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.

Mediation or Collaborative?

Is mediation or collaborative divorce the right fit for you?

After you decide that you are going to separate, the first questions you want to answer are: What process will work best for you both? Who are the professionals who can help you to find the steps through to this next phase of your lives? Do you both want to try mediation with a neutral third person to help facilitate your conversation? Or would you prefer to have your attorney sitting next to you during your negotiations?

Mediation requires that you both:

  • be willing to sit together in the room and listen to the other’s point of view, even if you don’t agree with what the other person is saying
  • be willing to voluntarily disclose all financial information
  • be able to express your thoughts and true feelings, with the other person present
  • be able to advocate for yourself, and for what you think is workable for the future
  • have an understanding of your rights
  • not be out for revenge
  • have some facility around finances, so that you both understand your living expenses
  • have the goal of coming up with something that is fair to both of you, and that will allow you to move forward, whole, into your separated futures
  • have some trust in the other person, that he/she is not out to screw you over or destroy you
  • wish to avoid attorneys all together
  • want more control over the process – timing, order of discussing different subjects – and costs
  • both people hope to resolve things themselves, rather than having a judge make decisions about your family and your lives.

In the mediation process, I ask for a retainer fee equal to 4 hours of work, which you would replenish when it reaches 1 remaining hour.

By contrast, the costs of a collaborative divorce average from $10,000 to $50,000.

Collaborative divorce is right for you if:

  • you would like to have your attorney present to help you to advocate for yourself
  • you are worried about giving up too many legal rights, without fully understanding what you are agreeing to 
  • you and your ex are not on the same page with understanding about finances
  • you finances are very complicated, such as where one person is a business owner
  • you and your ex differ regarding how much information you have about finances (for example, one of you pays all the bills and manages the finances and the other ignores them)
  • we would like to invite other experts to be part of the process, such as a child specialist, or a divorce financial planner, who would act as neutrals in the process.
  • one of you has trouble listening to the other’s point of view, when you disagree, and withdraws from fights, or becomes flooded and can’t speak
  • we have questions about financial information, and would like a financial neutral to help facilitate the information gathering process
  • one or both people have difficulty expressing their actual needs thoughts and true feelings, and would like the attorney to speak for them about what is workable for the future.
  • neither is out for revenge or to destroy the other
  • you both have the goal of coming up with something that is fair to both of you, and that will allow you to move forward, whole, into your separated futures
  • have some trust in the other person, that he/she is not out ot screw you over or destroy you
  • both people hope to resolve things themselves, rather than having a judge make decisions for you
  • you both understand that, if you withdraw from the collaborative process, your attorneys will also withdraw, and you will have to start over again, from the beginning, with litigation attorneys.

In the collaborative process, I ask for a retainer fee equal to 20 hours of work, which you would replenish when it reaches 1 remaining hour.  

If you have any questions about what process: mediator or collaborative divorce is right for you, please reach out to our team.

Is Mediation Right for Me?

8 Reasons To Try Mediation:

1. Faster Path to Closure:

You may have been wronged – but getting stuck in conflict, and seeking revenge, will only keep you thinking about and tallying up – reliving – those hurts.  The goal of mediation is to wrap up this part of your life, resolve and settle, so that you can move forward to your new and (hopefully) happier future, without the conflicts of the past.  Let them go!

2. Neutral:

The mediator is neutral.  I won’t take sides with you against your spouse, nor with your spouse against you. Instead, I will work with you to increase your understanding of each other and of your conflict, and help you to find ways that the future structure can work for both of you.

3. Control:

Mediation allows you to have control over the process:

      • You won’t agree until you are ready to – when the agreement meets your needs;
      • You schedule appointments on your time-frame, and can take the time you need between meetings to gather information, consider proposals, run it by those you trust.

4. Private:

Mediation is private and confidential, so that you can frankly discuss cash income, addiction, infidelity and any other sensitive issues.

5. Quicker End to Conflict:

Conflict is painful. Most people have a drive to resolve it. When you understand the sources of conflict, you have a huge release of creative energy which leads to terrific brainstorming sessions about how to solve the problem and end the conflict.

6. Shared History:

You will always have shared your years together.  Even though you are splitting up, you can’t change the past.  Do you want to ‘wish each other well,’ and move forward into this next phase?  Or do you want to destroy your former partner?  Your children will not thank you for destroying their other parent.

7. Better Relationship In The Future:

You may want to attend future birthdays, graduations, weddings; be at the hospital for the birth of your grandchild.  If you have (a) child(ren) together, you will always be connected to your ex.  Mediation will help you keep the lines of communication open, come to a deeper understanding of why things may not have worked in your marriage, and be better able to tolerate seeing your ex in the future.

Litigation is ritualized war.  Afterwards, it will be hard to be civil to someone who tried to annihilate you, during your divorce.  Avoid doing that!  Many kids whose parents are divorced have said that the biggest gift their parents can give them is the ability to be in a room together, and be civil to each other.

8. Reasons People Choose Mediation (quotes from clients):

      • Either we solve it together – or a stranger will tell us what to do.
      • I don’t want it to be lawyer v. lawyer.
      • Keep the friendship that we still have.
      • Have a fair process – fair for both of us.
      • Both of us want to do what’s best for our child
      • Respect each other’s individuality
      • Get clarity about what is the right thing to do
      • Save money
      • Accomplish our goals, such as making sure we are both OK, financially
      • Want to be good co-parents
      • The law is a blunt instrument – discussion in mediation is more tailored to what we need and care about
      • Hope to be able to be friends, in the future
      • Want to spend time together with our child

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.

Moving from Litigation to Mediation

In mediation, we start from an underlying premise that we can find a place which will meet the needs of all members of the family. This is not always the case in litigation and often times the needs of the family get lost in a power struggle full of fear & defense.

Can high conflict couples mediate?

Looking back at the highest conflict couple I ever met with… Were they litigious, and went to attorneys who reflected where they were at? Or, did the attorneys make them more litigious? Hard to know.

An example of their intensity: During our session, she was so angry she THREW a pad of paper across the room as if she wanted to throw a boulder at his head.

Can this couple mediate?

They started their divorce process in a negative way – husband’s parents warning the husband, “She might kidnap the kids and take them to Europe. (She’s from Europe, originally). You should take the children’s passports, and change the life insurance while you’re at it.” He did as they adviced… Injecting fear and distrust into the process.

And then he hired a process server to serve the summons for divorce on her – starting with an attack which makes anyone feel fear – and when you are afraid, you look for protection.

The attorneys were fighting over the kids’ schedule for spending time with dad, and when the fight becomes framed as being about power – who will ‘win’ and who will ‘lose’ – it is hard to evaluate the benefit of trying out different schedules, seeing how they feel and what works for the entire family.

In mediation, I could ask, “How about we try mom’s idea for November, and dad’s idea for December, and then meet in early January and see how the kids are doing, and how it felt?”

But that is because, in mediation, we start from an underlying premise that we can find what they both – at least as far as their kids are concerned – need. That there is a place which will meet the needs of all members of the family. An assumption of bounty, rather than one of limited resources. That quality time with each parent benefits the kids and all of them.

We need enough trust that if one says, ‘the baby had a lot of trouble falling asleep,’ the other parent will say, ‘oh, the poor baby, what do you think caused that? how can we help him to avoid that in the future?’ and they can work together to try to resolve the problem.

Here – not sure we had that.

Also – she was invested in proving that she has been the #1 parent in the kids’ lives – wanted to know dad’s work schedule over the past year, to prove that he wasn’t a consistent dad. Instead of the question framed as – how can he be a better dad going forward, given his work and travel obligations?

Fuel for Conflict

People get into the worst fights when what they are fighting about is not what they are really fighting about…

I am working with a couple who have an extremely (and unusually) hostile and embittered post-divorce relationship. I am working with them as a parenting coordinator, not a mediator. This means that I was appointed by the court and have the power to make decisions if there is a time-sensitive matter pending. Usually, during mediation, I don’t have the power to make decisions (and why should I? Those are not my kids).

This couple contacts me periodically to mediate disagreements as they arise.

Recently, they reached out to me, because their child’s pediatrician recommended that the child see a psychiatrist.

Now, they are tussling – bitterly – over which psychiatrist to choose. The father works at a premier, top-ranked teaching hospital, and received some referrals to a couple of psychiatrists affiliated with the hospital. The mother now thinks that anyone in the hospital is automatically suspect, and will be biased in favor of the father, simply because he works there.

What is in conflict?

  • Will Dr. be biased in favor of the parent who pays? One parent has offered to pay if services are not covered by insurance.
  • Will Dr. be biased if one parent is employee of the same hospital at which Dr. is working?
  • Will the child be pressured by one parent or the other to choose a Dr. which he/she chose first?

It seems the real underlying conflict is the competitive battle that these parents remain locked in – who will ultimately “win?” Because – I would think that credentials and years of experience would give the doctor a presumption of competence. I hope through our work, we can find a way to refocus the conversation back to what is best for their child.

Does 50/50 reflect your feelings of self-worth?

Often times in mediation, we discover how conflicts bring forward other issues, including those of worth. 

A couple came in to see me to mediate the terms of their separation.

While still living together, the questions I usually ask a separating couple include:

  • What are your thoughts about who will move out?
  • What schedule do you want for the children to spend time with both of you?
  • Do you want to separate finances now? That will require (most likely) support payments (Child and maybe Spousal), and determining who will pay which expenses.
  • Or – you could just maintain joint accounts, and continue paying bills, including the new bills for an additional apartment, together, for the time being.
  • Is there anything else you need to discuss right now?

However, as we talked, it seemed to me that Allie wanted a more detailed and final separation, more like a comprehensive divorce settlement. She wanted to separate their money. She didn’t want Warren to look at her spending, or comment about what she spent money on.

This couple can afford to have one kid in boarding school, and one kid in private day school (and they do) – and yet, most of their conflicts revolve around money.

But was the conflict really about money?

Allie had not been working outside the home during their marriage. Their older child had special needs and Allie had been the parent who organized and brought the child to all of the diagnostic and therapy/treatment appointments, while at the same time managing the household. Allie spoke clearly and eloquently about the ways she had contributed to Warren’s and to the children’s successes – Warren had been able to work late and to travel as much as his employer wanted him to. He was able to be completely dedicated to his career, because Allie was home and completely dedicated to keeping the family running.

Warren agreed and acknowledged that Allie had done great work as a parent and homemaker; but I could see Allie did not hear Warren’s compliments and recognition. But, an off-hand comment to the contrary stung her deeply.

She said that during their marriage, she would occasionally want to pamper herself in some way, but that Warren would make disparaging comments about her spending, which made her feel ‘worth less,’ than Warren, because her work did not bring in money to the family.

It was these feelings of being worth less than Warren that caused Allie to end the marriage. Allie said to me, during mediation, “I want spousal support that will give me what I’m worth.”

This struck me as a very difficult goal. Is our “worth” as human beings tied to how much we earn (or don’t earn) in our jobs? I, personally, don’t think so. Would their children feel that their mother is worth less as a person, because she is not earning? Definitely not.

But – can the amount of monthly spousal support that Warren pays to Allie make her feel that she is worth more? I would posit that the answer to that question is – no.

“There’s a hole in the middle of the prettiest life,” as the song goes* – and nothing will fill it up.

How mediation can get to the heart of the issue:

It doesn’t help that Allie has not handled money much, during their marriage. Warren pays all the bills for the family, invests their savings and retirement assets, and Allie admittedly is ‘not good at understanding finances,’ so she may not have a realistic understanding of what are the options for the monthly support.

Warren started out by offering her 50% of the family income, and he said that they would each pay 50% of the family expenses, but Allie felt that would be too much book-keeping.

That surprised me – because 50% would meant Allie is an an equal – what could be more fair than that? And symbolize better that they are of equal worth? This process is what mediation is about though. Working toward understanding.

Often times what we are fighting about is not what we are actually fighting about. Read more here. And learn more how focusing on our children’s needs can guide us to resolution.

—————
* For Real, by Bob Franke

Review: HBO Show Divorce

Just watched the first episode of the new HBO show, “Divorce.”

They got so many things right. The humanity, pain and flaws that are in us all.

The irritation that we all feel with their spouses about petty little things when you’ve been married for decades. And yet, the way we end up knowing them inside and out, including their digestive schedules.

The way that a random little aside can trigger a huge fight. (Because, of course, it’s not random, and it’s not little. It’s part of a continuing conflict, that you return to to pick and pick and pick at.)

The appeal of the affair, the glittering idea that there is somewhere you can go and get back to your former life. The life that was there before you got married and had kids, where you can focus on just yourself, you can just have pleasure and escape and freedom. And how quickly that myth was shattered, when she told her lover that she was leaving her husband. “But you have children,” he said, with obvious consternation – revealing that he had no interest in being part of a future with her children.

The way that the husband said, “Let me give you an orgasm that will make everything okay,” trying to think how to fix things, and going straight to sex.

And then how I shuddered at the end when he said “I’m going to make sure that your kids hate you.” Kids will never thank you for making them lose their connection to their other parent. And yet – parents (married, separated or divorced) say the exact wrong things to their kids every day, because we are all flawed humans, and it’s realistic. And in the pain of recent separation, with all your nerve endings glowing, you can’t always see the big picture, and find your higher self.

Very painful show but good so far. I will watch the second episode.

Negotiation in the Shadow of Threat

I had a call yesterday from Josh, who is working with his wife in mediation, with another mediator. Josh called to ask me about being his reviewing attorney, and wanted to get my take on a couple of things.

Josh and his wife, Becka, were having conflicts over who would move out of their house. They had separated bedrooms months ago (Josh has been sleeping on the couch,) and have put a schedule in place for caring for their children, so that each took turns making dinner, being on homework duty – and having nights ‘off,’ just as they will do when they separate. But they are both still residing in the house.

Josh said that Becka is a type-A high strung person, who plays a lot of tennis and runs marathons, and that she has trouble not being in control. During mediation, she had said to him, “Either you move out, or mediation ends now, and I hire a litigation attorney.”

This is troubling on several levels. First of all, mediation is a voluntary process. The reason that the process is voluntary, is so that we end up with an agreement that works for both people and that reflects both people’s needs, interests, ideas, etc.

Becka was instead attempting to negotiate via threat and duress. “I will get the big guns out to destroy your life. I will spend our children’s entire college fund on litigation fees, just to make your life a living hell, I am THAT angry. You had better give in to me, or you will regret it.”

We can’t mediate in the shadow of threats. Just as – people can’t freely discuss their honest thoughts, ideas, feelings, if they fear later that they will be hit, for having disagreed with their (former) partners.

Becka is – intentionally or not – creating exactly what she threatens, because Josh may not be able to return to mediation.

What if Becka were instead to say, “I am really suffering, with both of us being in the house. Would you move out if I were to . . . “ and find some ways to sweeten the pot. Offer to give him some extra cash in the final settlement? Not take a piece of retirement that she would be entitled to? Offer to pay spousal support to him? Or pay his moving and set-up costs? Or offer more time with the children?

Then she would be negotiating. Mediation is about (1) coming to have a better understanding about what your ex needs, in order to move forward, and (2) reaching across the table, to offer something they want, in order to get something that you want.

Without the willingness to listen, hear, and try to understand the other person’s perspective, we cannot accomplish movement in mediation.