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.

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

Mediation v. Litigation

I was called in for a court-ordered mediation for a post-divorce couple, about to have a trial. Mother requested a custody change.

This couple are very wealthy – a walking advertisement for the idea that having a lot of money is a disadvantage when you’re getting divorced. (Because you can get sucked into litigation.)

They have been embroiled in litigation for 7 years, and have spent more than $500,000 in legal fees.

How could this happen? Here’s what I see:

1. Each has a feeling of entitlement – maybe a bit spoiled. “This offer is not perfect, so I won’t take it.”
2. Unrealistic experience of life? Is anything perfect? Do they feel – ‘my life isn’t perfect, but it’s supposed to be?’
3. Attorneys who see role as to fight – rather than to counsel. “If there is an argument to be made then it’s my job to make it.”
4. Parents who have little self-reflection or insight –
5. Always looking outside themselves for the solution – “I have this problem, and you need to solve it.” Passivity.
6. Part of the passivity is – not answering any questions themselves – constantly looking to attorneys to tell them what to do. They have delegated authority for their lives to their attorneys.

The mediation was actually immensely successful. During the weeks that we were working together, for the first time in 7 years, the couple celebrated a holiday with the children, peacefully and joyfully – they were able to sit in the room together.

Sitting down together, asking them what they are thinking and feeling, and brainstorming about goals are really different ways to approach the family situation (apparently) as contrasted what the attorneys have done with them for the last 7 years. We were able to resolve almost all of the outstanding issues between them.

Seeing Both Sides – A Challenge

Had an irate e-mail from a former client, who is now in litigation with her husband and was feeling (retroactively) that I was not neutral, but was instead biased in favor of her husband.

They were in litigation before they came to seem me – and came in for 6 hours of mediation, to try to settle their differences – but ended up back in litigation.

People often do feel that I’m ‘on their side.’ But what they don’t always see is that I’m also on the other person’s side.

In this case, the father really wanted more time with the child, and I was certainly sympathetic to that. The latest research shows, very clearly, that children who have good relationships with their fathers do fantastically better, in school and in life, than do children who have been cut out of their father’s lives (or abandoned by fathers).

In fact – even for children whose fathers just walked them to school on Mondays after week-ends – or fathers who attended parent-teacher conferences but otherwise never set foot in the school – get a much clearer message that their parents both feel that school is important. A little bit of dad goes a long way.

But – on the other hand – this guy was a kind of a loose cannon. He’d had his driver’s license suspended for speeding, and had in addition had several accidents, and he did not want to agree not to have the child in the car while he drove. He wasn’t even supposed to drive at all – no license! I tried to make him see that that wouldn’t go over too well with a judge, and he really didn’t get it.

(Was this narcissism – nothing I do can be wrong? Or stupidity. I don’t know – but came to the same thing – that dad might not have been a safe person for that kid to be with.)

Anyway – I reminded the wife of these things, and assured her that I had seen them – and she felt reassured that I was also “on her side.”