COVID-19: Parent to Parent
Help and Hope is sharing real messages from caregivers talking about the stresses and joys of parenting. Would you like to share your story? Send us an email.
We're now on day 34 of staying home. In case you are counting, that's four weeks and six days. Or 2,937,600 seconds of living and working at home with my family…with no break. We're fortunate – both my husband and I are still employed, but that also means both of us are trying to work full time jobs as if nothing has changed in our world while also raising a five-and-a-half-year-old whose school is also operating virtually each day (and also due with kiddo #2 in a few weeks!) Did I mention that kiddo #1 is having a growth spurt with big emotions happening… and hasn't played in person with another kid since this all started?
Not going to lie, trying to work full time, be responsible for educating a kindergartener, maintaining a home (because meals don't magically make themselves, and where are all these dishes coming from?!), and keeping the stress in check while pregnant, requires more hours in a day than what exists.
Each day, there's yet another email or social media post that gives me resources and links to amazing sites to help create the best schedule for our family or the latest ways to make sure my child doesn't fall behind in development. But what few of those resources recognize is that this isn't working remotely as normal life would be or that this isn't really homeschooling in any definition of the word. This is pure trying to keep up with work during a global pandemic. This is educating through a global crisis.
I'm lucky that my job requires understanding child development and public health response. So I know that when all of the COVID-19 crisis is behind us, we'll all be okay. It's okay that Netflix is helping me balance it all and keep our kiddo content while I'm on the umpteenth work call. It's okay that we don't have a color-coded calendar that is Pinterest worthy, my husband and child will survive. My focus is more on the social-emotional connection that is really needed now: are we spending meaningful time together as a family when we can? How are we as adults coping with stress and creating a space that makes our kiddo know that she is loved, safe, and secure? Are we taking care of ourselves that it doesn't get overwhelming?
This isn't the time to feel like you have to keep up with the Joneses or fall into the mom-shaming guilt trip because you aren't designed to be a homeschool teacher on top of it all--this is the time to focus on what matters, figure out what you need to get through this. When people tell you that this is the "new normal," it's okay to call shenanigans on that and remind yourself that this is living through a global health crisis that modern history has never known. This isn't normal. And it's okay to not have it all together all the time. Give yourself some grace, find time for yourself, reach out to others for support, and know that as with all things, this crisis will end.
Co-parenting during normal times is hard. Having to work with a different household that has different rules, parenting philosophies, and ideas about childhood is never easy. Couple that with long-lasting emotional pain that can be caused by the break-up of a romantic relationship, even after several years, and working together to raise a child can seem nearly impossible. I grew up as a child of divorce and witnessed similar patterns when my older brother also went through the process of divorce and remarriage.
When I married my husband and joined him in parenting/co-parenting my then 7-year-old stepdaughter, "Alice" I knew what I was getting into. I knew that the co-parenting relationship could be difficult, and that being a step-mom meant a limited say in all sorts of parenting questions. What I did not anticipate is that 4 years later, a pandemic would require a complete reshuffling of the co-parenting relationship we had established with my stepdaughter's mom and stepdad.
Prior to the pandemic, we were following the standard Texas custody order almost to the letter. Now that "Alice" was 11, we were able to listen to her requests and make slight variations to the order that benefitted both families. Still, the relationship with "Alice's" mom and stepdad was sometimes strained. School and extra-curricular activities served as neutral spaces for pick-up and drop-off, even when it meant making special deliveries to school for forgotten gym bags or glasses. Arguments over school, extra-curricular activities, and discipline were frequent stressors and often led to major arguments.
When the pandemic hit, we lost those neutral spaces and had to look closely at the standard order for both families. To add to the stress, I was in my second trimester with a high-risk pregnancy and gestational diabetes, making me especially vulnerable to Covid-19 infection. It was clear that the constant back and forth of the standard custody order was not going to work for either family. Here are a few of the difficult issues we've had to navigate due to the pandemic:
Custody: For the first few weeks of the pandemic, we were in constant communication with "Alice's" mom. We had previously found that texting was the easiest form of communication, allowing everyone to stay calmer and think through their communication before sending to the other party, and continued to communicate that way.
At the beginning of the pandemic, "Alice" was already spending spring break with her grandmother in a more rural Texas community. Since social distancing would be easier in that environment while still allowing her the ability to be outside and play, both families agreed that staying there for a few weeks would be the best plan. Once she returned, we switched to a schedule of a week or two with each family. If she or a family member started to feel sick, she would stay there until we had more information.
Education: Remote schooling was also a real challenge for a co-parenting family. Often, teachers would only contact one parent and not the other about progress. Early on, confusion about assignments and online platforms led to disagreements about what to focus on and the importance of different assignments. Additionally, capacity to support "Alice" in her learning while working full-time jobs differed across families. Thankfully, co-parenting an older child like "Alice" helped us empower here to take the lead with her school-work, we let her take the lead on telling us where she needed support to complete challenging or intimidating assignments. We also learned to get over resentments when work wasn't getting done at her other household, and just focus on helping her catch up when she was at our house.
Discipline: Existing disagreements about discipline-style at each household have been magnified by the pandemic. "Alice" is spending a lot more time home with her parents and step-parents, and each of us have a different understanding of appropriate discipline and knowledge of child development. To help us all cope, we were able to find her an old phone that she can use to send messages or video-chat with us over wifi so we know what's happening on a day to day basis. She does the same with her mom when she's with us.
Re-opening: Now that things are re-opening, we have new challenges to address. For now, both families have agreed to continue social distancing and wearing masks out in public, at least until I am no longer in a high-risk group. Staying home when other children in the neighborhood are playing together is a challenge for "Alice" but we've allowed her to play with her cousins who are following the same procedures to stay safe and be ready for our family's new addition.
The Future: "Alice" will be starting middle school again in the fall and we don't yet know what that will look like or what full-time work will look like for each family. Flexibility will likely need to continue until a vaccine is available, and we will continue to work together the best we can to keep everyone safe and healthy.
Dealing with COVID-19 has motivated us to work together more to protect "Alice" and both of her families. We are far from perfect co-parenting partners but keeping the focus on getting "Alice" through this while protecting her physical, mental, and emotional health has helped both families work together better. Every co-parenting relationship is different though, and if you aren't in a place where either parent can be flexible or if one parent is an essential worker, what works for you will likely be very different.
The biggest advice I can offer is to find the venue of communication that works best for you, keep those lines of communication open, do your best to keep the focus on the well-being of your shared child, and try to be as flexible as possible. You're already doing the hard work of co-parenting, this is just one more challenge to work out.
H: As a noncustodial parent, parenting and working a full-time job already comes with its unique set of challenges. Parenting and working a full-time job during a pandemic is even more complicated.
During this time, my kids are with me 'for the summer.' Under normal circumstances, it would be effortless to plan an outdoor activity with them after hours as a way to get out as a family and to show appreciation for them being patient with me and my work. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another layer because we are having to think a lot about what we can do and where we can go while understanding how to remain safe.
It has been challenging to try to balance work/life and ensuring that their mental and emotional health is sound as we break from their traditional summer activities. Trust me; they are looking at the clock to ensure you're off when that time comes! Fathering during this pandemic has allowed us to be closer as a family, play more games, and do more activities that we love."
E: Parenting during COVID-19 stay-at-home conditions has been one of the most exhausting and rewarding experiences as a father. With my 2-year-old home after her day care went out of business due to COVID, managing her needs while teleworking myself has been a daily grueling gauntlet.
With all the hours of lost sleep have also come countless additional hours of getting to interact and play with my daughter, and watch her grow and develop. While our current circumstances are obviously anything but ideal or preferred, I am grateful for the extra time it has allowed for me to connect with and appreciate my daughter.
While many may ultimately remember this time primarily for the challenges and hardship it caused, I will also always remember it as when we got so much extra daddy-daughter time, and getting watch her grow daily before my eyes.