Parenting in a Pandemic
As the novel coronavirus upends our lives, I’ve had dozens of questions about custody emerge. Presently, Philadelphia – where I live and practice – is under a “shelter in place” order, as are the surrounding areas. Schools and businesses are closed, everyone who can is working remotely, and this will continue “until further notice.” You may only travel for an essential purpose and are asked to think twice before going out. While many of my colleagues have provided insight on whether to follow your custody order at this time (and the answer is, yes, you should), it is my recommendation that parties be thoughtful about how to address what will hopefully be an unprecedented occurrence:
1. Think Creatively About Rearranging Time: Generally, our goal is to maintain consistency in children’s lives – but this is a time where that has already gone out the window. Instead, with no school and many parties working from home, it may make sense to minimize travel and possibly increase time with the children. It is my recommendation that, rather than two short midweek dinner visits, it makes more sense to expand weekend time, maybe Thursday to Monday, so that there is one less transition. Rearranging time to provide longer periods with each parent also provides a greater respite for the primary custodian who may be feeling burnt out with 24/7 togetherness. If you are exercising equal custody, now might be a good time to try out longer stretches to minimize transitions.
2. Create a New Pattern: Start with the premise that both parents want their children to be safe and understand that your ex has the same desire. Have a plan when your child transitions and let your child know exactly what to expect. This may mean having them shower and change their clothes as soon as they get into your home. It may mean no snacks from Wawa even though you always exchange there.
3. Keep Each Other Informed: I know parents who are taking their temperatures at exchanges to, hopefully, minimize the risk and spread of the virus. This is not just for parents and children, but for the good of the greater community. If you feel sick, let the other parent know. Exercise good judgment for everyone’s sake.
4. And . . . Make Up Missed Time: If one parent is ill, or a child is ill, it makes sense to limit contact. If this occurs, my general recommendation is that the other parent should get an opportunity to make up that time. FaceTime is not a substitute for actual custody time with the other parent. While I encourage its use during extended periods of absence, especially with anyone whom your children engage on a regular basis, if a child misses time with a parent, try to provide additional custody time when life returns to normal.
5. Finally, Accept What is Happening: Simply put, parents, lawyers and judges do not have a preexisting framework for how to handle COVID-19. It took time to put emergency safety procedures in place. Accept that you cannot change the behavior of others and this period of extra tension and stress is not helpful to people who already disagree. Give yourself, and your co-parent, the space and grace to make errors and express frustration.
In the midst of a lot of negative emotions, there have been some articles that express hope that this pandemic will create a reset in national consciousness. I am hopeful too that all parents will find new patterns of relating to each other in a kinder, gentler fashion that lasts long after these unusual circumstances.
Of course, if you have questions along the way or need ideas for navigating exchanges, reach out to me via e-mail or any of my colleagues at BKW. We’re always here to help.