Co-Parenting in the age of COVID-19
American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers
Judging from tabloid television and social-media memes, the subject of divorce holds the same fascination as a highway accident: many people know it’s bad but can’t look away. And in the last two years, that gapers’ block has turned into a 24-mile traffic jam.
During lockdowns, many couples quickly realized they didn’t want to spend that much time together. The worldwide disruptions caused by COVID-19 have only amplified the usual reasons to initiate a divorce. But a substantial portion of legal disputes arose from unexpected changes in the family dynamic due to the global pandemic.
During the last two years, we have seen a flood of new issues involving alimony and modifications of child support; relocation of children; changes in parenting time to accommodate high-risk family members and essential workers; and enrollment of children in remote-learning versus in-person classes.
The level of conflict has escalated since 2020, with even more issues stemming from our “new normal.” This altered landscape also has intensified the role of divorce attorneys, who often find themselves acting as mediators and parenting coordinators for families unable to move forward after so many months in gridlock.
In so many situations, people’s respect for the opinions of others has greatly diminished, as you can see by spending five minutes on social media. The list of taboo subjects now includes masks and vaccines for children. Sadly, in the absence of parental cooperation, the legal system is forced to render decisions on these divisive issues, which almost always results in further conflict.
Here are several cases to illustrate particular problems that have arisen during the pandemic and continue to affect separated families. While hypothetical, they all are drawn from my own experience with couples who had entered into joint parenting agreements before the pandemic. These families had spent years working through their differences and effectively co-parenting, even after they had remarried and established new households in suburban Chicago.
- In July 2020, Susan and David disagreed on schooling. Susan, a teacher, adamantly supported their children’s return to classroom learning, in line with her own decision to teach in person. David, whose employment allowed him to work at home, remained concerned about infection in a school setting. He filed a motion to prevent his children from attending classes in person.
A guardian ad litem (GAL) was asked to make a recommendation, which the judge used in ordering a program of hybrid learning where the children spent the remote portion of their school day at their father’s house. This solution mitigated but failed to alleviate David’s concern. By leaving it up to the court, he essentially conceded his responsibility to jointly decide the best course of action for their children.
- Pre-pandemic, George’s work schedule required his former wife Betty to act as their children’s primary care provider. When George began working from home in 2020, he was able to take a larger role. So, in April 2021, and with his second wife also home full-time, George petitioned the Court to evenly split their parenting time. George argued that the children were thriving thanks to his increased attention.
After a GAL was appointed to investigate, George filed an emergency motion to restrict Betty’s parenting time, on grounds that Betty and her new spouse were not vaccinated, and that they traveled to Wisconsin with no concern about exposing the children to COVID-19. George grew concerned that their carelessness might result in the children spreading the virus to his newly pregnant wife. Refusing to acknowledge and negotiate changes in their home lives, the couple essentially asked the court to validate one parent’s life choices over the other, using the children as a wedge. The emergency motion languished, but the filing spurred more animosity in subsequent motions over co-parenting.
- Last June, Sean wanted his teenaged son to get vaccinated. Sean’s ex Liz objected, claiming that because the boy had already contracted the virus he was likely immune. The son told both parents that he wanted the vaccine in order to hang out, unmasked, with his friends. Noting the son’s preference, the GAL recommended vaccination, to Liz’s chagrin. When vaccine eligibility was extended to younger children, Sean—wishing to avoid another Court dispute—scheduled their 8-year-old daughter for the shot without seeking Liz’s approval. He then asked the child to keep her vaccination status secret, dragging her into their fight and jeopardizing her trust in both parents.
In each of these cases, the ability of parents to cooperate eroded under the weight of the pandemic, leading them to cede important family decisions to a guardian ad litem and an unfamiliar judge. Ongoing litigation feeds further animosity; parents channel unprecedented stresses into mutual distrust. They fail to hear their children’s voices. And the kids are not all right. They have been left to advocate for themselves, through a GAL, when what they need is support and assurance from both parents.
In the same way that a series of adrenaline rushes can physically fatigue the body, the steady drumbeat of virus-created stressors has fatigued the spirit, crippling these parents’ capacity for compassion and cooperation in addressing solvable issues.
Similarly, the onslaught of novel crises during the pandemic—with no valleys of calm in between—has deepened the cracks in the family legal system. COVID-19-fueled disputes have added to the caseload: one dispute after another, fewer periods of reflection, more fighting, more GAL appointments. As a result, co-parenting arrangements now must include new discussion of remote learning, masks, travel, vaccines and more. This global pandemic has irrevocably changed family court proceedings, as the court faces an increase in the newly contentious issues that have been added to its docket since 2020.