Co-parenting hits separated families hard during coronavirus: 'It feels like we're missing huge life events'
A week before anyone knew he would have to be quarantined for the next month, Henry Gabriel went to his dream school.
"I came in!" he shouted from his bedroom door. At that time, he was living with his mother Dawn in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They celebrated together and called his father Scott at FaceTime to share the news.
When he went to his father in late March, Dawn thought she would see him again in a few days. But then her twins got sick and it wasn't safe and now she couldn't be with her son anymore in his last year at home.
For many separated adults, co-education in the midst of COVID-19 means redrawing areas and boundaries, devastating schedules, and eliminating hard-won compromises for new, more painful ones. It means seeing your children only when the CDC gives the OK.
Scott and Dawn have been separated for 14 years. Since then, they have spent a week later and a week free with Henry.
In the coming weeks, Henry should take part in a robotics competition, complete high school, and pack his things for college. In the middle of a quarantine, things are still not so safe.
"It feels like we're missing out on major life events," Dawn said over the phone.
Dawn knew it was best to get everyone to safety. She has 10-year-old twins in the house who have already been sick. One of the twins was so sick that Dawn had him tested for COVID-19, but the doctors said his symptoms were not severe enough. She can only wait until her family is back in good health.
Not all parents agree on what to do during a quarantine, said family law attorney Nicole Sodoma, who manages the principle of the Sodoma Act in Charlotte, North Carolina. She has received multiple calls from parents who cannot reach an agreement.
"There is a reason why people don't live in intact families," she said. "There was a reason why they got divorced. There was a reason why they no longer live together. It was probably because they didn't trust each other, it could have been an abuse problem, it could have been a mental health problem - none of these things have disappeared just because we have a pandemic. "
One of the main problems is disagreement about the severity of COVID-19. While one parent may be more lenient in letting their child do what they normally do, the other may want to limit exposure.
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A good way to get these conversations across is, according to Sodoma, a doctor. A doctor who orders the quarantine can avoid conflicts.
"There are some things that will not be under your control," she said. "You have to reset your expectations to make the best decisions."
Across the country, parents are preparing for the first wave of reopening, which can pose even more challenges for middle parents. A trip to the reopened beaches may seem okay to one parent, but irresponsible to another. According to Sodoma, some parents are unwilling to leave quarantine.
"If a family member allows the children to do things that are not in quarantine, how high is the risk that the entire family will test positive," said Sodoma.
Sodoma advises families to communicate too much. She said it was important to address difficult pandemic decisions based on the understanding that the situation is unprecedented for everyone else.
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Jeff Williams, 51, lives in Portland, Oregon, and is the co-parent of his 17-year-old daughter with his ex-wife. Williams and his ex agreed early in the breakup that they would make all the important decisions together before they happened to be prepared. According to Williams, this would prevent any arguments that could arise from disagreements about major life decisions and plans.
In these agreements, they discussed visits, dinners, vacations, school choices, and tuition fees. They had carved the details in stone, but nowhere in these discussions did a pandemic occur.
Williams' ex is in Seattle, so there was growing concern about crossing national borders. Williams said it helped them nail the bigger things earlier in their breakup, which helped them get over the quarantine. Instead of arguing about graduation, school, or vacation, they could focus on getting through COVID-19.
For some families, the pandemic has affected jobs, school, and financial stability. From April to May the unemployment rate fell by 1.4 percentage points to 13.3%.
Megan Perez, 46, worked in four different jobs before the pandemic in Rogers, Arkansas. As COVID-19 got worse, he lost these jobs and moved to his parents in April.
"I was in a position where I had to choose between eating and renting," said Perez.
While his parents' move-in wasn't included in his previous plans, he said he was lucky to have food, transportation, and air-conditioning. His son is 7 years old and he shares custody with his ex-wife. He said he was lucky that their relationship was friendly enough to solve problems that might have been a bigger problem when they separated.
Megan Perez and his son.
Perez said that they agreed that everyone would follow the same protocols. They would isolate themselves as a family to protect everyone.
He said that even though they agreed to quarantine, his son would still miss his friends and regular activities. His son was in a taekwondo class that became virtual. It was okay at first, but as it went on, he started missing the more physical parts of the class. He missed interacting with other children his age.
For parents, thorough discussions and planning can get a family through a pandemic, but they can't always offer interactions that their children have with others their age.
Joanna Cooper, 48, lives with her 7-year-old son in Durham, North Carolina. She said that she could only play so much to keep him entertained. They were playing a game in the yard when she realized that she couldn't make the kind of connection that her son had with children his age.
"It's nice to see your imagination at work, but this is the kind of imaginative game that other kids are really good at, and that's where he needs that community," Cooper said.
When the pandemic broke out, she and her co-parents had to balance her custody plan to make the transition easier. She made sure that the more difficult conversations were always calm.
"There was a little concern here and there that we didn't agree on something, so I had to be diplomatic in how I approach certain things," Cooper said.
At the beginning of the pandemic, her ex-husband let her son have a socially distant game date. Cooper was skeptical that her son would stay a safe distance from his friend. The plans were not carried out by her and she thought that was something that should have been discussed.
"I learned if I could stop my initial frustrated reaction and give it some space and present it as a topic for discussion, more than a review that is more useful," she said.
She said the talks can be difficult, but they have to be at the forefront of the relationship to create the safest environment for children and loved ones.
This article originally appeared in the US TODAY: Co-parenting during the Corona Virus: Sharing custody is more difficult than ever
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