Co-Parenting in a Crisis
Like many of you, I went to bed on the night of March 12, 2020 clouded with worry. In the span of a few short weeks we went from feeling like the current healthcare crisis was a world away to facing the direct impact in our own lives. Earlier in the evening, the New Mexico Public Education Department had chosen to close all public schools in New Mexico for three weeks due to the COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic. My primary worry was how the families of our state who depend so heavily on the public school system for food and childcare were going to survive if school was not an option. It appears our state and local school districts and many volunteers are working to help families with these needs.
My next thought was for the families we serve in our work as family law attorneys. As if the stress of a divorce or separation is not enough, now parents need to develop a plan for at least the next three weeks, and maybe longer, while their children are out of school. Many Parenting Plans include provisions related to exchanges of “physical custody” to occur at school. For example, one parent may be responsible at the end of their weekend timesharing period to return a child to school on Monday morning and the other parent is to pick that child up from school to start their period of responsibility. Now the question parent’s face is not only whose “time” it is when the children are not in school, but also whose “responsibility” it is to find childcare if both parents will still be working while the child is out of school. Furthermore, for many children this three-week period crosses over their school Spring Break. Parenting Plans often include a provision for Spring Break that may divide the time equally, may alternate years with each parent or may simply follow the “normal” timesharing schedule. Many parents were planning to take their children out of town, but now are faced with deciding if air travel is safe and telling their children that the amusement park they were planning to attend is now closed.
To further complicate matters, people are facing changes in their support system during a divorce or separation. This could include the in-laws that have always helped with the children now only being willing to help their own child with the children and not the ex-partner. It could also mean there was a recent move and a neighborhood support system has not yet been developed. Or, like in so many divorces, friends of the couple either pick a side or distance themselves from the couple altogether. Thus, when you really need your Village, the people you have historically relied upon may not be there for you any longer. This is an incredibly difficult part of divorce, but especially during a crisis such as we are seeing now.
Without getting too personal, I was going through a divorce when 9/11 occurred and this feels very similar. It was such an incredibly lonely feeling to want to turn to your spouse during a crisis only to have it sink in that you were no longer a couple, much less wanting to co-parent. Most parents during a crisis want to pull their children in close and keep them safe. Given the extreme contagiousness of the COVID-19 virus, we all want to make sure our children are clean and not exposed to any danger while at the same time we may also be caring for elderly parents who we are trying to protect. The impulse to keep our children in our sight is very real, yet at this same time we are being asked to co-parent with someone we may not totally trust to behave as we would to protect our children. We are trying to balance all of that with also needing to work to pay the mounting bills of now supporting two households instead of one and the possibility of childcare costs we had not planned for. My heart hurt with empathy this morning as I recalled the extreme uncertainty I felt during that time in September 2001 when all of these thoughts were rushing through my mind.
What is the “right” thing to do in terms of co-parenting during a crisis such as this? If possible, be kind to your child’s other parent. If kindness is too much to ask, at least try for a polite business-like exchange. Your children are lacking the stability of their school and possibly daily contact with their friends and support system, they do not need to feel as if their parents are not stable on top of that. Try to be open to the possibility that you each may need help during this time. Many employers are trying to be flexible with work schedules, so maybe this is a time to relax some of the normal time-sharing periods and really try to figure out what works for both of you and your children. This is not a time to be legalistic nor to demand “make up” time. Parents and children are re-scheduling travel plans all over the country so this is a good time to look ahead at the schedule and see if that is something that can be worked out now or if it should be tabled until we know more about what the next few months will bring. In addition, many children’s extracurricular activities are being cancelled. This may leave children feeling “bored” and frustrated. Possibly, each parent could think of things that the child might like to do and offer time up to the other parent to do those things. I have seen some great online lists of safe activities to do with children while they are out of school.
In the end, the “right” thing to do is what is best for your children. Reasonable parents can differ as to what that is for their particular child. Try to start with the assumption that even if the other parent might not do it exactly as you would, they are probably trying to do the right thing from their perspective. Reach deep inside to extend some generosity of spirit and you may just see that it is returned to you from the other parent. So, go ahead and pack that backpack for an exchange with fun activities and hand sanitizer and demonstrate to your child that in this world of uncertainty that they can count on you to keep their lives steady.
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