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Divorce is difficult. Even under the best of circumstances, co-parenting can be challenging.
These are not the best of circumstances.
“Lots of people are calling us, concerned about sending their kids to the other parent’s house,” Dawn Pelletier, a family law lawyer from Bangor, said. “There’s levels of anxiety that are very real.”
The conundrum is this: What are parents who share guardianship supposed to do when government officials have advised them to stay home through at least April 30, but courts have mandated them to split visitation time with their children?
With the economy suddenly in shambles and many parents finding it challenging to pay child support now, how do exes work out a compromise?
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When it comes to co-parenting, who gets to call the shots on risk-management and “social distancing” practices right now?
There’s no blueprint for any of this.
So families are winging it. Jenna Golub lives with her partner, Erik Klausmeyer, in Belfast. His daughter, Ophelia, 11, lives with them every other week right now. Her three children spend most of their time at the family home in Swanville, with her ex-husband, but both she and her kids move fluidly between households. The constant movement in a time where people have been told to “stay put” is something Golub has thought about a lot.
“Should I be the one hunkering down at the family house with the ex-husband and the kids? Am I doing a disservice to my community by moving between households?” Golub wondered. “You can’t always be on the same page. As the family expands, with different partners, the dynamic of all of it changes.”
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That shifting dynamic has stumped a Searsport family, too. Typically, they send their young son to South Carolina within two weeks of the last day of school, so he can spend the summer with his mom there. This year, it’s a head-scratcher. School has moved online and all of the boy’s work can now be done remotely. His mother would like him to come to South Carolina early.
But flying doesn’t seem safe.
Neither does driving.
So the family isn’t sure what to do.
“It’s a very strange, strange thing,” said the boy’s stepmother, who wanted to remain anonymous for fear of compromising or complicating a custody battle. “No matter what you do, you’re not really sure what the expectations are … it’s stressful.”
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Chase Hall of Northport agrees.
He and his soon-to-be ex-husband are trying to strike a balance for social distancing that works for both of them. Meanwhile, Hall’s Belfast antique store has been closed since March 18, and money is tight. Homeschooling has added an extra layer of stress for the dad.
“I’m a good dad, but a horrible teacher,” he said. “But we are all doing the best we can. We have no other choice.”
And for some families, the pandemic has proven much worse. Regina Rooney, the education director for the Maine Coalition to End Domestic Violence, said that some abusive parents are exploiting the crisis to make life harder for their exes.
“What’s happening right now gives people that are abusive an extra thing to try,” she said. “We’ve known for a long time that abusers resist collaborative, cooperative shared custody arrangements … For all of us, this is a stressful time — for every single person. Oftentimes, abusive people use stress as an excuse for why they act the way they do. This is an opportunity that allows them to weaponize that.”
It’s possible, of course, to have a positive co-parenting experience during the pandemic. But it requires good communication, flexibility and trust, according to Golub, who described her ex-husband as both her friend and her family.
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Those bonds come in helpful when trying to juggle jobs and the new expectation to homeschool Gus, 8, Woo, 6 and Indy, 4.
“I think it’s made things a million times easier on the kids,” she said. “We’re lucky in that regard.”
As part of the family’s agreement, Golub spends weekdays with her kids and ex-husband in Swanville. After her workday, lots of which is spent on Zoom, she takes the kids for a hike or walk, picking up her partner’s daughter if she is there. In the late afternoon, Golub drops a kid or two off with her ex-husband in Swanville and then goes home to Belfast to work some more.
It’s a bit complicated, but it’s working — for now.
Klausmeyer said that he feels fortunate to have a long-established and positive co-parenting relationship with Ophelia’s mom, who lives in southern Maine.
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“It can be fraught. It doesn’t have to be,” he said. “For us, there is total trust. I trust her to do the right thing, and she trusts me. I’m not going anywhere and putting anyone at risk, so it’s OK for my daughter to be here. I also trust that her mom isn’t going anywhere and is following the rules of the road right now.”
Having the ability to accept things that are outside of a person’s control is key to getting through both the pandemic and co-parenting in general, Klausmeyer said.
“After a divorce or separation, there can be a tendency that can go on for years that you can control the other person,” he said. “At some point, you have to let go of that need to control what the other person can do.”
Watch: Maine’s interstate traffic is down 53 percent