Newly Divorced and Now Co-Parenting in a Pandemic

co-parenting pandemic co-parenting pandemic

My divorce, finalized a mere nine months ago, was what people call “amicable.” My ex and I never yelled in front of our kids and almost never yelled at each other. We negotiated our separation—both the legal and the material—with the help of a mediator rather than attorneys. We also relied on the mediator to assist us in the drawing up of a co-parenting plan for moving forward.

Together we negotiated how we’d share the cost of extracurricular activities, drew up a flexible plan for time-sharing, and agreed that neither would move more than 50 miles away without the permission of the other parent. Our mediator also helped us plan for the future (“How will you pay for your kids’ college?”) and for all kinds of hypotheticals (“What happens if there’s another housing crash?”).

Needless to say, we did not discuss what we would do in the event of a pandemic. The word didn’t come up in our talks with the mediator, but, even if it had, I would’ve waved it away. A pandemic? Here, in the United States? Wasn’t remotely on the radar. And yet, here we are. COVID-19 has steamrolled the United States, impacting every one of us and introducing us to a “new normal” that’s here to stay for some time.

My ex and I have no template for how to navigate this. We are improvising in real-time, with plenty of disagreements about how to co-parent through this. It’s not that we don’t eventually come to decisions we can each live with. It’s just that… well… we worked so hard to anticipate every possible scenario and were immediately presented with one we utterly failed to predict.

This pandemic has offered a clear lesson on the nature of co-parenting after divorce: No matter how meticulous your plan, life will find new and creative ways to test you.

If we’d still been married when the pandemic hit, I would have simply taken control: “This is how our family is going to handle COVID-19.” I would have set the rulebook for everything—from how tightly we restricted our social interactions to the types of masks we’d wear outside the home. Now, I can only control my half of the parenting. I can explain why I’m making certain choices and hope that my ex adopts similar strategies.

Throughout these months, I’ve generally been the more worried parent. Back in March, I’d scratched the math onto a sheet of notebook paper and realized cases were doubling every few days—exponential spread. But depending on which news sources you relied on, this wasn’t being clearly conveyed. Did my ex understand the seriousness of COVID-19? Where was he getting his information and was it the same information I was getting?

I told my ex that I’d sewed some homemade masks and wiped my social calendar clean. Telling him how I was handling the pandemic in my own home was my way of communicating that I hoped he would handle it similarly in his. We were divorce newbies, still learning to communicate with each other without resentment and defensiveness, so I felt compelled to tread lightly in what was literally a life-or-death situation.

Of course, soon enough the kids began distance learning and the parenting plan my ex and I had so meticulously drafted with the mediator went out the window. This was last spring. I work from home, so I took the kids during the workweek, and my ex took them every weekend rather than alternating as we’d planned.

Unexpected debates arose: How much screen time is too much? Does our 14-year-old son need a haircut even though he’s not going anywhere? How late should they be allowed to stay up without “real school” to wake up for? The pandemic made me more lenient in a lot of our daily rhythms, and my ex wasn’t always on board. But having the kids around all day while I was working full time meant I had to choose my battles. For example, in a non-pandemic summer, I would have set up activities to get them out of the house, off screens, and tired out for an earlier bedtime. But anyone who has had kids home with them while trying to work knows how impossible it is to maintain a whole lot of structure. We did the best we could.

My ex sacrificed too. He had planned a late-July weekend in the Keys for himself and the kids, hoping infection rates would be down by then. But as the trip approached, infections continued to rise, and so did my anxiety about their trip. Could they truly stay socially distanced from others at the resort where they were booked? How would they eat? Would restaurants even be open? Would anything be open? How would we feel if someone got sick? I really wanted him to cancel the trip, but I never directly said so. I only stated my fears. My ex ultimately decided to postpone the vacation, and my nervous system thanks him. I honestly don’t know what my move would have been if he hadn’t, but I’m grateful it didn’t come to that.

Schooling is another topic on which my ex used to defer to me. But the decision about school for this fall required several weeks of back-and-forth discussion. Would we do in-person, e-learning, hybrid, or straight-up homeschool? At first, my ex said he thought the kids should physically attend school, if given the option. But our Florida school district’s unwillingness to listen to health officials when making decisions did nothing to inspire my trust. Ultimately, we agreed that our 10-year-old daughter would attend her regular school via e-learning (she’s “in class” via Zoom), and our 14-year-old son would do a separate virtual school, allowing him to work at his own pace.

Parenting decisions are hard enough when you’re married. They’re harder when you’re divorced. Throwing a pandemic into a mix is like throwing a cat into a bathtub full of water. (No idea if I’m the cat or the bathwater.)

My ex and I didn’t plan for this. We didn’t even think to plan for this. For me, having always been the default parent and Decision-Maker, the urge to take control and assume I know what’s best is overwhelming. I remind myself over and over that my ex loves our kids and wants what’s best for them — even if we don’t always agree on “what’s best.” Work in progress.

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Kristen Mae lives on the Atlantic coast of Florida with her two children and her fuzzy little dog, Gizmo. She is the best-selling author of four novels, a freelance writer, and is also a classically-trained musician. Follow her on Instagram and check out her novels.