Here in Illinois, we have been under a stay-at-home order since the middle of March. Pursuant to Governor Pritzker’s Executive Orders, we should be staying at home except for “essential travel.” Included in essential travel is “travel required by law enforcement or court order, including to transport children pursuant to a custody agreement.” All around the United States, families have had to adjust to a new normal. There are different things we are seeing from other family law practitioners around the country.
The first is that parents are inevitably handling the social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders differently. One parent may be strictly following these guidelines and orders, while another parent may be taking a more lackadaisical approach to sheltering in place and social distancing. Many courts have issued directives that parenting time should be moving forward as scheduled. This means if you are the stricter parent with regard to social distancing, you do not automatically get to trump the parent who is laxer with these things. Unfortunately for those parents who are not getting parenting time because one parent is wrongfully withholding the child, the longer this goes on, the harder it logistically becomes to schedule makeup time. However, you and your co-parent are more than welcome to come to a temporary agreement during these crazy times. In fact, you are encouraged to come to whatever agreement works best for you and your family. Maybe this means foregoing exchanging the child now, in exchange for the other parent exercising extended parenting time in the summer.
What do you do if your co-parent has been diagnosed with COVID-19, or your co-parent is an essential worker who is working on the front lines in this crazy time? You and your co-parent can compromise to ensure that your child is still seeing their other parent, but in ways that keep your child safe. Perhaps this involves the other parent exercising his or her parenting time outside in the yard with the child to maximize social distancing, but also allowing the child to see and interact with the parent in person. This also may involve more Facetime calls than normal. Maybe you can even come up with some new traditions during quarantine, like a game night over Facetime, or having the other parent read the bedtime story on Facetime or speakerphone. Make sure you are not cutting your co-parent off from seeing the child you share. This means coming up with creative ways to foster your child’s relationship with the other parent, even if it means social-distanced quality time in the yard or game nights over Facetime.
Although you and your co-parent may not be the best of friends and may usually only communicate in the event you have to, or when you are looking to switch weekends, it’s time you start communicating more with your co-parent. Things are changing in connection with the pandemic almost daily. Some mediators have been offering short, half-hour free mediation sessions to help parents push through one parent’s apprehension about the other parent bringing the child to their residence and coming to an arrangement everyone can live with. Perhaps for the parent who is deathly afraid of COVID-19, this involves taking the child’s temperature once or twice daily and sending a picture of the reading to the other parent. Find a way to work together with your co-parent to keep things as normal as possible for your child, if that’s possible. Make sure you and your co-parent are assessing this ever-changing situation on a regular basis to determine if a temporary change in the parenting arrangement is what’s best for everyone.
Lastly, you and your co-parent should deal with children’s issues day by day. This pandemic is a fluid, changing situation. In these times, your children are bound to have hundreds (if not thousands) of questions. They are in a very scary time in their lives—their routine and sense of normalcy have been completely uprooted and disturbed. As parents, you likely don’t want to make any kind of promises that you will not be able to keep with them. Be on a united front with your co-parent on how you discuss these things. Decide between the two of you how you should answer when your child asks when things will go back to normal. Maybe this means you have to repeat, “Why don’t we just take this day-by-day,” day in and day out when they ask if they’ll be able to go back to school tomorrow for the umpteenth time since the shelter at home started. But it avoids you trying to give answers you don’t know and looking like the bad guy when you said you think your child will be able to go back to gymnastics in June, and when June comes around that doesn’t happen. If your child is struggling with the idea of feeling “stuck” at home, try to re-frame their mindset. They are safe at home, instead. Whatever children’s issues you have to deal with, make sure you and your co-parent are presenting a united front. Maybe this means you have a “family meeting” or heart to heart with your child and the other parent through Facetime to work through issues your child is facing.
Hang in there, parents. These unprecedented times are hard on everyone, and no one has all of the answers. Keep lines of communication open with your other parent, compromise on ways to make everyone feel comfortable with the child going between houses, and deal with children’s issues day-by-day. And most importantly, try to keep things as normal as you can for your child. These times are just as scary for them as it is for you. If you need to come up with some alternatives, compromise, and get creative to come to an arrangement everyone can live with. However, if you are unable to resolve parenting issues that come up, you should consult an attorney for other avenues to resolve parenting issues that arise during this time.
If your child is struggling with staying safe at home, our therapy dog, Duke Sterk, has a book on Amazon titled “Stuck In the Dog House: A Children’s Story About the Coronavirus,” to help your little ones understand that they aren’t stuck at home… they’re safe at home.
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