When you count the things that are complicated during a pandemic, the list is long. Still, co-parenting during lockdown is particularly challenging—specifically, how to navigate custody arrangements that never thought to account for a public health crisis, social distancing and the general logistics of travel bans and shelter in place orders. So, how do you make sure you and your ex are on the same page? We checked in with a family psychologist, a mental health expert and two divorce attorneys for the best ways to approach co-parenting during COVID-19.
1. Write Down a List of *New* Rules with Your Ex
You’re going to need some sort of addendum to the original custody arrangement during this time, recommends Dr. Jann Blackstone, co-author of Co-Parenting Through Separation and Divorce: Putting Your Children First. You don’t necessarily need to involve legal counsel, but you want to be unified in what is and isn’t OK. For example, what’s the protocol when going outside? (Yes to the yard, no to the park.) Also, who are the kids allowed to see? (No to friends, yes to your ex-husband’s step children.) Do they have to wear a mask? (Yes, inside public buildings.) You should also write up guidelines for home schooling protocol, and weigh the fact that one parent’s house might be better suited to it. (I.e. there’s more space to spread out or better WiFi capabilities). Bottom line: Spell everything out—in writing—not just for joint buy-in, but also to give your kids stability.
2. Decide How to Address the Subject of COVID-19
No matter their age, your kids are bound to ask some questions about what is going on in the world and in their lives. But are you delivering the same message as your former spouse? “If your child is asking questions about the virus and what is going to happen as a result, make sure your ‘messaging’ is consistent,” says Leigh McInnis, LPC, and executive director of Newport Academy, a mental health treatment facility specializing in family relations. “If you don’t, it may cause kids to feel anxious, especially if they’re receiving drastically different answers.” For example, you and your co-parent might agree to focus on your child's bravery during this time, and use words like "sickness" and "germs" rather than "pandemic" and "death." Whatever your approach, the goal is to be aligned.
3. Prioritize Prompt and Timely Communication
You and your ex owe it to each other to respond to texts, phone calls and emails quickly and clearly. “When it comes to communication that’s initiated by the other parent, get back to them in a timely manner,” Dr. Blackstone suggests. And do your best to keep consistent, positive communication between your kids and your former spouse even when they’re not together. Set up a FaceTime date before bed. Send a photo text. Reassure Dad that your son’s cough has gone away and he’s not running a fever. After all, this is a worrisome time, and a little effort can go a long way.
4. Be Open and Honest About Your Own Social Distancing
Maybe you’ve got a new boyfriend. Maybe your ex is still working outside the home. Now is not the time to be vague about relationships, says Dr. Blackstone. You might want to work these encounters into your written agreement, so it’s clear you’ll continue to see your beau, but he’ll also practice extreme social distancing, or your ex will continue to go to work, but will wear gloves and a mask.
5. Consider Revising the Custody Agreement, Temporarily
It depends on your situation, but if it’s in the best interest of your child to spend the majority of their time at one parent’s home or self-quarantine for 14 days for any reason, it’s worth a conversation, says Emily Pollock and Kelly Frawley, both matrimonial and family law attorneys at Kasowitz Benson Torres LLP. “Be creative to make sure the children are still getting as much meaningful access as possible with both parents,” Pollock and Frawley explain. For example, if you decide you don’t want your kids traveling back and forth, consider allowing the other parent to visit with the child in your home (assuming all safety precautions are followed).
6. Be Prepared to Offer ‘Make Up Time’ On the Other Side
If you do decide to revise the custody agreement, talk through possible ways that the “short-changed” parent may be able to get some extra time once the pandemic is over, say Pollock and Frawley. After all, open-mindedness counts for a lot right now. (It also might save you thousands in legal fees.)