Divorced and separated couples learn to navigate the ups and downs of custody during covid-19
‘It presented a crack in the facade that we’re friends and super great co-parents or the poster children for divorce.’
Co-parenting Struggles During a Lock Down (and During No Lock Down)Julia Joy described her relationship with her ex-husband of six years as friendly. When the novel coronavirus forced the city of Boise, Idaho, to shut down, they agreed on no social interaction outside of the house and to wear their masks. But as the city has reopened, they couldn’t be further apart on how to raise the kids with a weekly visitation schedule.
“It presented a crack in the facade that we’re friends and super great co-parents or the poster children for divorce — any pressure cracked that really quickly,” said the mother of four.
Co-parents across the country have their work cut out for them. Even the most amicable relationship under constant duress, such as a national health crisis, can create friction. This is especially true for co-parents navigating complicated relationships with their exes. Trying to get in sync about a shared pandemic protocol, or not, as states reopen has left many families exhausted, frustrated and — most of all — anxious.
Growing Tensions Between Co-ParentsJoy said there are now more passive-aggressive text messages and arguments about how much the kids, ages 13 and 16, should be allowed to leave home or socialize. Joy has started allowing the children to hang out with two other families actively following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Her ex-husband, however, continues to operate as he did in March. Their discussions have reached a stalemate, but they continue to abide by their visitation agreement.
The Washington Post spoke to co-parenting families such as Joy’s to understand how they’re making visitation, family gatherings and life together work. Although some have found solutions, arriving at the answer isn’t always neat or clean cut.
Right around the time most states shut down in March, Elliot Taub’s ex-partner contracted the coronavirus. He recalls much of that time raising their 8- and 12-year-old as intense, adjusting to safety guidelines while his partner’s condition got worse before it got better. She was sick for about a month and half.
“On one hand, it was maybe okay, because it kept me from focusing too much on what was going on,” said Taub, who works as an associate creative director at a pharmaceutical ad agency. “I was also just so exhausted by the end of the day.”
Asking the Tough QuestionsLike many co-parents across the country, Taub dealt with some of the difficult questions brought on by the pandemic. What if someone gets sick? What should parents do about play dates or school reopenings? Their formal separation agreement, which they’ve tweaked as things happen, for the past 18 months has helped. It ironed out visitation schedules and where the kids would live, but the rest has been open and constant communication.
Meanwhile, issues such as children having more freedom at one house, like Joy’s kids do, compared with the other becomes a bigger parenting quandary about the safety and well-being of the child. For some families, it’s an issue landing them in court. In response to the rise in custody questions, states such as Wisconsin published guidance for parents with shared custody, and Texas’s Supreme Court issued a statewide order that directed parents to follow their court-ordered schedules throughout the pandemic.
Cases involving custody agreements have also started to inundate court systems already backed up because of the coronavirus. Evelyn Mitchell, a partner at D.C.-area law firm Chludzinski & Mitchell, said her firm has seen a spike in requests regarding custody and visitation.
“I’ve been advising clients do as much as they can without the courts. The interesting thing is that covid hasn’t enticed people to settle, ” she said. It’s difficult to have cases heard quickly during this time, but Mitchell said parents aren’t settling out of concern about health and safety.
Keeping the Kids in MindIn the event that co-parents struggle with communication, licensed therapists such as Ajita Robinson are called in to help mediate rather than braving the long wait to the courtroom.
She advises that parents find what they have in common during conflict. Typically, it’s that both parties want what’s best for the kids. Even if they have different ideas about how, she said, “I find the breakdown is in the communication with the other parent.” When there’s conflict or communication that isn’t going to directly benefit the child, it’s best not to engage, said Robinson, who also co-parents.
Taub resides in Manhattan, and his ex-wife lives in a separate apartment with a roommate in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn. They alternate days staying with the children in their shared home in nearby Park Slope, also in Brooklyn. Their answer to visitation during the pandemic is a practice known as nesting. Their kids live in Park Slope, and they trade days or weekends in the house.
Their amiable split has made open and consistent check-ins less difficult. Of course, this isn’t easy if you aren’t on good terms, but “it’s better if you let them know you’re considering their concerns as well,” he said.
Rethinking Ways to Interact (with Social Distancing)When their son wanted to host a sleepover, Taub’s co-parent deferred to him about what made him most comfortable. They decided on a socially distanced play date outside with masks on. For weekly visits, they discussed cleaning and sanitizing the house before the other arrived. Mask-wearing and social distancing when apart were both agreed upon prior.
Although a separation agreement can establish structure, parents such as Najee James in Brooklyn take their chances negotiating with their co-parent.
James got a job with Amazon at John F. Kennedy International Airport days before New York went into a state of emergency. He worried that his new job would expose his 2-year-old daughter, who lives with him full time. “It was mentally challenging, because I felt like I was putting my daughter at risk every single day I went to work,” he said.
He was laid off from Amazon about two months ago and has tested negative for the coronavirus, but the experience made him consider the risks of exposure. James typically makes the executive decisions about him and his partner’s daughter, but the pandemic meant they had to coordinate more. When they disagreed, it was about using public transportation and how they spent their time separately, but they have managed without getting the courts involved.
Adhering to CDC GuidelinesJames is the primary caretaker of his daughter, Khaleesi, and his ex regularly visits his apartment in Brooklyn.
They “spoke about the basics — keeping our masks on and not interacting with people that wasn’t for work or immediate family,” he said. Outside of his parents, his daughter only spent the occasional weekend with her mom.
New York is in Phase 4 of reopening, so restaurants, gyms and retail stores now operate with some restrictions. James and his ex continue to play it by ear, and they are even hopeful about having a socially distanced birthday party for their daughter in the fall.
“It’s tough to determine if it’s okay to do certain things,” he said. At some point, he plans on revisiting their visitation schedule.
When the primary parent is used to making the decisions, such as with James or Robinson, negotiations can be mired in mudslinging over past wrongs. Co-parenting for more than a decade and a practicing mental health professional, Robinson has learned to refocus.
“You have to remember you aren’t doing the mom or dad a favor by granting their request,” said the mother of two. “You are doing what’s in the best interest of your child.”
Pandemic Limits on Custody and VisitationsBefore the pandemic, her kids would visit their dad’s on weekdays. Now, Robinson’s children don’t rotate as often, and they’ve implemented more virtual visitation. What factored into the family’s decision was Robinson’s non-coronavirus-related respiratory health concerns last year, having a daughter with asthma and wanting to limit avenues for exposure. Her work as a self-employed therapist also offered the most flexibility for child care.
Getting on the same page took time, but compromise was an active part of their discussions. Traveling to see older relatives, for example, was where Robinson enforced her boundaries with her daughter’s father. She was okay with her visiting for Grandma’s birthday, but she wasn’t comfortable with additional company outside of the grandparents.
Other than her daughter’s grandparents being in a high-risk group, Robinson had to consider another child at home.
“The first few weeks there was some pushback. But I kept reiterating my concerns and where my points of flexibility were,” she said.
The battle ahead for co-parents is school reopenings. Najee James, Ajita Robinson and Elliot Taub have talked with their co-parents about staying virtual for the foreseeable future. Julia Joy said she’s open to allowing her kids to attend Boise’s public schools in January, but she’s anticipating more strained conversations with her ex-husband about it.
“I don’t know what to do. Like should I get a court order? That’s when it’s going to be a real problem,” Joy said.