When our state of Pennsylvania was put under a stay-at-home order back in March, I was concerned about how to broach the subject with my ex-husband. We often don't see eye to eye on co-parenting issues (perhaps the understatement of the century), and difficult conversations like this, which spotlight our differing values and opinions, are ones I've come to dread — and kept our lawyers on speed dial to help mitigate.
Much to my surprise, when the quarantine began in our county, it was easy for my ex-husband and me to agree to maintain closed households so our kids could safely move between our homes for our regularly scheduled parenting time. Maybe we just needed a pandemic to be able to find common ground.
For divorced families with contentious relationships like mine, stress levels, not to mention legal bills, are about to go through the roof.
However, the impending reopening of the country has created a new series of challenges that even the most amiable co-parents are struggling to handle. And for divorced families with contentious relationships like mine, stress levels, not to mention legal bills, are about to go through the roof. That's why it's so important to discuss these issues now, before your state fully opens, so you can create a plan that you both agree to follow and you can decide what the next steps might be if you don't come to an acceptable arrangement.
I learned the hard way when I agreed to allow my 11-year-old to visit a friend for an outdoor-only socially distanced play date before our county had officially transitioned to reopening. When my other kids got wind, they were concerned about how my ex-husband would react, and I realized that I needed to talk with him and have a full-blown discussion about our safety plan going forward. That's something Karen Bonnell, a nurse and author of the "The Co-Parenting Handbook," suggests, both for the sake of cordial former spouse relations but also for the safety of the children. "When one parent exercises freedom with the children that could expose other two-home family members without agreement, they are taking steps with other people's health at a time of great uncertainty," she says.
Fortunately, my ex-husband was extremely reasonable about my daughter's play date, and it turned into a springboard for a conversation about officially expanding our bubble moving forward as our county opens up.
But I know that my situation could well be an anomaly. Amy J.L. Baker, a psychologist and author of "Co-parenting with a Toxic Ex," says that when differences arise, it's important to be respectful in reaching out to the other parent. She recommends communicating via email, which allows a correspondent to ask for clarification about a situation before accusing the other of doing something wrong. "Every email should start in a friendly manner and use 'I statements': 'I'd like to talk about James having a play date with a friend last week. It's my understanding he went over to his house without a mask. I'd love to hear your thoughts.'"
Still, she says, "you really can't control what the other person does in their home." That's not exactly what parents want to hear when they feel their ex-spouses are making questionable decisions in the midst of a pandemic. So what do you do if, as I found in many conversations with my ex, you just can't see eye to eye — in this case, disagreeing about what "reopening" even means?
First, Baker says, it's your job to decide whether the decision your co-parent is making is just a difference in parenting styles or whether it truly jeopardizes the safety and health of your child. Sometimes those lines are blurred because of our own biases, so it's worth enlisting a third party, Bonnell says. You might deem "too much screen time" as jeopardizing your child's health. But is it, really? A parenting coach or health care providers, such as pediatricians and therapists, can provide objective health-related recommendations that can be tough to argue with, even for the most disagreeable co-parent.
If you do believe your child's safety is at risk, that's when to consider reaching out to your attorney. And when a child is in imminent danger, a call to Child Protective Services may be required.
Though we haven’t said it out loud, I feel certain that we agree on this: Our kids deserve to be safe and see that we love them enough to work together.
I feel quite fortunate that I was able to avoid this drama, which I attribute to patience, empathy and having the discussion well before the veritable floodgates of play date requests and party invitations burst open. And Bonnell agrees: "This allows time for parents, particularly those who struggle with communication or who are risk-averse, to present their concerns and seek support from a coach if they're unable to maintain an objective position."
I'm pretty sure this won't be the last conversation I have with my ex-husband about this topic, especially since we both need to start traveling for work, which opens a myriad of additional issues. But we seem to have an understanding that our kids are under enough stress right now — their lives swept out from under their feet, summer canceled and no actual sense of normalcy on the horizon. Though we haven't said it out loud, I feel certain that we agree on this: Our kids deserve to be safe and see that we love them enough to work together. And if we don't, that we're willing to text, email and reluctantly talk on the phone about it.