Dec 5, 2020

Co-Parenting, Christmas, and COVID-19: Handling Shared Custody During the Holidays

Co-parenting during the holidays is always tough. One of the biggest issues that divorcing parents struggle with is custody. Figuring out how to divvy up special days like the holidays is particularly challenging. But even if you've had a typical routine regarding who gets which holidays, that may have been thrown into chaos this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

General guidelines regarding COVID-19 advise that people social distance as much as possible. This means that families were advised to stay within their own households over the holidays, remaining at home rather than visiting extended family as they normally would. But what happens when your family has more than one household and normally has children move between different households throughout the holidays? This can disrupt your normal plans and force you to negotiate around the custody agreement that you already have in place. 

Right now, divorce is growing increasingly common in the United States. With roughly 50% of all American marriages ending in divorce, it's not unusual for children to move between parents' houses. But the pandemic doesn't care about the holidays or what is normal for families. It's necessary now to reevaluate how you're handling the holidays, and what you and your family will do to accommodate COVID-19 this year.

How Amicable Was Your Divorce?

One thing to consider immediately is simply spending the holidays as one big family. This is not going to be an option for many divorced couples. But some already choose to spend the holidays together. Even if your divorce was initially difficult, your relationship with your former partner can become amicable and even friendly over the years. Some ex-spouses do genuinely find friendship with each other and are able to spend time together over the holidays.

Obviously, your relationship with your ex is not the only issue to consider when contemplating spending the holidays together. If you or your ex have moved on and have a new spouse or even new children, this could definitely complicate matters. You'd need to make sure that you, your ex, your new partners, and all the kids involved were on board with this arrangement before committing to it. Furthermore, this is a lot easier to do when the two of you live in close proximity. Due to quarantine procedures, you'll not only want everyone to test negative for COVID-19 but quarantine for about 14 days before you're in contact with each other, as well as 14 days after you're in contact with each other. That's a long holiday and for many parents, it's going to be more trouble than it's worth.

How Do You Approach Negotiating Custody Changes?

Most divorced parents have a custody agreement as a part of their divorce. This probably took some time to figure out and perhaps even involved legal assistance. But over time, it can be difficult to abide by this same custody agreement permanently. Kids grow up. Their relationships with their parents change, and for that matter, their personal needs change, too. It can be difficult to abide by a custody agreement made when your children were toddlers as they grow into their teenage years. The COVID-19 pandemic is simply forcing parents to reexamine their custody agreements prematurely.

Typically, parents may trade off on the holidays. This may seem odd if one parent has sole primary custody while the other parent nearly has visitation rights. But there are a couple of things to remember here. For one thing, non-custodial parents will usually see their children for about 88 days per year in most divorce cases. If you see your children less in general, you'll probably want some of the days that you do see your children to be special ones, like holidays. For another, custody agreements are often formal, with parents negotiating different terms individually. So while you may not be the legal custodian of your children, you may still see them half the time. It might not seem fair for you to miss out on holidays because you're not the legal custodial parent.

When dealing with COVID-19, it's important for you to bring up your concerns as early as possible. Be calm. Even if you and your ex have an amicable relationship, this can be a touchy subject. You should consider writing an email about your concerns first rather than simply picking up the phone and calling them. Writing out your thoughts and feelings will make it easier for you to express your concerns without implied emotion or misinterpretation.

If you and your ex do have issues in figuring out a custody arrangement over the holidays, you may want to work with a professional. Working with a professional mediator can help you negotiate with your ex in a calm manner. A mediator is neutral and can help the two of you resolve your conflicts before it gets to the point that lawyers are involved. Remember: this is already going to be a difficult holiday season. Why make it any harder for you and your children?

What Can You Do If Visiting Isn't Possible?

The reality is that experts have advised against travel this holiday season. You may err on the side of caution and choose for your children to stay in one household as well. COVID-19 is considered by some extremely contagious. A new study actually suggests that the virus can survive on some surfaces, like plastic and stainless steel, for up to three days. If someone in your family has immune system issues or especially respiratory conditions, you may want to consider keeping the kids where they are.

Some families haven't had their children move from one household to the other since the pandemic began. It's up to you and your ex to decide what you're comfortable with, taking your children's opinions into account. If you miss a holiday that you would normally spend with your kids, you can negotiate to make up for it -- maybe by spending the next two holidays with them after the pandemic subsides. No matter what, keep in mind that you can still spend time with your children remotely on the holiday. Try calling them, or even using teleconference systems like Zoom to share the holidays.

This is going to be a tough time, but it doesn't have to be tougher due to conflicts between you and your ex. Focus on what is emotionally and physically best for your children. There will always be more holidays. The issue at hand is fleeting and simply needs to be taken care of this year.

Devin is a writer and an avid reader. When she isn't lost in a book or writing, she's busy in the kitchen trying to perfect her slow cooker recipes. You can find her poetry published in The Adirondack Review and Cartridge Lit.

All opinions shared in guest articles do not necessarily represent the viewpoints of the blog owners. 

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