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When Co-Parents Clash in a Pandemic

With children from both relationships moving back and forth between their homes, the risk of spreading the virus became very real, and Ma had her elderly parents living with her. “For the first time in four-and-a-half years, my ex and I were able to agree on how to handle the situation,” she said. “He was very willing to compromise and, truly, the kids came first.” She agreed to have them quarantine with their dad for 12 days (the longest she’d ever been away from them), and brought doughnuts and In & Out meals for them to share in a makeshift driveway picnic.

While Ma sees this as a hopeful step toward a better co-parenting relationship, there is still plenty she and her ex don’t agree on. He’s much more open to play dates and wasn’t even having the kids wear masks until recently. And this is something couples will continue to struggle with. Can I take the kids to a restaurant with outdoor seating? What about indoor seating? Do they have to wear masks? Can they travel for the holidays? To say nothing of upcoming vaccines, which legal experts predict will be the next big battle to flood the family court system.

During uncertain times, “these kinds of discussions are on the table even for families that live together,” said Sanam Hafeez, a psychologist and expert witness in child custody cases in New York. “Everyone has to be flexible because these are going to be ongoing conversations.”

As the divorced mom of twins, she stresses that even agreeable ex-partners should put their parenting plan, and any changes to it, in writing. “If your agreement is at all unclear, things can very quickly spiral,” she said.

A common catalyst for that spiral is when one partner starts seeing someone new. Under normal circumstances, adding a new romantic partner to the mix can intensify an already strained relationship between exes. But these aren’t normal circumstances.

“Not being able to control that other environment your child is walking into wasn’t as much of an issue before Covid,” said Jennifer Rankin, 48, an author and lecturer in Laguna Beach, Calif., who shares custody of her 10-year-old daughter with her ex-husband. She was still finalizing her divorce in March when her elderly mediator went MIA, so she had little recourse when she discovered that her ex had a woman or women staying at his place on his noncustodial days.

Normally, what a parent does on their noncustodial days is up to them, but when you’re talking about a virus that spreads through human contact, suddenly you have to consider all the potential risks to your child and anyone they come in contact with. Rankin told her ex she wanted to limit their daughter’s visits with him, but he only relented after hearing his daughter’s concerns about getting sick from her therapist.

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