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March 25, 2020 Blog

COVID-19: A New Opportunity for Divorced Parents?

By: Stephanie J. Gibbs

Schools Are Closed, Now What?

child with backpackAs divorced parents deal with “sheltering in place,” statewide school cancellation, grocery store shortages, anxiety, and other fallout from the COVID-19 virus, some are learning that meeting their kids’ needs requires a new level of cooperation with their ex.

Divorced parents may wish to avoid interacting with one another, but the Coronavirus shutdown is requiring more communication.  Big questions loom front and center: How restrictive should the kids’ social distancing be? Who will homeschool the kids? Should the custodial schedule change, now that a parent is out of work, or working longer hours? What if a parent gets sick?

With questions so basic to children’s immediate needs, divorced parents may be forced to make quick decisions during discussions that might otherwise end in an argument or court fight. Ideally, the necessity of quick and fundamental decision-making will lead parents to a meeting of the minds that also meets their children’s needs.

One Family’s Story

Here’s one family’s recent, true-life story. File it under the COVID-19 Silver Linings Playbook:

Alice,* who has been divorced for several years, sent her ex-husband an email offering to homeschool their children during the day while he works. Her job hours are flexible and his are not. Normally, these parents would argue over switched schedules and makeup days. Normally, they would avoid any discussion other than in writing. Normally, they would not agree upon much.

But these are not normal times.

So Alice did something she has rarely attempted since separating from her children’s father: She picked up the phone and called him to ask if he would agree to a custodial schedule that would allow her to regularly homeschool the children.

parents with walking with childThe first thing her ex said when he answered was “Thank you for calling.” He quickly agreed to Alice’s  proposal. Their conversation continued. They then agreed upon another issue they had disputed for more than a year. They talked about their kids’ emotional needs. There was no finger-pointing or bringing up past issues. They each agreed, silently, to set aside some differences so that they could focus on the new important issues: Staying healthy, continued learning, and time with both parents.

They told each other they were tired of arguing.

Alice’s decision to call her ex-husband wasn’t easy. At one point during the conversation, she started to feel anxious. But she recognized her ability to control the conversation on her end. Speaking over the phone instead of face-to-face allowed her to “fidget as I needed.” At a tense moment in the conversation, with kids yelling in the background, she asked if she could call back in a few minutes. “I was able to re-center and re-focus,” she said. “You need to know when to step back and say, ‘Hey, I need to do this or that,’” and then call back.

Alice’s observation: New circumstances – albeit temporary – offer divorced parents an opportunity to improve their communication skills and change the dialogue born out of custody disputes. “It gives you a chance to see it from the other parent’s perspective, and you may have more respect for that other parent’s role, whether they are the parent who was always working, or the parent who stayed home and had the hands-on care for the kids.”

*Not the parent’s real name.

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Stephanie Gibbs is a North Carolina Board-Certified Specialist in Family Law, a certified Family Financial Mediator, and a former award-winning investigative journalist. She is a member of the North Carolina Chief Justice’s Family Court Advisory Committee, and the Local Advisory Council for The Child’s Advocate, a project of Legal Services of North Carolina that seeks to give children a voice in high-conflict custody cases. If you have a question about this article, you may email Stephanie at sgibbs@divorceistough.com or call her at (919) 832-8488.

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