For families who were already in a co-parenting relationship when the global pandemic hit close to a year ago, 2020 has been an intense roller-coaster ride from both an emotional and practical perspective. For families who just began to co-parent since March, every week has been about trying to find some balance in an ever-shifting moment. You’re not alone, mama. Even the First Lady and Kelly Clarkson deal with this, as they so candidly speak about recovery from divorce recently.
With no signs that our difficult new normal will soon return to that significantly more comfortable normal from what seems to be ancient times, this is an opportune moment for families to take stock of how their co-parenting is working today.
While every situation presents its own seemingly infinite complexities, here are five tips that might make the more difficult co-parenting times a little bit less of a challenge for you moving forward:
1. Find Ways to Strengthen the Co-Parenting Bond
At the beginning of the pandemic, the elasticity of the bonds of co-parenting was tested far too often (Frances Hartman, a New Jersey lawyer and principal at Cordry Hartman, LLC.). Many parents, either out of fear or spite, withheld their children from the other parent, claiming the other parent presented a greater risk to the children than they did. In general, the courts rejected these arguments and found that so long as the other parent was generally following the guidelines set forth by the state, no change of custody or parenting time would be made.
Improvements have definitely been made in many families, as they, like all of us, have settled into the reality of a new routine. Moving forward, there is always room for improvement and this can begin with tangible things such as being more flexible than ever when it comes to custody scheduling. Be understanding with early or late pick-ups and returns. You can really do a huge service to your children by making that extra effort to make co-parenting easier on everyone involved.
Antoinette C. Tate, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist with the Temenos Center in New Jersey, agrees that while it’s impossible to summarize all the ways that the pandemic has impacted co-parenting families, some key challenges over the past year have emerged.
Some specific challenges that I’ve seen are: setting up learning environments in two households, and navigating decisions related to what is “safe”. For example – allowing your child to hang out with a friend; or seeing family outside the household. If parents are in disagreement about what they consider to be reasonable choices related to potential exposure, then that can cause a lot of strain on the co-parenting relationship. I’ve also worked with several families where there was an exposure and sometimes an infection in one household. Quarantining for two weeks means that the child is unable to see the other parent, which can be upsetting to the child. Routine is incredibly regulating for kids, and there have been too many scenarios for our children in the past year that disrupted routines.
2. Reschedule Non-Essential Conversations and Build Better Communication
This is absolutely the time to put off until tomorrow what you can do today.
This is generally horrible co-parenting advice, but it’s because we all have too much on our plates today. It’s impossible to overemphasize how dangerous a year of cumulative stress can be on any family, especially families who co-parent.
These are the times when omissions are often better than acts. The conversations that would be nice to have (but may result in more friction in the co-parenting relationship) can make space for the must-have conversations. Even those need to have their edges rounded as much as possible. Dr. Tate feels that good communication is more a cornerstone today of good co-parenting than ever.
Do your best to be open, transparent, and consistent as much as possible across households helps everyone involved right now. Always keep what you believe to be best for your child at the center of your choices and decisions. It is a major challenge when parents disagree on what is “best”, and a challenge on top of that to relinquish control when your child is under the other parent’s supervision.
Dr. Tate adds that where parents have concerns that need to be expressed in a conversation. Take time to think about how you want to express your concern (avoid the impulsive texts!) and ask for a compromise or a different choice in the future if that’s appropriate. And if you can’t find common ground, together ask a neutral third party for input – a mutual friend, a pastor, a therapist, or anyone else you believe can help.
3. Consider More Virtual Parenting Time
We know that this is an eye-roller, but try to have an open mind on it. True, we are all overwhelmed by the virtual and crave the tangible, in-person contact we have been deprived of for a year.
But we should look upon virtual parenting time as a great and often necessary supplement to in-person parenting. We all agree that it’s always difficult when circumstances cause one parent to temporarily have less in-person parenting time. That parent feels as if they are being treated unfairly, even when the situation is beyond the control of the parent who gets some extra in-person time.
While far from perfect, virtual parenting time is a way for the parent who isn’t physically there to engage with the child in a meaningful way. For this to be done well, it needs to be taken seriously and scheduled. There should be some planned activity that can be done virtually. It can be something as simple as playing a video game together or watching sports or a movie in real time while having a conversation about it. It can be a shared walk in the woods or co-creation of a nice snack in two kitchens. The possibilities are endless with some creativity and an open mind.
4. Be As Consistent As Possible Between Each of Your Children’s Homes
This is a tough one, given that so many people are currently parenting on the fly – being far more reactive than they normally would be. A huge part of establishing consistency between multiple homes is understanding the co-parent’s tolerance for risk of exposure to the virus.
As Attorney Hartman points out from her recent experience: everyone thinks their view is the correct one. It is like George Carlin’s observations about driving – everyone driving slower than you is an idiot and everyone driving faster is a maniac! So it is with our view of other’s behavior during the pandemic.
Yet, it is the job of the courts to view each parent’s behavior through the lens of what a “reasonable person” would do. Hartman adds: not a perfect person, not the best person, not the worst person, just a reasonable person. Before jumping to criticize or litigate with your co-parent over their behaviors reflect on whether that behavior might be considered reasonable by some. If you think it could be considered reasonable, be honest, admit you are uncomfortable with the behavior even though it might be acceptable to others and ask for consideration on the issue. Promise that if you do something your co-parent doesn’t like, you too will listen. Sometimes that is all it takes to get what you want – happy, safe, children who live with parents who are not in conflict.
Consistency between households is a sign that the co-parents are working together to be reasonable and to do the utmost for their children. To make this really work, both co-parents are going to have to give a bit on this one. There will be elements of each living situation that work best for the child. They’re the experts in suggesting what they like and dislike the best.
5. Be More Sensitive Than Ever to Signs Your Child is Struggling
Ask them how they’re (really) feeling. It’s a simple and obvious step but framed and timed well, it could work wonders. Remember that this is not the time – not that there ever is one – to be trying to win points with your children or cost their other parent any points. Together you can have an ongoing conversation about how they seem to be doing and how they’re really doing. Do the work needed to gain the hard yards between what your child is saying and what they may be feeling. It will definitely be worth the effort.
Finally, it is worth remembering that most people are scared today and have been scared since March. Attorney Hartman adds this excellent advice: before becoming angry at your co-parent because you believe they have recklessly exposed your children to COVID-19, take a moment and think. Parents should try hard to remember that both of you love your children. Everyone is doing the best they can to navigate their children’s safety and mental health, as well as their own, during the pandemic. Cut your co-parent a little slack; talk to them if you are concerned rather than accusing them. Be kind. This is truly a situation where taking a moment to process your concerns before leaping to anger or frustration will go a long way to promote a good parenting relationship. Showing that respect your co parent’s judgment, will garner good will from them and provide great benefits to your children’s emotional well being. It will make you feel better too.
Aron Solomon is the senior digital strategist for NextLevel.com and an adjunct professor of business management at the Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University.