How divorced parents are handling the coronavirus pandemic and rethinking custody arrangements
- As daily life grinds to a halt, divorced couples with children must re-evaluate custody arrangements for safety and decide what level of precautions to take with their children.
- Divorced parents say they've had to have conversations with their exes about hand-washing and social distancing.
- Relationship therapists say patience is necessary, while a lawyer specializing in cases involving children told Insider custody routines will likely have to change.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
Sabrina Guler lives in Atlanta, Georgia, with her two daughters, ages 14 and six. Her daughters live with her, and her ex, the father of her 14-year-old, drops by to visit when he wants to.
Even though the exes are on the same page about protecting the kids, Guler still had to have a conversation with her ex-husband about taking precautions. "He knows I'm a little more neurotic about germs," she said. "I say, Hey, this is what I do at my house. In the past we've not been very aligned on the same values and he's been a little more relaxed than I am, but on this, we're very much aligned."
But for Guler, an executive assistant, navigating childcare during the outbreak has been surprisingly manageable. "One thing we do agree on is keep the children safe," she said. "They play in the backyard with each other. They do lessons online. He washes his hands when he comes in. We have family dinners. He does grocery pickup like I do. He's never done that before, by the way."
Guler's other ex-husband, who lives in Florida, wanted to see his six-year-old daughter as cities around the US start to go on lockdown. "He works in the hospitality industry," said Guler. "So we have agreed that now's not a good time."
Guler is one of many divorced parents figuring out how to co-parent with schools closed indefinitely and the government suggesting people self-isolate. As daily life grinds to a halt, carefully decided custody arrangements are now in flux, and parents must have difficult conversations with their exes about staying safe and hygienic so children aren't endangered.
Relationship counselors say divorced parents should take it month by month
For couples who've undergone turbulent divorces, this is a nerve-wracking time. "Maybe mom or dad is worried that the kid isn't getting great care when they go over to the other parent's house," Rachel Sussman, a licensed therapist who runs Sussman Counseling, told Insider. "That person might be a little more worried right now."
Still, Sussman says she's seen a lot of her divorced clients handling the outbreak with aplomb. "I've seen divorced parents having good conversations about coronavirus, talking about work schedules, if the custody agreement they have make sense to remain in place," she said.
Parents may have to have delicate conversations with their exes about taking health precautions so as not to endanger the kids. and given that public health experts don't know how long this outbreak could last, this could have a long term effect on child care arrangements. Sussman suggests couples take it month-by-month instead of thinking of the long term.
"You might not have a great working relationship with your ex-husband or ex-wife, but they're afraid too," said Sussman. "They're worried about the kids, they're worried about their income, and the more everyone can help each other out, the better it can be."
Some parents are re-evaluating their custody arrangements
The pandemic is already causing divorced parents to rethink how they split custody.
Allison Helmer, a nurse working as a clinical business systems analyst, has custody of her eight year-old son, and her son's dad comes to visit him once a week. After the coronavirus outbreak, Helmer considered canceling those visits.
Helmer says she will still send her son to visit his father this weekend, but if the pandemic gets worse, she would consider stopping the visits. "If I found it was really high risk then I probably would have been able to say no because I do have the custody," she said. "I think he understands and he would be reasonable in that situation because that's about everyone's health."
Kaajal Pandya, a sales director at eMarketer (owned by Axel Springer, the company that also owns Business Insider), has a three-year-old son named Dylan. On an ordinary week, she and her ex split custody. During the week, Dylan is on Long Island with her ex, while Pandya has Dylan for the weekends.
But Pandya, who is currently working from home, now has Dylan full-time because her ex's new girlfriend is a nurse, and Pandya doesn't know if she's been exposed to people with coronavirus symptoms.
"I don't want to expose my son to that so I decided to keep him here," Pandya said. "It is a little taxing, doing all of this on my own. Not having much help is a little bit of a stress factor."
Some parents are coming up with creative solutions to their custody quandaries.
Jessica Chaves works at a bank and has two kids, ages three and five. She and her ex have a 60/40 custody split, where she gets the kids 60% of the time. But for a few days, Chaves has been trying something new out. Her ex-husband now works from the kitchen table in her Long Island City apartment along with her. They both share childcare duties equally, with one parent picking up the slack while another is on a conference call in a bedroom.
At the end of the day, her ex goes home to his apartment three blocks away. He comes back in the morning.
"We're kind of just winging it," she said.
Usual custody routines will continue to shift
Social distancing and school shutdowns has caused many divorced parents to shift their ordinary routines to alternating weeks or two-week schedules to minimize disruption for the children, family law attorney Robert Wallack told Insider, adding that he's seen several disagreements about where children should be staying during the outbreak.
Cara Nuttal, a partner at UK Law firm JMW Solicitors, says the courts will view anything that happens in regard to your childcare in context, and the biggest thing that can harm someone in the long-term is a refusal to be sensible and focused on your child.
If visitation isn't possible, due to quarantine or concerns about a co-parent's levels of risk, Nuttal suggested a video call or a message could work in lieu of a visit.
"The usual routine will almost certainly change," said Nuttal. "It's easy to get angry and frustrated when precious time with children is cut short or cancelled, but generating bad will and resentment won't help once the crisis is over."
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