Co-Parenting During Covid-19

Seven Guidelines for Sharing Custody of Children During the COVID19 Pandemic

Leaders from the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML) and AFCC have released guidelines for coparenting during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

1. BE HEALTHY.

Comply with all CDC and local and state guidelines and model good behavior for your children with intensive hand washing, wiping down surfaces and other objects that are frequently touched, and maintaining social distancing. This also means BE INFORMED. Stay in touch with the most reliable media sources and avoid the rumor mill on social media.

2. BE MINDFUL.

Be honest about the seriousness of the pandemic but maintain a calm attitude and convey to your children your belief that everything will return to normal in time. Avoid making careless comments in front of the children and exposing them to endless media coverage intended for adults. Don’t leave the news on 24/7, for instance. But, at the same time, encourage your children to ask questions and express their concerns and answer them truthfully at a level that is age-appropriate. 

3. BE COMPLIANT with court orders and custody agreements.

As much as possible, try to avoid reinventing the wheel despite the unusual circumstances. The custody agreement or court order exists to prevent endless haggling over the details of timesharing. In some jurisdictions there are even standing orders mandating that, if schools are closed, custody agreements should remain in force as though school were still in session.

4. BE CREATIVE.

At the same time, it would be foolish to expect that nothing will change when people are being advised not to fly and vacation attractions such as amusement parks, museums and entertainment venues are closing all over the US and the world. In addition, some parents will have to work extra hours to help deal with the crisis and other parents may be out of work or working reduced hours for a time. Plans will inevitably have to change. Encourage closeness with the parent who is not going to see the child through shared books, movies, games and FaceTime or Skype.

5. BE TRANSPARENT.

Provide honest information to your co-parent about any suspected or confirmed exposure to the virus, and try to agree on what steps each of you will take to protect the child from exposure. Certainly both parents should be informed at once if the child is exhibiting any possible symptoms of the virus.

6. BE GENEROUS.

Try to provide makeup time to the parent who missed out, if at all possible. Family law judges expect reasonable accommodations when they can be made and will take seriously concerns raised in later filings about parents who are inflexible in highly unusual circumstances.

7. BE UNDERSTANDING.

There is no doubt that the pandemic will pose an economic hardship and lead to lost earnings for many, many parents, both those who are paying child support and those who are receiving child support. The parent who is paying should try to provide something, even if it can’t be the full amount. The parent who is receiving payments should try to be accommodating under these challenging and temporary circumstances.

Adversity can become an opportunity for parents to come together and focus on what is best for the child. For many children, the strange days of the pandemic will leave vivid memories. It’s important for every child to know and remember that both parents did everything they could to explain what was happening and to keep their child safe.

For more resources on co-parenting (during a pandemic or in general) check out our article on How The Children’s Needs Can Guide The Parents.

How To Talk to Your Children About Your Divorce

A lot of parents don’t know how to navigate a conversation about their separation or divorce with their children. I want to share with you some rules and guidelines to use in your family.

What I have heard from clients about telling children about separating/divorce:

“We told our teenager on Monday that we are separating. I am uncertain how to have read the expression on her face…maybe slight shock, or disbelief. We have had so many years of conflict, it’s hard to believe she was surprised! This has really unseated me…we went shopping on Tuesday and had a nice day, really some great moments, bopping around looking for cool stuff. But there was a pallor that was present all day.”

“I want to be able to tell our child why this happened, so she understands, but I don’t want to play the blame game. I can’t be completely honest, and so I think she  is confused…and I am getting so stressed.”

‘I don’t feel grounded when [my ex] is around, and I am sad and angry. Sad about all the losses, and also doing this to her [our child] when she is getting ready to go to college. Everyone is putting on their happy face but this is confusing.”

My Advice:

It’s always amazing to find out how much kids can be in their own heads, and not notice things going on around them. We can think they know/sense what is going on between the adults – but they often do not or they do not recognize yet what it is they are seeing.

Good rules to live by:

  • Let the child ask the questions – don’t bring it up nor volunteer information, other than what is asked for. Be open and answer all your child’s questions while following the rest of these rules.
  • Remember that – psychologically/unconsciously – children feel that they are half their mother and half their father, so that if someone says ‘your dad is lazy,’ they hear it as “half of me is lazy.”  That can help to guide you to avoid the blame-game when answering their questions.
  • Remind the child that she/he didn’t do anything to cause this. Because of the way our brain develops, it is important to reassure children that they are not to blame.

In my experience, children always know the truth of their parents’ divorce deep down. They know both of you, inside and out, and over the next 20 or so years she/he will ask more questions. Breathe. There is time.

Finding that balance between feeling you are being your authentic self and protecting the child can be challenging. Remember she/he doesn’t need (nor want) details that you might find important.  It’s the end of a long relationship, and it’s very normal to have mixed and complicated feelings. For all of you. If you’re feeling sad – you’re allowed to tell your child that…  But it is best to keep the complaining to your friends and your therapist – not to your kid.

Children’s Need Can Be Our Guide

Shifting our focus can help us resolve conflicts.

I met with a couple who used mediation for their divorce, about 14 years ago, and wanted to resolve a new conflict in their restructured family. The mother emailed me to tell me that they were having trouble figuring out the credit that the father should get for the child’s room and board expenses while he is in college.

She implied that they were having a lot of conflict, that the children spent almost no time with their father, and that the parents communicated infrequently (and only via text).

I feel nervous before the meeting. I was worried that the distance of the years that have passed would turn the whole thing into a screaming match. Instead, it turned out that the parents have really pulled it together to support their children in a way that I found very moving.

The mother started out by saying that she also agreed that her receiving child support while her son is away at college, and she’s not feeding him, didn’t feel fair. This lowered the temperature in the room, because father felt understood, and he didn’t have to “fight” as hard.

They told me about how their son is having some challenges, and the mother found a boarding school program for him to attend. The parents weren’t speaking much at that point, so the mother just put together the money to pay for a year in boarding school. The father said, “She did an amazing job. She probably saved his life. I didn’t have the money to pay for my half of that school, but in the future, if I do, I will pay her back.”

Since they both acknowledged each other’s needs, the rest was simple calculation. We finished up, and they left. When I came out of my office, about 15 minutes later, I saw them standing together outside, up the block, talking to each other.

Relocation and zero-sum discussion

I am sometimes so moved by this work.  There is so much at stake, and it means so much to my clients.

Today I met with a couple. The husband is a suited-up, successful professional, who cried, when thinking about the wife moving away to a different city, with their son.

Relocation is such a painful issue. Certainly – it’s better now that we have Facetime/Skype – at least you can see your kid. My daughter is away at college, and I do feel that I miss her less, after we Skype, than I do when we just talk on the phone. Seeing her face, her expressions – makes up for something.

But – ultimately – it’s a win/lose kind of issue, because one person will get those sleepy nights, putting your kid to bed – the hanging out – with him doing homework, and you chopping veggies for salad – the watching tv together – even the hectic mornings, rushing around getting breakfast, showered, dressed – when you hear those random questions about life, when you hear about her dream, when he tells you what happened in history class. And the other parent will miss many (though not all) of those moments.

But children really do need both parents, and children don’t stop thinking about the absent parent. They might think more about the absent parent. How many books are there about teens who are obsessed with their absent parents? A lot.

My hope is that we can find the interests they have in common – that the child really does need BOTH of his parents.  Can we focus on what the mother will be able to do to encourage the relationship of the father and the child?  Summers, school holidays, the child can spend with his father.  Maybe the mother can find a place for the father to stay in the other city when he comes to visit.

 

are there winners & losers?

I had a depressing mediation session today.  A session like today’s makes me realize that mediation is an opportunity.  But everyone is not able to take that opportunity.

The center of this couple’s conflicts revolve around their children.

Most couples I see fight.  But when I mention their kids, I get smiles, and proud stories of how well the children are doing – or stories about concerns for the children, and how to shield them from parental conflict – or discussion about what each child needs – but usually agreement about these things. The child is having problems, or doing really well, or needs a writing or math tutor, or could benefit from meeting with a therapist – the tale is the same, from both parents.

The families where that is not what’s going on – stand out.

This dad, Albert wants their son, Billy, to play on the travel softball team. Travel teams require a huge amount of time commitment. They usually have 2-3 games per week – and in the NYC area, with traffic, it can easily take more than an hour to get to each one of those games. In addition, the team has a couple of weekly practice sessions, and Billy is also doing private coaching. All of this, on top of school and homework, is a pretty heavy load for a 9 year old.

The mother, Andrea, has asked Billy if he wants to play on the travel soccer team, instead! Replacing the devil you know with the devil you don’t?

I have to be careful here, because I don’t want to be biased in either parent’s favor. Yes, the travel softball thing is a crazy schedule.   But – the kids who play travel sports tend to excel at sports through high school (and it can help with high school admissions (which is high-pressure in NYC, school-choice with applications, like applying to college only 4 years early), and college admissions (a girl I know recently got into Stanford because she was recruited by a sports coach.) In addition, kids on teams make friends more quickly, when entering a new school – because they have this close-knit group of other kids sharing an experience.

(Part of me feels like it’s insane and part of me wishes I had been able to manage the scheduling and put my kids on travel teams. Why I am a mediator – I can see both sides. But I digress.)

Billy is clearly aware of his parents’ conflicts. Billy told mom: “I feel like daddy won’t love me if I stop playing softball.” Andrea thinks Billy should play soccer, and applied to put him on a soccer travel team.

So – is it the travel team that is the problem? The softball playing? Or is it a power-grab – neither parent wants the kids participating in an activity picked by the other parent?

I worked with a very high-conflict couple, several years ago, as a parenting coordinator (a post-divorce process for couples who keep going back to court about their children,) and the parents actually had their 7-year-old going to 2 different dance studios and having classes and recitals at both studios, at the same time. Each of them wanted the chance to take the kid to dance class – so by golly, they each signed her up for dance classes. (They couldn’t alternate taking her? Because the need to avoid feeling like he/she LOST.)

Very dangerous, to frame things in that win/lose dichotomy. For many couples – thinking of it from the kid’s perspective can help guide the way to find the structure for the desired results.

 

The Draw of Conflict

To my mind, the costs of litigation and of fighting are so high – that I really can’t imagine deciding that I would rather fight than settle.  But I guess it mainly depends on how the conflict is framed – whether you feel that there is an important principle at stake.

If you’re going to fight about something having to do with the children, they will know that you are fighting in court, and they will know that one parent thinks the other is screwing them over (or both parents think the other is screwing them over) and they will feel pulled-apart and tormented and guilty, over being the subject of the parents’ conflict.

If a couple has true joint custody – 50/50 time division with the children – NY State still requires some payment of child support.

There are several options:

  • put in payments back and forth to each other – i.e., dad pays mom $100 on the 1st of the month, and mom pays dad $100 on the 15th of the month
  • net out child support payments, based on incomes – if dad would have to pay $1,000 per month child support to mom, under the statute, and mom would have to pay $800 per month to dad, then dad pays $200 per month to mom
  • analyze incomes and expenses, and allocate the shortfall equally
  • put in child support to agreement and divorce papers, and enter into a “side agreement,” signed 1 day after, where the recipient parent agrees not to enforce the order for child support.  This one is risky – because it’s really an end-run around the courts, and it’s hard to know whether it would be enforceable.

For someone who is very economically comfortable, but feels that there is a principle at stake – “if we both have the children 50% of the time, why should I pay child support?” –  is it really worth fighting about in court?  You will end up, very quickly, spending amounts on attorney fees that are similar to what you would spend by just paying child support.  And – in general – the courts are not too sympathetic to parents who don’t want to pay child support.

Even in a 50/50 time sharing case.

But – there is, I think, an unconscious fantasy that you will teach the other person a lesson.  That he/she will finally understand how hurt you were, or how wrong he/she is – when you show that you are willing to stake more money than is in controversy, to prove him/her wrong, and you right.

I don’t think anyone comes out of court feeling, “Wow, now I really get it, I was so wrong.”  In fact – I don’t think anyone comes out of court feeling, “Wow that was so satisfying, that judge totally understood me.”

In the divorce context, that is.

And then there is this article (from the website of Geneen Roth, Vol. 6, Issue 6):

I recalled something [my ex] said during a fight we had in a spectacular restaurant. “Why not think of all the times we’ve celebrated and all the times we have yet to celebrate as a bank account from which we can draw funds?” he asked. “Let’s put aside this fight, take some celebration savings out now, and replenish the fund when we get home.”

I remember looking from him to the mushroom tart on my plate, thinking, I could let this horrible fight go. I could enjoy this tart, and we could have a wonderful time.  Then I thought, ‘but if I let it go, I will be a wimp.  He doesn’t deserve to have a good time after what he’s done.  If I let go, he will win.’   I didn’t bother to ask myself what I would lose by holding on to my anger — I only figured that if he didn’t love me, the least he could do was suffer. So I said, “Forget it. It’s a terrible idea,” and ruined the evening for us both

Protecting Children From Conflict & Self-Blame

I was watching a movie the other night, (Future Weather) in which a 13-year-old girl came home from school and found a note from her mother saying, “I went to California. I left $50 in the drawer for you, for groceries.”

The girl lived in the house for a few days by herself, until her grandmother discovered her living alone, so she moved to her grandmother’s home.

Later in the film, she and her grandmother were bickering, and the grandmother said, “You know your mother wanted to get an abortion. Yup, she wanted to get rid of you, and I said to her, ‘over my dead body.’ Serves me right, now I’m stuck with you. What goes around comes around.”

This is one of the most horrible things I have ever heard someone say to a child! This child will never forget that statement, and never be rid of the feeling that she is the cause of all of the troubles of the adults in her life, she is the reason that her mother left to go to California.

I thought about my clients, who work so hard to protect their children from the conflicts between them, and who want their children to come through the divorce with as few scars as possible. I thought about the Child’s Bill of Rights, which I put into every agreement:

a. The right not to be asked to “choose sides” between the Parents.
b. The right not to be told the details of fights between the Parents.
c. The right not to be told “bad things” about the other Parent’s personality or character.
d. The right to privacy when communicating with either Parent.
e. The right not to be cross-examined by one Parent after spending time with the other Parent.
f. The right not to be a messenger from one Parent to the other.
g. The right not to be asked by one Parent to tell the other Parent untruths.
h. The right not to be used as a confidant regarding the difficult issues between the Parents.
i. The right to express feelings, whatever those feelings may be, or to choose not to express certain feelings.
j. The right not to be made to feel guilty for loving both Parents, or for developing a loving relationship with a new partner of either Parent.
Many of the parents I see are distraught over the pain their children will suffer, as a result of the divorce but – boy, it could always be worse.