Co-Parenting in the Time of COVID-19
Navigating the Hardest Days Since the Divorce Itself
Any other divorced parents out there feeling the extra strain of shuttling a kid back and forth during a pandemic?
The varying degrees of vigilance between households requires the negotiation skills of a psych major with a master's in chemistry and a Ph.D. in mathematics.
In addition to easing the painful consequences of divorce, we struggle to appeal to the preferences of a child who’s already experiencing the terror of a deadly virus mixed with the agony of isolation from her peers.
Keeping kids off screens these days is a Herculean task in itself. We feel like bad parents if we let them stay on and like worse parents if we can’t find constant, alternative methods to keep them engaged and happy.
Death by Comparison: More Contagious than Coronavirus
A friend of mine has managed to fill her daughter’s quarantine memories with drive-in movie experiences, fun road trips and multiple COVID-friendly vacations. It makes me feel like a failure that I can’t keep up with her breakneck schedule. It’s all I can do to roll out of bed most days. The extra effort required to keep my daughter off the iPad or TV and distract her with some creative activity that takes me away from my own coping mechanisms, let alone work, leaves me exhausted.
Some days, an episode of The Simpsons sounds like a perfectly reasonable babysitter. My ten-year-old also loves scrolling the internet for memes. It makes her laugh. Anything age-appropriate that puts a smile on her face, I deem within the bounds of good parenting. Lately, if she wants to play with her hamster for an extra half hour at night (because he just “woke up” at 9pm), I say yes. One last episode of Modern Family before bed? Sure. Laughter is good medicine. So is cuddling with a furry rodent.
Right now, she needs a parent willing to bend the rules once in a while because, fuck it, we’re in a pandemic. Short of grabbing a crackpipe, do whatever it takes to make yourself comfortable.
Her father and I don’t always see eye to eye on this philosophy. He comes from a military background. Flexibility is seen as weakness.
His home is filled with rules and restrictions, making mine seem like a hippie commune by comparison. We’re more touchy-feely over here. By default, I’m often left to wipe the tears from emotions my child suppresses while at her dad’s house.
Don’t get me wrong. He’s a good father. I do appreciate the structure he provides, the emphasis on honoring one’s commitments and doing things when we don’t feel like it. Those are values I like to instill as well. Right now, though, with the world — and this country in particular — buckling under the constant threat of peril, might it be time to forgive a bit of resistance, sadness and anger?
It’s a scary time to be an adult, let alone a child. My daughter and her friends are well aware of the shit show we’re creating for their generation; destroying their planet and quite possibly their democracy. I learned the hashtag #okboomer from my ten-year-old.
My daughter fears the future she’s living into, and I don’t blame her. What will be left of the Earth for her to live on? These are not concerns I had growing up. Even with news of Watergate and Charles Manson crawling across the airwaves, I never thought to myself, “My world is in danger.” Kids these days are talking about how the oceans are polluted, the air’s becoming unbreathable, our ozone is disappearing. Sunscreen used to be optional; now it’s imperative.
To make matters worse, through no fault of our own, we’re raising a generation of future germaphobes. No more hugging friends. You could catch a virus, the flu — or a sexual harassment charge. How will this impact their relationship to intimacy in the future? They’ll never be the same. None of us will.
Now add to the mix, navigating all of the above from the context of living within a family of divorce.
The Divorce Dilemma
When even the happiest of marriages are strained under the quarantine, what hope is there for those of us co-parenting our kids from two households that don’t always agree?
My ex and I have been divorced for eight of our daughter’s ten years. She doesn’t remember a time when we all lived together, and yet, she craves it. “I hate that I have to leave you in order to spend time with Daddy,” she says. “Why can’t we all live under one roof?”
“We tried that and were miserable,” I explain to her.
Her father and I have both since re-married. Our daughter shuttles back and forth between our two homes “like a dog,” as she wrote in her second-grade journal.
It’s excruciating to see the pain and helplessness in her beautiful, brown eyes.
I feel guilty not to have provided her with a more boring narrative like the one I lucked into. I lived in the same house my whole life with three siblings and two parents who were married for over fifty years.
My daughter lived in three different states during the first three years of her life. We finally put down roots in California and have lived in the same house we moved into seven years ago. I’ve cobbled together some consistency and a community for her.
She’s an old soul, maybe as a result of her experiences. I tell her it’s shaping her into the strong, amazing young woman she’s becoming. And I do believe that’s true.
Not Clear for Take-off
While the first few years after her father and I divorced were turbulent, more recently we’d settled into a copacetic existence, sitting together at ballet recitals and sharing birthday parties for our daughter. His flight schedule as an airline pilot, which varies from month to month, has required us to work together and remain flexible.
Now, during COVID-19, fewer planes are in the air, and my ex hasn’t flown in six months. Which means he’s always around. We’re forced to reinvent our parenting schedule from scratch. He’s home all the time now, so he’d like to increase her time at his house from 20% to 50%. Seems fair. She likes spending time with her dad. However, the idea of leaving her mother during the most stressful period in history takes a toll on our daughter.
She cries when it’s time for bed at my house. “When I wake up it’ll be one day closer to leaving you again.” The morning brings further tears and distraught pleas for a “mental health day.”
I’m worried about her stress levels and possible depression. I struggle with how to explain what’s happening to her father. He thinks I’m making it up in order to exert control over him (or her). He blames me for fostering an “unnatural attachment” that makes her miss me when she’s gone. Girls and their mothers share an uncommon bond, I explain.
Believe me, I enjoy having time to myself. But it’s not working for her. We need to put her needs above our own.
Honesty’s the Hardest Policy
Our family’s held many difficult conversations during quarantine. Feelings have gotten hurt, egos bruised. All the differences between my former-husband and me that crept up during the marriage, they’re ten-fold now.
Text and email exchanges turn into fencing matches, our words as our weapons. The phone hasn’t always been a successful way to convey mutual understanding either. An in-person meeting, while difficult, seems to fare better. We need to look into the whites of each other’s eyes. It’s not comfortable, but it’s necessary.
He may not like what I have to say. I may have to listen to him tell me everything’s my fault. It’s OK. I can take it.
I teach my daughter, “Speak your truth, with love and respect. He’s a grown man. He’ll be alright.”
If she can’t speak up to her father, how will she speak up to a boyfriend, a husband, a boss?
“I spent too many years not saying what I truly felt,” I tell her. “It did no one any favors. Not me, not your father.”
All we can do is be honest with one another. And patient. This pandemic requires more compassion and creativity than ever before when it comes to parenting, particularly within a fractured family of divorce.