Co-Parenting in the time of COVID-19: You Got This?
Last week I wrote about the impact of the COVID-19 shutdown on those in the early and mid stages of divorce and offered some tips for how to navigate the process while the courts are closed. However, many couples who have already separated and have a co-parenting schedule in place have had their lives and schedules upended. As a result, they are in conflict over issues that didn’t exist a few short weeks ago such as:
Should children in blended families transition between households as usual?
Is it okay for a parent to deny the other physical access if they fear the other parent is at risk of exposure to COVID-19?
Does one parent’s lack of adherence to social distancing give the other parent the right to keep a child in their custody beyond their scheduled parenting time?
What should you know about your co-parent’s new partner if he or she part of the essential workforce?
Prior to the shutdown, couples engaged in disputes they could not resolve amongst themselves would file a request for new orders from a judge, but not now. For all but truly emergency matters the courts are closed. When they do finally reopen, all of those cases that were scheduled for hearings prior to the closure of the courts will need to be rescheduled first. In fact, even before family courts shut down it took about 8-12 weeks here in San Diego County to get a short hearing before a judge.
Divorce may be “no-fault” in California, but court battles over parenting time and why the other parent should not parent equally are not! Such battles essentially require parents to focus on the flaws of the other parent, spotlight and disparage differences, wittingly or unwittingly engage their children to take sides in the conflict, and undermine any hope for privacy and healthy boundaries post-divorce.
I see a bright side in the current closure of the courts: this pandemic could offer couples an opportunity to resolve conflict and improve their parenting because parents cannot rely upon a judge to solve their disputes. We are beginning to notice may positive side effects of being locked down, from cleaner air, more friends reaching out to one another, renewed family connections, not to mention cooking and
breaking (fresh homemade) bread together. Perhaps healthier co-parenting will be another of these positive side effects.
What if COVID-19 could make you a better co-parent?
As a divorce mediator and co-parent myself, I like to spend extra time when I work with couples who have children. I encourage them to negotiate a parent plan that is value based and family focused. It is not too late for you. Most couples who used the courts did so either because they did not know about mediation, or they bought into one of the many myths about their ability to mediate. If you used the courts to come up with your custody and visitation schedule, chances are your agreement does not include much more than a weekly and holiday schedule, a support order, and a few related details. One would be hard pressed to call it a true parent plan.
Here is a list of topics you might want on your parenting agenda so you can mediate your parenting impasse now. These are just a few suggestions to get you thinking about what you might want on your agenda:
Safety standards: Agree on what your joint household standards will be. These may include such things as sanitizing your home before children are exchanged; possible use of masks even in the home if there are children transitioning from more than one home; deciding which essential services are okay while the children are with you; or perhaps agreeing to report to one another any symptoms consistent with COVID-19 as well as the results of any testing.
Non-physical parent time: Since fewer transitions than usual between homes may be a good part of your safety plan, build in non-physical parenting time using video conferencing/facetime and other such options to schedule age specific interactions such as story time, playing musical instruments together, online gaming, remote chess, or connecting with grandparents and other family for “dinner.” You can even watch your favorite show from two separate homes by downloading browser extensions such as Netflix party.
No recruiting spies: Give children permission to discuss what they did and the happenings in the other home but agree that you will not use a child as your spy or messenger. Take concerns up directly with the other parent and teach your children that if they have a complaint about the other parent to do the same. Doing so will help mitigate the effects of your child feeling like they are caught in the middle of their parents' conflict and that they need to choose sides.
Allocating responsibility for helping children with school work: Plan to answer the who, what, and when questions when allocating parental responsibility for helping your children with schoolwork. Schedule dedicated time to help them with extracurriculars like music lessons, foreign language practice, or religious education as needed.
Medically necessary appointments: decide who will take the children if they need medical attention and how the other parent will be kept apprised of the situation in real time.
Method of communication between parents: Ideally you do not want your children to overhear disputes between the two of you. Schedule time when you can both be available in much the same way as you would during a business meeting. Be sure to set an agenda and call or Zoom as scheduled. You may want to agree to a frequency of “meetings.” The frequency will depend upon whether your children are old enough to truly chat with the other parent, how often they are transitioning and/or if you have a sick child. A good rule of thumb is to use texting for emergencies or to share some positive news, emails to schedule and share a planned agenda, and phone calls/Zoom to have discussion at preplanned times.
Agree to respectful conversations: We are not used to having our children with us and it can be easy in this time of stress to get on a call or video chat with a friend or family member and unload about how angry you are about your co-parent’s behavior. Remember, if your children are within earshot you are now also part of the problem. Make a pact with yourself to focus on keeping your children safe and away from your conflict. You may not be the same family, but you will always be family.
Document and be specific about schedule changes: If you agree to change the existing court ordered schedule I suggest you make sure you email and confirm with one another your specific changes and whether this is a temporary and agreed upon modification until we find our new normal. Let your children know about the changes and why they are in place so that they also know what to expect.
Research tells us that by simply agreeing to mediate and then finding a skilled mediator you both agree is a good fit, you will have significantly improved the likelihood of arriving at a mediated resolution. There is enormous catharsis in reclaiming control of your parenting plan, making great choices for the benefit of all, and focusing on the value of a conflict managed life after divorce.
Laura McGee is a legally trained divorce mediator with an office in the Village of Carlsbad, California. She works with couples at every stage of their divorce process in San Diego County. Even if you litigated your divorce you can still mediate changes to your parent plan. Book a complimentary Discovery Session to find out more.