Making Co-Parenting Decisions During COVID
by Jenny Gomez
Being a good parent is hard. Being divorced is really hard. Making good parenting decisions with someone you don’t often agree with is very hard. And then, Covid….
Covid-19 has turned our lives upside down for the past several months and with each day, the rules of the game continue to change and we are faced with a set of circumstances and decisions to make, that have never existed before. There is nothing predictable during this time and EVERYTHING IS A HYPOTHESIS. But yet, we have to make decisions for ourselves, our children, our families, our finances, and our futures, as best we can, given a very limited and seemingly always changing, set of data. For parents in the best of marital circumstances, this is incredibly hard. But for parents who are in a high-conflict co-parenting relationship, those decisions can be loaded with historical anger, implied accusations, and fear of how yet another situation could be used against them in a courtroom.
Family law professionals (mental health professionals, attorneys, judges, etc.) are often working with families who disagree on all kinds of things and it’s not always about the disagreed upon issue itself that is most telling, but the justification and process that is relied upon by a parent in that disagreement. For example, if Jane feels that she and Bob’s 10-year old daughter (Susie) should have a cell phone and Bob says ‘no,’ that could sound like a normal parenting disagreement. However, in a high-conflict co-parenting relationship, that decision could also include other dynamics and rationales like:
- Jane wants Susie to have a phone so she can record Bob when he’s yelling at Susie.
- Jane wants Susie to have a phone so she can track the phone, therefore knowing where Bob is taking Susie.
- Jane wants Susie to have a phone because she is fearful that Bob is dangerous and wants Susie to have a phone to call for help.
- Bob doesn’t want Susie to have a phone because Jane interferes with his parenting time, by calling Susie and interrogating her.
- Bob doesn’t want Susie to have a phone because he believes that Jane is going to use it to track him and have Susie record him.
- Bob doesn’t want Susie to have a phone because he wants to keep Jane from speaking to Susie, because he knows it’s important to Jane.
Whether or not a 10-year old has a phone is a relatively simple decision, in the grand scheme of things. But for a high-conflict family, it can be incredibly challenging and expensive, as that decision may likely involve the child’s therapist, the parent facilitator, and maybe even the attorneys. It becomes apparent (rather quickly) to the professionals that these decisions are not based on sound parenting or what’s truly best for the child, but are driven by the anger, paranoia, and conflict between the parents.
However, making a decision regarding your child’s health and safety in the midst of a global pandemic takes the anxiety, fear, and potential conflict to a whole new level. Since we began ‘sheltering in place’, co-parents have been struggling with the differences of how each parent chose to implement CDC and local guidelines. At Jane’s house, Susie may have been allowed to have sleepovers, go to the mall, etc. At Bob’s house, Susie may have been staying home with Bob, not seeing anyone else in person, and having food delivered. This obviously creates conflict for Bob and Susie, but most importantly, what does it communicate to Susie about her parents? What kind of angst and anxiety does that cause when she hears two VERY different perspectives on such a scary and unknown topic from the people she trusts most?
Many parents across the country are now faced with the decision to have their children return to school in the fall in-person or opt for the virtual/online curriculum. This is an incredibly challenging decision for all parents with really no 100% ‘good’ choice and risks for children and families with either direction. Some of the factors to be weighed include:
- Does our child have any medical concerns that would put them in a high-risk category?
- Is anyone in our household(s) considered medically high-risk and/or immune-compromised?
- How important is socialization to our child’s mental health and emotional development?
- How important is being in a classroom with a teacher, to our child’s ability to learn?
- Do we feel that our school/school district’s plan for in-person education is compliant with federal/state/county guidelines, detailed, and that the plan to implement it and monitor it is firm?
- What is the flexibility of our jobs to be able to stay home (or not)? Are there other people that can help us, if we need to work outside the home, but feel that virtual learning is best for our child?
High-conflict families are also dealing with additional factors in their decision-making process including:
- Does choosing virtual learning give my co-parent more time with our child?
- How does this decision impact my case?
- What does my co-parent want or need? (I think I’ll choose the opposite).
- If I say what I feel is best first, will my co-parent simply choose the opposite because that’s just how our relationship is (nothing to do with what’s best for kiddo)?
Again, my question is…how does this impact the kids? How does Susie feel when seeing her parents argue about something so important (her health, safety, education, mental health, etc.) when it’s super obvious that they’re not really arguing about what they believe is best for her, but that they are arguing for the sake of arguing and hurting each other?
For parents in active litigation, I promise you that the professionals (legal and mental health) in your case aren’t 100% sure about what the best choice in this decision is either, but they are definitely watching how you go about making this decision with your co-parent and are looking at what your motives really are. Keep in mind that they are really good at seeing beyond the surface, as well. Here are some suggestions I’d hope parents would consider:
- Lay down the swords. Try your best to evaluate this decision (and all decisions regarding Covid and your child) with a clean slate and push your historical conflict and negative patterns to the side. They are new decisions, so let’s let go of old drama and patterns when evaluating them.
- Give grace. Recognize that Covid has sparked anxiety in many of us that has never existed before. Protecting your child is a primal instinct and when a parent truly fears for their child’s safety, they aren’t always rational. If your co-parent is seemingly irrational, don’t just be difficult and argue with them. Try to understand where they’re coming from, validate their feelings (that doesn’t mean you have to necessarily agree with their position), and stay on topic while communicating about this, without bringing in other issues.
- Who is going to be most upset by or impacted by this? If one of you feels passionately about this for good reasons (job security, elder family member in the home, personal health risks, etc.) and the other parent doesn’t necessarily feel strongly one way or the other, then consider letting the parent who’s most concerned ‘win’ this time.
- What is best for your child? This seems super obvious and what should be the biggest driving factor, but unfortunately, isn’t often actually what’s being considered in high-conflict co-parenting decisions. Parents will say it is and even tell themselves that, but when you pull back the layers, it’s often more about the conflict with the other parent than actually what’s best for the child. This is an opportunity to switch that dynamic and do the right thing here. So take advantage of it!
Unfortunately, Covid-19 has become an incredibly divisive issue in our country. It’s sad and frustrating and is making an already difficult and scary situation WAY worse. Parents have a choice on whether or not they are going to allow that divisiveness to continue in their family or not. I’ve personally been coping with Covid by looking for the ‘silver linings,’ whenever possible. I’m hopeful that traditionally high-conflict parents will utilize this challenging time as an opportunity to change the trajectory of their relationship, make good, sound, rational parenting decisions for their children TOGETHER, and that this will be the ultimate silver lining for their families.