COVID-19 Co-Parenting in a Pandemic: Opportunities for Cooperation and Flexibility

In an earlier article, I talked about the expectation that the parenting plan that was in place before COVID19 pandemic continues to be in place, and should be followed by both parents for the benefit of the children.

However, it is often true that times of crisis remind us all about what’s important, which is our relationships, particularly our relationships with our children. It’s a great time to remember that your ex-spouse, regardless of why you divorced or broke up, is still the parent to your child. This may be the time to make some improvements to the relationship with your ex for the benefit of your children. If you normally don’t communicate at all with your ex unless you absolutely have to, this may be a good time to reconsider whether your communication can be improved. This does not mean that you are suddenly going to be best friends, and start going out for joint dinners. It can mean, however, that you can see whether there can be a change in communication style that will have some long term benefits for your children. There are also many communication programs that can help in establishing communication methods that create more structure.

The ones I recommend most often are: Talking Parents, Our Family Wizard, and Whatsapp. Each have different benefits depending on your circumstances. Each program sends a text or an email that says there is a message. The importance of this is that you can choose when to look at the program, the message does not immediately pop-up on your phone. Talking Parents is backed up in the Cloud, with a limited period of time to edit the message before it is backed up. This is particularly good if you have an ex who will blow up your phone with abusive text messages, or emails, and then delete them after you have received them and the damage is done. Yes, you have the communications, but you may not want to keep looking at abusive texts among your normal messages. Talking Parents also arranges the messages in subject strings, so that each message string relates to the same topic. Our Family Wizard is best if you are trying to coordinate dates and events, as there is a shared calendar, which allows for events to be updated as changes happen, such as when baseball games are rescheduled when the first closures started happening, then was cancelled. All of those types of events can be put into the shared calendar. OFW also has a provision the messages you send can be edited or taken down, but with a very limited window to do so. This is important if you need to preserve the message as documentation that something was said. OFW also has something called a “tone meter” so that if the language that you are using is considered by the computer program to be inappropriate, you will be blocked from sending it. That’s great as a way to check your own worst impulses to say something ugly then hit send, or conversely, not to have to receive hostile or inappropriate messages. The computer program is not infallible, since computers don’t understand context, but it makes you become more aware of the importance of monitoring your words and your tone. Lastly, Whatsapp is not a specific parenting communication program, but it allows you to set up communication which can be downloaded into single line text, and stored, rather than trying to take a screen shot of a text, so that each screen becomes a full page, which is difficult to read and to follow. Whatsapp also allows for group communication, so that if you have a significant other, or a friend who is helping to facilitate communication, or transportation, or to act as a screener of information before you see it, these groups can be set up easily.

The pandemic also means that schools were closed in early March, and are not reopening. Even if it isn’t in the parenting schedule, if your parenting schedule was based on school being in session, and the need for the children to be close to the school, this may be an opportunity to allow for more parenting time to the parent who does not live close enough to the school to take the children to school. If there is no school, then the parent who doesn’t necessarily have parenting time during the middle of the week can have additional time. Many parents are also at home during the shelter in place, so the usual demands of needing to be at work away from home are temporarily gone. This is a great time to ask or negotiate for additional parenting time in the short term.

Both parents also need to be committed to following through on the lessons that the children should be doing during “distance learning.” This time is not truly an extended vacation, schools are trying to maintain learning as best as possible, so that children’s learning can be ready to progress to the next year. If you are asking for additional parenting time, but are not willing to spend a few hours a day on school work, then the additional parenting time is not going to be beneficial for your children.

It’s also a great time to think about having as much flexibility as possible in the logistics of parenting time. Maybe your transition place is a park, where the kids can play before going to the other parent. You can’t do that now because the parks are closed. You don’t need to have a court order to make other arrangements during the interim. Maybe you have more flexibility to provide transportation now that you are working from home. Volunteer to do additional transportation when you can do so, without it impacting your work requirements. You may not be able to do it when things return more to normal, but you can sure build up some emotional goodwill capital by doing so.

I cannot stress enough the importance of communicating any potential risks to your children to the other parent. If you think that your child has been exposed to COVID19, or that you have been exposed to COVID19, let the other parent know. If you have to miss two weeks of parenting time to make sure that you don’t have the virus, that’s a solid investment in your children’s health, and a strong indication of willingness to put your children first to the other parent. Conversely, if the children have to be quarantined with the other parent because someone has tested positive, don’t argue that it’s your parenting time and you want it no matter what. Focus on what your children need to be healthy.

Court judgments define what your legal rights and responsibilities are. They do not prevent you from cooperating and communicating with an eye towards benefiting your children. Court orders certainly do not prevent you from agreeing to an informal modification that better meets everyone’s needs during this extremely stressful time. The best benefit of all? Maybe that toxic relationship can shift into a more productive one, as we all take the opportunity to turn a disadvantage into an advantage for your children.