Co-parenting Through a Global Pandemic
Dr. Lorena Gauthereau
Recovering the US Hispanic Literary Heritage at the University of Houston
A month ago, I packed toys, books, and science kits, and handed them to my ex-husband. Then I threw my arms around my eight-year-old son, trying to hide the tears streaming down my face, and said goodbye until…who knows when.
My husband is a nurse in the Texas Medical Center. Although he has not had any COVID-19 patients (that he knows of), we recognize that he is exposed due to his regular close contact with patients, fellow healthcare workers, and hospital staff. Considering the novel qualities of this coronavirus–its long incubation period, ability to infect with no symptoms, and ease of contagion–we decided that we did not want to put our child or his other family at risk. We have therefore decided to let him stay with his biological father and stepmother through the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic. We are not the only people who have made a similar decision, as other co-parents have also chosen to let their child stay with the other co-parent or a relative.
Even in the case of non-separated couples, some parents who are healthcare or other essential workers may choose to let their children stay with relatives to reduce the possibility of contagion.
Yet, for many co-parents, the weight of court-mandated visitation takes a different toll. Some parents refuse to deviate from scheduled days, and, in less-than-transparent co-parenting relationships, a parent may question whether the other co-parent is conforming to strict social distancing rules.
For many separated couples with joint custody agreements, the legally regulated routine is disrupted or, at the very least, confusing. The standard custody agreement fails to specify what to do during a global health crisis, or any large-scale emergency that threatens to disrupt the norms of daily social interaction. Many state and local orders dictate that this back and forth routine must continue (Owens, Morgan). In Harris County, Judge Lina Hidalgo’s Stay Home, Work Safe order, for example, asserts that “Nothing in this Order affects orders or agreements regarding child-related visitation or custody arrangements” (Harris County). Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court, the Honorable John D. Casey, went a step further to clarify family orders and issued an open letter to parents, stressing that custody and visitation orders remain in effect because “it is important that children spend time with both of their parents and that each parent have the opportunity to engage in family activities” (Casey). Despite the explicit language in these stay at home orders, they leave more questions: How do these laws and decisions define what is in the best interest of the child during a global emergency? As we continue to stress social distancing, how do we take into account the possible exposure of children and families to contagion during these exchanges, especially when one parent or family member is more exposed, as in the case of essential workers or even people who continue to ignore social distancing guidelines?
In 2013, approximately 60,000 children under the age of 18 were affected by divorce in the state of Texas (“2013 Marriage and Divorce”). That suggests that in Texas alone, thousands of families are figuring out how to best navigate custody agreements during the pandemic. In private social media groups for divorced mothers, I have read testimonies by distraught mothers from across the country who are well aware of their ex-partner’s failure to take social distancing seriously, potentially putting not only their children, but both households at risk of infection as the child or children move between homes. What happens to the children if a parent contracts the virus? What happens if the child spreads it from one home to another and all the guardians become ill? If those mothers refuse to allow a careless ex to take the child/children, however, they may risk legal action. Whether police will enforce family orders or the courts will take retroactive action once they re-open is anyone’s guess.
For parents living in different states, the fear of putting their child on an airplane for mandated visitation during Spring Break or the upcoming summer vacation includes the fear of contacting COVID-19 and the anxiety of not getting them back, either because of an ex’s unilateral decision or because of quickly shifting regulations on social distancing practices, including travel restriction. Parents can only hope that state orders will take into account co-parenting situations when restricting travel. The State of Illinois, for example, has prohibited all non-essential travel, but Governor JB Pritzker’s Executive Order explicitly classifies “travel required by law enforcement or court order, including to transport children pursuant to a custody agreement” as essential travel (State of Illinois).
There is an emotional price to pay for the health of our society. Those of us who are separated from our children may experience social distance as not only a distance from the outside world, but also from our typical inside world, our home life. I am one of the lucky ones. I say that even though I am separated from my child and fight back tears on a daily basis. I am in a co-parenting situation in which we can maintain communication and make group decisions. My husband and I video chat with our little one every day; he blows us kisses through cyberspace. Sometimes his eyes well up and he chokes down tears. He is sensitive, but he is strong. We tell him it is okay to be sad. It took him a month before he cried after we waded through 4 feet of cold water in the dark to escape our flooded home during Hurricane Harvey. That time, though, we shared our trauma together, clinging closely. Now, we share the trauma apart and pretend those kisses actually reach us through satellite connection. We got through that together. We must get through this apart.
I am lucky to have the privilege to make this decision, have access to technology, and maintain daily communication. Yes, this is the right decision, my husband and I silently tell each other as we end the video calls. We try to bridge the absence caused by social distance from our little boy, trying to distract ourselves with movie nights and food, but nothing can take the place of our little boy’s hugs and kisses.
“2013 Marriage and Divorce.” Center for Health Statistics. Texas Department of State Health Services. Online. Accessed 09 April 9, 2020. https://dshs.texas.gov/chs/vstat/vs13/nnuptil.aspx.
Casey, John D. “Open letter regarding co-parenting during COVID-19 from Chief Justice John D. Casey.” Mass.gov. 24 March 2020. Accessed 13 April 2020. https://www.mass.gov/news/open-letter-regarding-co-parenting-during-covid-19-from-chief-justice-john-d-casey
Harris County, Judicial Order of County Judge [Lina Hidalgo]. Declaration of Local Disaster for Public Health Emergency: Stay Home, Work Safe. ReadyHarris. 11 March 2020. https://www.readyharris.org/Stay-Home
Morgan, Richard. “For Divorced Parents, Navigating Coronavirus Is a Balancing Act.” The New York Times. 27 March 2020. Accessed 13 April 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/27/parenting/divorce-co-parenting-coronavirus.html
Owens, Jason V. “Can Coronavirus Fears Allow Parents To Cancel Court-Ordered Visitation?” Lynch & Owens, PC. 2 March 2020. Accessed 11 April 2020. https://www.lynchowens.com/blog/2020/march/can-coronavirus-fears-allow-parents-to-cancel-co/?fbclid=IwAR1OAHu6YN7flWIJk3w4-J6IiEmo3AzPnPi4WwpyO6eGzBao8YvGG8e5ASI
State of Illinois, Executive Order in Response to Covid-19 [JB Pritzker]. Illinois.gov. 9 March 2020. Accessed 10 April 2020. https://www2.illinois.gov/IISNews/21288-Gov._Pritzker_Stay_at_Home_Order.pdf