#parent | #kids | Navigating Joint Custody Under Coronavirus Quarantine

On Saturday, March 14, fretting over how we’d even attempt to share custody, I texted my ex the following: “Hey, hey, we need to talk about parenting in the era of corona. All things being equal, I’d be happier if he just stays here until the plague is over, but maybe you could do bike rides together outside? What a crazy time.” (This was back when we were encouraged to get out and exercise, and told not to wear masks unless we were sick.)

It pains me now to even reread our text exchange from those days. He thought playdates were still okay. I said they were not. He thought shuttling our son between us via Uber was fine. I said the cars could be coated in shed virus. Suddenly, all the goodwill we’d built up over three years of (mostly) conflict-free co-parenting was gone. We each became the uglier versions of ourselves. I stood my ground like a petulant toddler. He sent legalese he’d cut and pasted from the internet. I wondered whether he could, in fact, have me arrested for violating our custody order during a global pandemic.

“No,” Stutman told me when I asked her. “I mean, he could try, but I think the police have more important things to worry about right now.” And no, she didn’t think he could successfully sue me at this point either. “Protecting the child’s health and safety has to come first. Because if he’s not healthy and safe, he’s not going to have a relationship with either of his parents.”

The hostile texts continued for more than a week, during which my ex would ask when and how I would be sending our son to him for his custodial weekend, and I would say, “I’m not doing that, sorry,” while offering him all the makeup days he wanted on the other side and suggestions for outside activities they could share together, as well as compassion over the heartbreak of being separated from his son. He said he’d rent a car to pick up our kid. I explained that he would come into contact with multiple people at the car-rental office, after which our child would be spending time in my ex’s large apartment building, sharing a small elevator with its elderly residents. “We have to do what’s best for our son and the greater good right now. Not what’s best for you,” I texted imperiously.

Then my household fell ill. Arguing was not only no longer worth the breath, but it was stealing whatever breath I had left.

My partner and I had fevers, but my son’s symptoms were mild: loss of taste and smell, loss of appetite. Our doctor told us to assume we all had COVID-19. When I revealed this to my ex, he was understandably upset. I could read the sadness in his texts. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I really am.”

Even when parents are in total agreement as to how to handle custody during quarantine, the virus typically has the last word. Stutman told me she had one case of a child who’d fallen ill with the virus, and both parents might have already been exposed. But should they still force their sick kid to travel back and forth as they’d so carefully planned? “There are no clear-cut answers,” she said, “but obviously a sick child should not go outside.”

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