Co-Parenting Through the COVID Holidays
Parents who share physical custody of their children this holiday season will have both the challenge and responsibility of avoiding exposure to COVID and negotiating with their co-parent a joint standard for safety. Separated and divorced parents may not view the risks of COVID exposure in the same way, so it can be hard to build consensus about what amount of exposure to family and friends is too much. Here are some tips for successfully navigating co-parenting this unique holiday season.
Start with a discussion: First, schedule a private time to discuss and share with your co-parent your expectations and goals for this holiday season. Make any concerns known with “I” statements, such as
"I am concerned about losing time from work and needing to quarantine if our child is exposed to COVID"
These tend to be more effective than "You" statements which ascribe blame, such as:
"When you don’t share with me who is coming into contact with our children at your house you are deliberately stressing me out. I may have been exposed to COVID and I don’t trust you would even tell me.”
Be specific: Ideally, you will each share your intended plans and arrive at parameters for celebrations in both homes. This is not only respectful, but it also subdues the urge to micromanage the other parent or use your children as reporters since you are building trust and consensus. If family gatherings are still planned, you may wish to propose that both households and anyone either of you may see during the holidays self-quarantine for a period of time immediately preceding the in-person celebration. Discuss mask-wearing and what your expectations will be if you do gather. Setting ground rules that apply equally to both homes is a priority this year.
Document your plan: In order to confirm that the plan you arrive at is fully agreed upon and understood by both parents, email a summary and confirm with one another that you have an agreement.
Breaking an impasse: If you and your co-parent need support during these difficult conversations or have reached an impasse, consider a process far more cost and time efficient than the courts: mediating. Mediation can be set up quickly and the process is confidential, ensuring that your children are kept out of the conflict. Even if you have a court order and did not mediate your initial parent plan, you can still mediate changes or simply flesh out your parent plan to cover the fact that no existing parent plan included terms for what to do in the event of a highly contagious pandemic. As long as you both agree to try mediation, it can be used at any stage of your process including a period of trial separation, before starting legal action, during your divorce, and even after a divorce is made final.
Here are a few tips to help you prepare to negotiate your holiday parent plan:
If this is your first time even thinking about a parenting plan it can be hard to know where to start. When working with divorcing couples as their mediator, I often witness the flood of emotions that take over when each parent starts to process the fact that the holidays are never going to be the same. While parents may be right about this, it does not mean that holidays cannot be special, memorable, and in some cases, even better. Don't start your negotiations without some preparation:
1) Have your children’s school schedule in hand.
2) Think of odd and even year exchanges for special events and holidays.
3) Consider trading off which parent will take Thanksgiving and which will take Christmas Day.
4) Consider how you want to alternate Christmas. Some couples plan that one parent has the children a day or so prior to Christmas Eve with the children switching homes on Christmas Eve through Christmas Day, while some treat the whole Christmas week as an annual switch-off so that families can travel (assuming travel is safe).
5) Confirm the amount of time each parent has off work during the holidays.
6) If travel to family or family traveling to visit you is part of your holiday tradition, discuss whether skipping that tradition this year is a safer choice.
7) Negotiate terms of a first right of first refusal to take over parenting time if the other parent gets sick or otherwise cannot care for the children as planned.
8) Make a list and prioritize who you both agree with be alternative caregivers, such as grandparents or other family members.
9) You may want to plan for reasonable, nonintrusive phone/facetime access with the non-custodial parent on holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.
10) Discuss your COVID bubble parameters and require that each parent share with one another any possible exposure to COVID.
11) Make a plan now, as to what you will do, if your agreed upon schedule cannot be maintained because a parent or child is exposed to COVID and must quarantine.
Then there are the do not do’s:
1) Commit to not asking a child to lobby for more time with you or become a reporter or carrier pigeon.
2) Avoid promising your children a plan will happen if it in any way overlaps with your agreed-upon parenting schedule unless and until you have the other parent’s okay and if you don’t have a parent plan yet make no promises until you have one, so as to ensure you are not making the other parent “the bad guy.”
3) Avoid speaking poorly of the other parent’s parenting to or within earshot of your children. If you have a concern about the well-being of your children take it up directly with the parent. Start with a BIFF email and request a private time to discuss a solution out of earshot of the children.
4) Give thoughtful consideration to introducing your children to a new partner, particularly
during the holiday season when emotions tend to run high.
5) Do not assume your children are fine, and equally do not assume they are tormented by your divorce. Consider professional support so you can support their grief, loss, and transition separately from yours. Know that the better you model respect, tolerance, empathy, and caring the better chance your children will have of growing through your divorce with you.
Managing the holiday season with children moving between homes in the time of a pandemic is a daunting task, but with a bit of preparation and communication that results in a clear and solid plan, you can still make this a very special holiday season.
Laura McGee is a former trial attorney from Canada. She has been mediating with couples in San Diego County since 2011 and offers divorce services including mediation, legal separation, parent planning for unwed partners, as well as post-divorce modifications to custody, visitation, and child and spousal support orders. Laura has over 300 hours of training as a mediator and she teaches and mentors other mediators.
Laura is available to work with couples by Zoom or in person at her office in the Village of Carlsbad, California. To learn more book a complimentary consultation with Laura directly from her website.