These unprecedented times have placed you in unfamiliar territory as a divorced parent. Though your relationship with your ex-partner is over, you both have committed to be responsible parents to your children. So how do you overcome the challenges during COVID when you are in different households, often with separate rules for each domain?
While keeping in mind that the welfare and health of your kids are paramount, it’s imperative to also overcome co-parenting obstacles that may persist—not only in 2020 or 2021—but for the foreseeable future.
When Winging It Just Isn’t Working
Life threw a COVID curveball. At first, you bob and weave and do your best to deal with the pandemic punches. But what happens when improvisation isn’t sustainable and becomes unreliable? Consider the following problematic situations:
- Your job requires you to be around people affected by COVID (e.g. healthcare) and your child has a pre-existing condition vulnerable to complications from the coronavirus. How do you determine the appropriate amount of time you should be spending with your kid?
- You require your child to stay inside and away from others at your home, especially when cases are rampant, but the other parent allows your kid’s friends to come over and play. What can you do to establish consistency for health and safety reasons?
- You live alone but your partner shares a living space with other family members. How do you ensure your child’s safety after factoring other people into the mix?
- Your partner lives in a building complex whereas you dwell in a home with a large backyard. How do you create a schedule that permits beneficial outdoor play amidst heavy restrictions on travel, sports, and recreation?
Solution: Create a default plan for issues that you have been solving on the fly.
Strategically amend your co-parenting agreement to include provisions that address the aforementioned questions and concerns. When discussing options with your partner, stay focused on your goals and the best solution possible for your children. For example, if you are exposed to COVID patients, don’t get hung up on keeping score on who gets more time. Rather, accept that your child will be safer by staying longer with your ex, if they work from home and quarantine responsibly.
During negotiations, be open, honest and understanding as you might have achieved in a peaceful divorce. Remember, you are having this talk because situations are becoming confusing and unmanageable, so developing co-parenting standards for COVID will enable you to avoid stress and mistakes.
Apply this backup plan for the future
You can provide for a fail safe in your agreement by requiring that the default backup plan goes into effect not only during COVID, but for future emergency situations including fire, earthquake, and future illness, to name a few. This way, you forgo the guessing game and now rely on vetted solutions when the world ushers unexpected hurdles into your life.
The New Era of Hygiene
Before the pandemic, you understood that the rules and routines at the other parent’s house are out of your hands. However, the CDC and local health departments have urged all of us to practice uniform hygiene routines in order to prevent COVID from spreading. Frequent hand washing, sanitizing, disinfecting, masking and social distancing may seem commonplace to you, but the other parent may not be abiding by the same standards.
For example, you are enforcing mask wearing in public and social distancing with guests at home, but your ex is lax with covering up and is quick to ease up on staying 6 feet apart at home.
Consistency is key here. Both parents should create and follow a common set of hygiene guidelines. It’s crucial that both you and the other parent are fostering a safe and healthy environment for the benefit of you, your children, and the general public. With shared guidelines during COVID, you’ll help your kids avoid confusion, or worse, rejection of universal public health standards. Here are a few sample rules you can put into an agreement:
- Both households require that children and adults wash their hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after coming in from outside, using the bathroom, coughing, sneezing, playing with the dog and before eating, drinking, or in close quarters with other people.
- Both parents will clean and sanitize commonly touched and used objects and surfaces every day, especially in playrooms, home gyms, books, video game consoles, kitchens, dishes, bathrooms, and cars.
- Both parents must actively monitor the health of themselves and their children on a daily basis. This includes checking for symptoms of COVID and taking temperature.
Use this as an opportunity to explore other commonalities
Yes, the pandemic has forced you and the other parent to join forces with regards to hygiene, but this is a great opportunity to review other potential shared health and wellness guidelines. You can take this time to review topics like bedtime, homework, internet usage, video games, YouTube watching, and exercise. Nothing about COVID is ideal, but you can embrace these moments of truth to strengthen lines of communication and trust for the sake of your children.
It’s a Matter of Time
Typically, your parenting schedule is a staple of life, enabling you to predictably see your kids and maintain structure in your post-divorce life. Unfortunately, the pandemic has forced you to make decisions about how much time you can spend with them for a variety of reasons. Let’s take a look at sample scenarios that may have caused a stir:
- You, your child, or someone you have been around tests positive for COVID-19. How do you adjust your parenting time to account for the recovery period or quarantining?
- Your job requires you to be in the field, while your child is still homeschooling. How do you resolve the fact that you can no longer drop your kid off at school while you work?
- Virtual learning demands reliable internet and access to devices, but your home is not well-equipped to support it. How do you make up time lost with your kids since they have to homeschool more often with the other parent?
- Your household is home to other people vulnerable to complications from COVID. How does this impact your time with your kids?
Solution: Agree on a temporary schedule to address COVID concerns and resume your normal schedule when conditions improve.
Start by writing down a list of situations that can impact your parenting time. Have a transparent conversation with the other parent to address these concerns in an amendment to your parenting agreement. Be clear that the new schedule is focused on solving the issues at hand, during COVID, so that you can return to your previous schedule when conditions change. Also, define what these conditions are and set a provisional date to revisit this schedule with hopes that restrictions are less stringent at that time.
In cases where you can’t spend physical time with your child in your household, create a schedule to make up time virtually or outside with proper social distancing. For the latter, you can play sports or lawn games outside that don’t require close contact like tennis, badminton, or cornhole. Of course this doesn’t feel fair, but it’s the safe thing to do and, ideally, this arrangement is temporary.
Here are a few adjustments that can kickstart a new temporary schedule that works for both of you:
- If the child or I test positive for COVID, we will follow the necessary steps recommended by health professionals and quarantine for 14 days. The co-parent will not be able to spend time with the child during the recovery and quarantine period, except for virtual visitations and/or outdoor, masked and socially distant activities agreed upon between both parents.
- While employed as a healthcare worker, I will limit my interaction with the child to virtual Zoom meetings or in person at an outdoor location, staying at least 6 feet apart while wearing masks.
- While my parents are living with me, the child will stay with the co-parent.
Find ways to have fun with your kids in ways you didn’t before, even after COVID subsides
Transform the challenges of virtual parenting into creative solutions to spending time with your kids in new ways, even after COVID subsides. For example, in your pre-pandemic life, you may have missed out on parenting time due to travel, illness, work, or some other irregularity in your schedule. Add the following parenting activities to your toolkit when those situations arise again in the future:
- Helping your child with homework over Zoom and screenshare
- Watch movies together online (i.e. “Watch Parties”)
- Play video games and interact with each other using headsets
- Read bedtime stories virtually (and even become a story character using Facebook Portal)
- Exercise, practice, or play sports over Zoom
- Play virtual board games or party games like Jackbox
- Collaborate to create funny videos by recording separate recordings on your phones and putting them together with an easy-to-use app like iMovie
Start with these suggestions but continue to innovate ways to stay in touch in the current and future virtual world.
The Reality of Illness and Death
The pandemic has forced you to confront the serious matters of illness and death. It’s crucial to define who will make decisions when one of you is hospitalized with COIVD-19 and incapable of making parenting decisions. For example:
- How is the other parent going to handle the other 2 weeks of parenting?
- Are you going to share your nanny?
- Are your parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, or cousin going to help?
- Are you going to open up your network and handle this situation as a team?
- How will you explain what is happening to your child?
Equally as important is the matter of one or both of you passing away. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to discuss, but many questions arise from these scenarios:
- Who will care for the children?
- How will finances be distributed?
- How will your children be cared for financially should one or both of you pass away?
- Do you have the right contingencies in place?
Solution: Add contingencies to your parenting agreement to account for illness and death
Clearly define who will make parenting decisions when you, your partner, or both fall ill. In the case of death, make sure you have set up your family Trust & Will documents to provide for what will occur should you both pass away, including the guardians who will take on the responsibility of raising your children should you both pass away.
These are difficult conversations to have, but absolutely necessary to confirm, both during the pandemic and in the future. We understand the sensitive nature of these topics, so feel free to reach out to us to get compassionate, empathetic guidance and legal advice geared toward making this emotional process as smooth as possible. Even though Hekmat Law & Mediation is not an Estate Planning firm, we work closely with many estate planning attorneys and will be more than happy to make the right referral for you and your family.
Use Mediation To Resolve Your Differences
Ideally, you and the co-parent are able to come to terms on your own, with the help of an attorney to comprehensively craft the amendments to an agreement. It’s completely understandable, however, that COVID or other pressures can complicate matters for you and make it difficult to see eye to eye.
In this case, mediation is an amicable and efficient way to utilize a neutral third party to help negotiate and develop a mutual agreement. In fact, adding the use of mediation to your co-parenting agreement is a smart way to add a failsafe when your views don’t line up. If you have any questions on mediation or need help resolving matters during these trying times, know that we’d be happy to walk them through with you. We care deeply about our families and communities and approach every case with the care and compassion that they deserve.