Navigating family dynamics during or after a divorce is already a tremendous challenge. Throw a highly transmittable virus and a global pandemic into the mix, and many parents will be left with more questions than answers. Matters of custody, financial stability and mental and emotional health take on new significance—and new challenges—under these circumstances. But you can do it, mama.
As a divorce attorney, I've worked with numerous families during these past weeks, in various stages of the divorce process, all of whom are learning to navigate and negotiate unfamiliar dynamics created by the coronavirus pandemic.
Here are my tips for co-parenting in the context of COVID-19.
1. Show children that you are calm.
Parents know better than anyone how perceptive children are. Even so, we often forget how our moods and anxieties can unintentionally affect our children. To keep the calm in the household, let children see things are under control: Ensure that potential disagreements with your co-parent are kept in conversations between the two of you (not in front of the kids), and give yourself time and space to manage your own stress and anxiety. Stressed children mean stressed parents—and the principle applies in reverse as well.
2. Be transparent with your co-parent.
Communicate as openly and honestly as possible with your co-parent about yourself and your children. Keep your co-parent updated about you and your children's location, home education and health (physical and emotional). It is critical that, in the case of an emergency and in everyday life, both parents be fully aware and in sync regarding children's whereabouts and welfare. Transparency breeds trust; secrets breed mistrust and animosity.
3. Keep your rules.
Because this moment feels so uncertain and some of our regular norms have fallen by the wayside, there can be a tendency to let other household rules start to slide. Make sure everyone remembers their responsibilities within the family.
School might be at the kitchen table now, but having children make their beds, get dressed and brush their teeth in the morning helps maintain a sense of normalcy that can be helpful for children when things seem tumultuous. Maintain chore schedules, eat dinner together and continue to follow rituals and rules that remind children (and parents) of the responsibilities we have.
4. Consult your health care provider when disagreements arise.
If you disagree on social distancing measures, I usually advise both parents to telephone their child's pediatrician or health care provider and agree ahead of time to follow their advice. Parents can also consult the CDC measures and agree to follow those protocols. Educating your co-parent can be the most helpful thing to do now.
If you are divorced and work with a parenting coordinator, they may also be a helpful resource. If not, a third party, like a mutually trusted friend or relative can serve as an impartial mediator to help you come to a reasonable agreement.
5. Maintain boundaries.
For parents and children in this time, it is important to maintain a degree of personal space. Many of us have been directed to self-quarantine, and isolation is not easy. The nationwide efforts to keep us apart in order to contain the virus have put many of us in closer contact with those around us than we may be accustomed to.
Constant shared space and time can certainly introduce new stress into an already tense environment. While these small measures may not seem significant, taking time to yourself to be alone—even just in a separate room—can be healthy and good for group morale. Take a walk, do some yoga, whatever it looks like, take care of yourself as a parent right now.
Be flexible with your co-parent.
Flexibility, transparency and reasonableness need to be at the forefront of all decisions. Remember that this is an unprecedented situation, and it calls for flexibility, especially in scheduling.
Both sides need to be reasonable if someone becomes ill, of course. If your co-parent can't travel due to illness, then you need to be understanding about this issue and work with them to provide makeup time for the future. But the situation also calls for transparency by the parent who is sick. That parent should provide the information necessary to make the co-parent feel comfortable that they have appropriate resources and are taking proper precautions to keep children and adults safe and healthy.
While immediate concerns may be taking center stage right now, planning for the future has never been more crucial. Make time to sit down with your current or ex-spouse and take stock of your respective finances, your job security and your co-parenting schedule management as soon as possible, and create a plan (and a backup plan) for going forward. Though it may not be comfortable, transparency with your current or ex-spouse is essential.
Be smart, plan ahead and above all, stay safe.