As a contentedly divorced friend once told me, nobody sets out to split up. But life happens: You grow apart. You develop different viewpoints on raising kids that can’t be reconciled. And, yes, sometimes you meet someone else and realize that you owe it to yourself — and to your family — to be happy instead of inert.
Navigating all this is hard enough without a pandemic. But what happens when you’ve created a bubble and your ex has a new girlfriend with three children? What if he’s sloppy with masks, or she won’t let the kids play hockey? Nothing draws out personal differences quite like COVID-19.
“COVID is like having a third party involved in your marriage,” says Alexis Davis, a parental guidance consultant and clinical social worker with Tufts Medical Center.
I talked to two divorced families who made it work, and two therapists for ideas. Their lessons are instructive for all of us — even those who are muddling through our own (somewhat functional?) marriages.
Ask teachers to e-mail both parents. You know who hears from the teacher, tutor, school nurse, and coach? Moms. But Mom shouldn’t be the one fielding every e-mail. Maybe one parent takes the lead on school communication, but each parent needs to be copied.
“We look at the week ahead for both kids and pass the baton, picking up where the other parent left off, because the district has pushed out information to both of us,” says Luke McCaul, a Danvers dad who shares custody of two elementary-schoolers.
Show up and step up, even if it’s messy. “What fathers need to do is step up beyond what your separation agreement says. This is a brave new world,” says McCaul. In fact, the pandemic has given him more time with his kids because of his work schedule.
“If you’re going to co-parent, it can’t be one parent every other weekend. It’s not enough to show up to the holiday musical and parent-teacher conference,” he says.
As the pandemic set in, McCaul had to come to terms with not being the “fun” one: finding ways to fill the time when playgrounds were closed, taking the lead on parameters around school.
“I think the biggest thing is that dads in general have a natural tendency to defer to their child’s mother, whether they’re together or divorced. There are situations where your ex-partner might not ever ask you for help. You should have enough common sense to offer it even if not asked. It’s the only way to co-parent. Co-parenting is just a buzzword unless you actually do it,” he says.
Plan, plan, plan. For Medford’s Brittney Ferguson, time without her 5-year-old daughter was even lonelier due to quarantine. And because her ex was laid off (and available to help more), she was alone more often. So she and her former husband devised ways to gather even during off times.
“I don’t like being alone. The days I weren’t with her, I was sad. So we came up with a plan,” she says. They would meet for dinner once a week or gather at a splash park for continuity. They’ll spend Christmas as a family, too.
Obviously this only works if you’re on good terms with your ex, but Ferguson says it actually helped their family dynamic.
“We ended up doing a lot more together the last six months because of this. I was exhausted, and he was ready to be the person with the energy and step in for me,” she says. “Planning is the best thing you can do.”
Recognize what’s rational and what’s baseless anxiety. I mean, anxiety is totally justified right now — but check in to see if you’re worrying needlessly. At the beginning of the pandemic, Jen McCaul felt uneasy with her kids out of sight, even though she has a solid relationship with her ex-husband, Luke.
“When everything shut down, I was nervous. I did check with my lawyer to see whether I should send them to their dad’s because he lives in another town. People weren’t leaving their houses! Custody is binding even during states of emergency, so I had no other choice,” she says.
But she wondered what her kids were up to when they were out of sight, from masks to potential exposures. Luke has a girlfriend, which expanded their bubble even more.
“I definitely worry about their health. In terms of co-parenting, I don’t fully know what’s going on when they’re not with me. That’s more of my anxiety,” she says.
The upside is that the whole family was nudged to communicate more than ever.
“We’re forced to talk more and check in more,” she says. “It’s the best we’ve gotten along.”
Meanwhile, she reminds her kids that the same rules apply, like washing hands, wherever they are.
Call in a neutral third party. If co-parents really can’t agree on a safety baseline, call in someone neutral, like a pediatrician, who can reframe the issue objectively: When it comes to health, certain issues are clear-cut — it’s about the best interest of your kid.
“It’s not your opinion or mine; we have a common goal. The common goal is, ‘What’s in the best interest of our child?’ Usually parents are genuinely able to talk about it from that [angle],” says Tanya Gurevich, a therapist and mediator in Needham. “When you get into that reframing, parents are more apt to say, ‘OK, you’re right.’ Reframe it to what you can agree on.”
And if you really can’t agree, consider finding a universal marker that’s indisputable. For instance, your child will play soccer until your town passes a certain number of cases.
Flexibility is key. “We’re living in times when flexibility is an essential human quality. If one parent has to be out of the house, and a kid has to be home, you may need to change the parenting arrangement to accommodate it. It is a tough decision, but it is temporary,” Gurevich says.
To the extent that each household is safe, she believes it’s important for kids to have the stability of seeing both parents instead of rigidly adhering to old arrangements. It might even be a good thing.
“Interestingly, it might give a parent a different ability to have a different type of time with the child. A parent who was seeing the children evenings or weekends because of their schedule might get a chance to have a different role,” she says, such as with the McCauls.
Identify your true deal-breakers. Indoor sports and no masks? Maybe those are a no-go. But if your kid is on the iPad more, or watching more TV with mom because she’s on Zoom, well, you might just have to deal.
“What are your priorities, and what can you let go of? Your child may be watching more TV than you want him to, but that isn’t going to be the end of the world. What are your boundaries? What can you live with?” Gurevich asks.
“Sometimes what families get caught up with in the day to day is not what matters. I dealt with a mom and a daughter over the teen wanting to wear thong underwear. Her wearing thong underwear is not impeding her from going to college. Let’s take the focus off the underwear. How can we help her make good decisions and not make poor choices? Take a step back,” Davis says.
If your ex lets your child eat too many Twizzlers but you’re on the same overall page about safety, well, you might have to let some things slide — even though it feels like we’re exerting some kind of control when we nitpick the little things.
Remember your old hobbies. Yes, self-care is a big buzzword, and right now that might look like doom-scrolling Twitter since going to a bar or a spa aren’t easy options. When you’re at loose ends without your kids and rattling around an empty house, Davis suggests digging back into the past to think about what brought you relief before.
She asks clients to come up with five strategies, four of which are self-directed (as in, not dependent on friends being available or stores being open).
“Think back over your whole life: What has brought you joy, made you feel calm, or helped you release stress? Maybe it means knitting again. Maybe it means start a mystery novel. It has to be something you can do on your own, and schedule the time to do it,” she says.
Finally, I couldn’t resist asking the experts whether divorces will spike post-pandemic.
“People had a lot of external outlets and are now forced to spend more time together. Make your own conclusions,” Gurevich says.