that time up. Explore how you can consider it time for you to tend to you after this very intense time of parenting.  Through this perspective it becomes a gift to everyone and will keep you out of a court struggle for make-up parenting time. Judges will not look kindly on a parent unwilling to make accommodations for a critical worker ex.  

In addition to serious health concerns about the virus there are logistic changes and challenges.  It was reassuring to have neutral locations for drop offs and pick ups. These were public places where in-person contact between spouses could be minimal at most and more often than not eliminated altogether. Now the school buildings, after school programs, and extracurricular locations are shuttered. These streamlined drop off and pick up points have disappeared.  

Parents are finding themselves having to renegotiate who picks up and who drops off when, and how much or how little contact is involved. Here are a few options to consider for how to handle transfers during the shutdowns:

  1. Determining where to exchange the children is relatively straightforward. If the agreed upon location is more or less equidistant between both homes it is a balanced inconvenience. Both parties are interrupting their day to drive or walk the children to the exchange point.  

  2. Parking lots of police stations, supermarkets, and pharmacies remain trafficked and provide security for exchanges. Continuing the “tradition” of a public location for exchanges creates an element of safety from unfettered verbal abuse and makes physical abuse far less likely. Unless the relationship between the ex’s is remarkably healthy and amicable, going to each other’s places of residence is not advisable. There is too much opportunity for unproductive engagement.  

  3. If a neutral public location is not possible, if only one parent has the option of mobility, or if for some reason it makes sense for only one parent to go out at a time, determine who will be the one going out, the receiving parent or the delivering parent. The parent traveling waits to receive or deliver the children outside in the car in as public a place as possible. Once the other parent appears, the transfer of children and things takes place.  This method allows one parent to remain home half the time.  

Neither of the above transfer methods prevent an ex from being difficult. They can inadvertently or intentionally be late or withhold items that you want or need once you have your children back. Be prepared to have some way to make your time productive if your ex keeps you waiting.  If you have the children with you be prepared with things for them to do in the care for up to 15 minutes. Let your ex know that if he/she does not appear to take the children within a 15 minute time frame you will be going home and it will be up to him/her to arrange pick-up. Document what time you arrive and when you leave. Document what time he/she shows up in relationship to when it was agreed upon he/she would show up.  

While there is little you can do about his/her tardiness it is possible to utilize your time as well as possible.  Be prepared to use your time productively, however you can. Remember that attempting to change your ex’s behavior did not work in the past and will not work in the present. If you keep your cool and rob him/her of the pleasure of seeing you frustrated and angry he/she may give up attempting to disrupt you.  

At some point this pandemic lockdown will end and transfers will return to a more dependable location and time framework. Until then, do everything possible to have two of whatever you need for your children so the forgetfulness or intentionally obstructive behavior of your ex need not prevent you from meeting your goals with the children. This has not changed.  

Keep in mind that when something outside of your control changes your life, it’s what you do with what you can control that shapes both your life and your children’s lives. It is your quality of parenting that psychologists say differentiates those children who do well after adversity versus those that don’t. 

If you are feeling out of control regarding how you are handling the understandable frustrations, fears, and anxieties resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic you are certainly NOT alone.  You learned quite a bit about the limitations of your ex during your marriage and your divorce. You also learned quite a bit about your triggers, your limitations, and your strengths.  Now is the time to use everything you’ve learned to make this difficult time as smooth as possible.  

If you are struggling, and so many of us are now, please reach out for a Rapid Relief Call so we can remind you of your strengths and how best to support yourself.


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