Written by Samantha Woodham from The Divorce Surgery
Co-parenting can be hard. There is no doubt that lockdown and the anxieties of living through a pandemic have brought additional strain to all families, and made cooperative co-parenting even tougher. But if you can navigate through the challenges and maintain a constructive relationship, you and your children will reap the rewards.
As a family law barrister, and co-founder of The Divorce Surgery (www.thedivorcesurgery.co.uk), I regularly advise couples on the legal issues relating to their relationship breakdown, be it the division of their finances or arrangements for their children. I have learned a lot about what couples need to know to co-parent well, and what to avoid.
Co-parenting during lockdown
Divorce and separation are significant life changes. All separating couples crave information about what is ‘normal’ in their situation, and what is legally fair and in the best interests of their family.
Figuring out what is fair for your own family in the middle of a significant life change is tough, but doing so when every aspect of your normal routine is up-ended is almost impossible. So I’m going to focus first on co-parenting through lockdown, and then move on to look at co-parenting more broadly.
Lockdown created huge challenges for separating families. On the one hand, we were all told, unequivocally, that the safest place to be was at home. Most of us were working from home and avoiding going out except for exercise. So understandably many parents felt concerned about making the right choices for their children moving between homes, and continue to be.
This difficulty was exacerbated during the early stages of lockdown as many parents were unaware what the available guidance meant for them.
What does the guidance say?
Information is absolutely key. Although lockdown is slowly lifting, many parents remain very concerned about what they should and should not be doing. Here are the links to the key sources of guidance, and I will then set out a summary of how parents can best apply it:
The Government guidance makes is clear that one of the reasons you can leave home is to provide care for another person, and this includes children under 18 moving between their parents’ homes (provided no one is isolating)
The Cafcass Guidance provides that ‘Unless there are justified medical/self-isolation issues – or some future nationally issued guidance or expectation associated with leaving the house in your area – children should also maintain their usual routine of spending time with each of their parents. If there is a Child Arrangements Order in place this should be complied with unless to do so would put your child, or others at risk. This will help your child to feel a sense of consistency, whilst also reassuring them that the parent they don't always live with is safe and healthy.’ The Guidance goes on to confirm that transporting children between homes will usually be a legitimate journey.
As a separated co-parent, what does this mean in practice?
It is right that every case and every family is different. It is undoubtedly better for children if their parents can agree the arrangements for their care. If parents are able to do so, then provided they follow the Government’s advice with regard to isolating when displaying symptoms, children can move between their parents’ homes in accordance with whatever schedule their parents decide.
But some parents cannot agree. And for those parents, they really need to know, not what the Government says they ‘can’ do, but what they should do. We have been told to live in a very prescriptive way and are being instructed, quite rightly, to fear this virus. But we must make holistic choices, taking into account not only children’s physical health, but also their emotional and mental health.
The advice I would give to separated co-parents is as follows
- Above all else, communicate. If you can reach agreement that is undoubtedly the best outcome for your child, just ensure you follow the Government’s advice if one household is isolating.
- If you cannot agree, but both households are well, look carefully into how you can make the existing child arrangements work. Can you drive to each other’s homes rather than take public transport? What role are you each going to play in any home-schooling commitments? Do not rush to a knee jerk reaction to change the arrangements. Remember that a Court is likely to view a continuation to the existing arrangements as being in the child’s best interests. Are there really reasons here to justify a change? There is no government or judicial guidance suggesting that the fact that a parent is a key worker constitutes a reason to change existing child arrangements.
- If one household is isolating, ensure you keep lines of communication open with the other parent. This is more vital than ever given the huge burden home-schooling and supporting children’s mental health is placing on many parents. Arrange regular video chats. Reassure each other and be ready to get arrangements going again when everyone is well.
Co-parenting beyond Covid
This pandemic is consuming our collective attention for understandable reasons. But there is so much to say about effective co-parenting which goes much further than these temporary restrictions which will, eventually, be lifted.
At The Divorce Surgery we are in a unique and privileged position amongst family lawyers, because we always see separating couples together. We meet you both, which gives us the opportunity to understand both of your concerns, and to advise you impartially together, not as to what is best for one of you, but what is fair and in the best interests of your family as a whole.
There are some crucial messages I would like every separating parent to know
Do not feel guilty
Divorce and separation are normal and common life changes. 42% of marriages end in divorce. Divorce itself is not harmful to children. It is how we approach it that will affect how children are impacted.
Resist the overwhelming temptation to ascribe blame. This is a life change, and it may not be your choice, but it does not mean you made the wrong choice to start a relationship with this person or that you don’t still share good memories. Don’t allow the ending to taint everything which went before- these are your life experiences too. If you are feeling overwhelmed by the emotion of what is happening give yourself time to seek professional support. There are some fantastic counsellors and coaches who can you help you process the emotional side. If you are the one looking to push ahead, be patient. You may be ‘emotionally ready’ much sooner than your ex. If you go at their pace, they will then be ready for the constructive adult conversations you’ll need to have about the legal and practical implications of your new separated lives.
Don’t rush to instruct lawyers
This may sound bizarre coming from a barrister! But it’s true. If your safety is at risk then of course seek urgent legal advice, but thankfully for the vast majority of couples this is not the case. Do not rush into an adversarial process. Take time to process the emotion and start to communicate and visualise the new normal that you would like to create for you and your family. When the time comes to involve a lawyer you should be in a place where you are directive, and you know what you want to achieve from the legal process.
Many couples have only one question for their legal teams: what would a Court view as fair with regards to the arrangements for our children or the division of our finances? So many now opt for joint legal advice (called One Couple One Lawyer) whereby couples share one impartial lawyer who advises them both. Whatever option you take, be sure to take legal advice as these are important decisions with big ramifications, but do not allow the legal process, particularly the adversarial legal process with solicitors acting for each of you, to make your relationship worse or break down the communication between the two of you.
So much can be solved (and irretrievably lost) through the extent to which co-parents can continue to talk to each other about their children. You will be co-parents for the rest of your lives. Take the time to learn strategies now to enable you to talk regularly about your children. There are some excellent co-parenting consultants who will help you develop techniques to work together through the years ahead.
Be aware of the impact on your children, but don’t let that overwhelm you
Children are adversely affected by their parents being in sustained and hostile conflict. The studies are clear, and its common sense to all of us. Be aware that you are providing an example of how to resolve conflict, and be in conflict, to your children. So the better you do it, the better for them (as well as for you). But don’t be too hard on yourself! Separation is a life change and any life change can be tough at times. There will be moments when you don’t keep your cool and you are not your best self- that happens to all of us for a whole range of reasons: work stress, anxiety, exhaustion. But if you are feeling overwhelmed, and are unable to communicate with your ex in a civil way, stage an early intervention and get help, before it becomes engrained. And please don’t be afraid to get your children support if they need it- sometimes a counsellor to talk to can be a really useful and effective tool for children to come to terms with their own emotions, and to realise that they do not have to pick sides in this new family structure.
Treat divorce as a shared problem
When the time comes to get legal advice, approach it in the same way a Judge would- focus on finding a solution which is fair for each of you and in the best interests of your children and our family as a whole. Take the time to formulate a parenting plan, looking at issues which may arise in the longer term. There will be big challenges, and moments of joy, ahead: school choices, religion, exams, teenage rebellion, health hurdles: if you can treat these as shared challenges you will lighten the load on yourself and enable your children to be spared the emotional fallout which inevitably comes from seeing their parents in serious and repeated conflict.
Watch this video from Samantha on why this advice is important
We regularly advise couples, together, as to what arrangements a Judge would consider to be in the best interests of their children, and with help in putting together a bespoke and robust parenting plan. If you would like to learn more about our One Couple One Lawyer service, feel free to browse some of our blogs. If you are stuck, or at an impasse, do reach out to us and we can offer video link meetings with an impartial, expert barrister to get you back on track.
Samantha Woodham is a family law barrister and co-founder of The Divorce Surgery, a unique service which enables separating couples to share one lawyer who advises them both as to a fair outcome on divorce, for a fixed fee.