During an ordinary year, co-parenting during the holiday season can be highly charged and prone to conflict. But in 2020, honoring the spirit of the holidays and goodwill towards others means that many families are celebrating differently during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. For co-parenting families, there is an additional layer of potential challenges to navigate.
Over the course of this year you and your co-parent have likely had some experience dialoguing about COVID in order to (hopefully) create agreements that honor family connection while also limiting exposure risks. While perceptions of risk and safety tend to differ amongst parents—whether they are partnered or not—it can be all the more difficult to find common ground when the stakes are high and feelings of love and connection have faded.
Here are a few guidelines for keeping the peace with your co-parent during the holidays this year, for a safe and memorable holiday season.
1. Talk—don't text.
Schedule a conversation to discuss holiday plans either in-person, over the phone, or virtually. I've said it before and I'll say it again: Texting your co-parent when the potential for emotional activation is present is almost always a bad idea.
2. Have a shared goal.
State your intention to form agreements for the holiday season that honor family connection as well as health and safety. Create a shared agenda of the logistical items to be discussed at the start of the conversation that you can reference if things get off-track.
3. Keep it between the two of you.
Ensure that your children are not present for this discussion to avoid them taking on any of the potential conflict or strong emotion that may arise.
4. Try to stay neutral.
Acknowledge the differences that exist between you and your co-parent in terms of comfort and safety with risk and exposure as neutrally as possible without attacking character.
5. Understand each other's exposure circles.
If you haven't already, share with your co-parent who your exposure circle is and what their level of risk is to COVID-19 should your child widen their exposure circle during the holidays. Follow existing agreements to the extent possible while acknowledging that exposure to multiple households inherently increases risk.
6. Minimize exposure risk as much as possible.
Center holiday traditions that are unimpacted by COVID-19 and carry little to no risk—a night at home watching movies and making cookies beats a holiday dinner out. Differentiate between essential and nonessential exposure when discussing various options for holiday time sharing and celebration. For example, a parent who must work outside of the home and has a high level of exposure to others would be in the category of essential exposure, whereas taking children to a large extended family gathering to celebrate would be in the category of nonessential exposure.
7. Work together on keeping the family close.
Collaborate on ways that children can stay connected to each other's respective extended families in a way that minimizes risk, whether that's participating in virtual gatherings, sending cards or gifts in the mail or planning any gatherings outdoors with as many precautions as possible.
8. Speak up if you're not comfortable.
If your co-parent plans to celebrate with your children in a way that is outside of your comfort zone, attempt to form agreements around harm reduction measures: asking extended family to limit exposure to individuals outside their household 14 days before interacting with children, observing social distancing, hand washing, and mask wearing.
9. Minimize non-essential travel as much as you can.
If the holidays usually involve air travel for your child to spend time with their other parent, explore alternatives such as utilizing personal ground transportation to the extent possible, perhaps meeting at a halfway destination, or requesting that your co-parent fly instead to spend time with children for the holidays and taking extra precautions. The CDC guidelines for nonessential travel are also a helpful reference point.
10. Ask for professional help when needed.
If you find that you and your co-parent are simply not able to reach agreement, consider reaching out to a mediation services agency or a counselor. With so many services being offered online in response to the pandemic, it should be fairly easy to connect to these services virtually. If you feel your co-parent's choices present a serious health and safety risk to your child or anyone in your contact circle, it may be worth revisiting legal agreements.
While 2020 will likely go down in history as the year we won't soon forget, it's helpful to remember that children possess an incredible capacity for resilience, and that with a little creativity and the spirit of collaboration it is possible to create meaningful memories for them to experience with both parents during the holiday season. With so much change and uncertainty present in today's world, we still have the ability to assure our children of the constancy of the love and connection of family, in whatever form it takes.