Across the country, as Americans adjust to the new normal — working from home, online schooling and social distancing — many families also are grappling with co-parenting through a pandemic. Even under ideal circumstances, shuttling kids between households or coordinating parental visits can be trying. Throw in the need to “flatten the curve,” and you’ve got a recipe for major stress and potential conflict.
Parents may disagree about whether kids should maintain the parental visitation schedule and how much kids should be going out in the world.
“People are still wrestling with those kinds of decisions,” says Karen Bonnell, a Seattle-based co-parenting coach and author of numerous books on co-parenting. “It’s important in a two-home family that the co-parents are following the protocols. So I don’t want one parent to say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter, we’re going to go out socializing,' and then you can have the virus migrating across houses because somebody’s been somewhat irresponsible in terms of social distancing.”
Disagreements can extend beyond parents to stepparents and partners, too. In a Facebook Messenger exchange, a mother told me she is concerned her fiance and his ex-wife are not restricting their three children’s movements enough. All three adults are immunocompromised — which means they are at greater risk of contracting the coronavirus and having more-severe symptoms.
“The other night my fiance’s teenage daughter went out to dinner with some friends, and this was after my fiance, his ex-wife and I decided not to allow outsiders into our quarantine circle. Normally, the kids go back and forth between our homes, and we view ourselves as one household,” she told me in a subsequent phone call. “Now I’m worried and think his daughter should be isolated for 14 days, but her parents disagree.”
She said the three of them get along well but that she’s the outlier on this issue.
“I recognize I am not the parent, but in this case, I feel like this situation is different, and it’s putting all of our health at risk,” she said.
When faced with an impasse like this, Bonnell advises families to reach out to a third party for guidance in making an informed decision.
“If parents are struggling with what protocols to follow, I’ll say, ‘I want you to call the consulting nurse at the pediatrician’s office, and I want you to commit to the guidelines that your chosen and agreed-upon health-care provider is asking you to follow during this crisis.’”
Bonnell said co-parents are far more likely to listen to an expert than to each other, even if the expert is saying the same thing as the parent. For this reason, she said it’s important to have an objective opinion, and it should come from a recognized authority, such as a health-care professional or public health official.
“Someone who doesn’t have a dog in the arena, who really just wants your children to be healthy,” Bonnell said, adding that it’s important to acknowledge this is a public health crisis, and we are still learning about the parameters.
Those parameters change daily. When I first told my ex-husband he shouldn’t visit our son, he said he wanted to take a wait-and-see approach, and I got off the phone feeling as though I might be overreacting. Now, New York is the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States, and residents have been ordered to stay at home. He may not be able to visit our son for months, which will be tough on them both, but all three of us agree we’re doing the right thing. That doesn’t make it any easier, though.
Kerry Beth Neville, a writer in Georgia, canceled a visit from her two teenage children, who live with their father in Pennsylvania. They usually visit Neville for a weekend about every six weeks, but she told me in a Facebook Messenger chat it wasn’t worth her children being exposed, getting sick or being carriers. She added that their father has a new baby, and she didn’t want her children carrying the virus back to that home.
“I had to balance my selfish Momma desire to see them, to hug them, to have time with them against the long view. Better to miss a few days now than any of us having more dire consequences,” wrote Neville.
She tells me when she broke the news to her daughter, the 17-year-old said, “We need to stay healthy and not spread the virus. Do our part!”
Bonnell said what really matters is what we tell our children and the example we set for them in how to handle a crisis.
“What we want to do is to say to our kids, ‘Mom and dad, mom and mom or dad and dad; we’ve got this and for now, while we’re figuring out how to keep everybody healthy, we’re going to do it this way, but you’re going to be able to do FaceTime as much as you want,’” Bonnell said.
She suggested making use of technology to help kids feel connected and supported and facilitating extra contact with the other parent to preempt any guilt their children might feel.
“Tell your child, ‘This is your time that you should have been at home with your dad. Do you guys want to cook together tonight? I’ll help you do it vis-a-vis FaceTime.’ This is where parents can really show their support for one another even in the face of this crisis,” Bonnell said.
Neville said she’s sad and worried not to have her children with her and that video-chatting and texting with her kids and extended family have been her salvation.
“We’ve set up a group social isolation chat with my whole family: grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins, posting funny selfies and messages of encouragement,” she wrote in a message.
In my household, my son and his father talk on the phone more often, and I’ve encouraged them to FaceTime — particularly when my son is doing his math homework. I know the separation is hard on them both, and I’ve told my son it may be months before his dad can visit. When that day comes, if they want to spend extra weekends together to make up for lost time, it’ll be fine with me.
“Most people just want to be good parents, they really do,” Bonnell said. “Especially in a crisis, they just want to be good parents.”