A week before anyone knew that they would have to spend the next month in quarantine, Henry Gabriel got into his dream school.
“I got in!” he yelled from his bedroom door. At the time, he was staying with his mom, Dawn, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They celebrated together and made a FaceTime call to his dad, Scott, to share the news.
When he left to visit his dad toward the end of March, Dawn thought she’d see him again in a couple of days. But then her twins got sick, and it wasn’t safe, and now she couldn't be with her son for an extended period of time in his last year at home.
For many separated adults, co-parenting in the midst of COVID-19 means redrawing territories and boundaries, trashing schedules and putting away hard-won compromises for new, more painful ones. It means not seeing your kids until the CDC gives the OK.
Scott and Dawn have been separated for 14 years. Ever since, they’ve shared time with Henry one week on and one week off.
In the coming weeks, Henry was supposed to be competing in a robotics competition, graduating high school and packing his things for college. In the midst of a quarantine, things still aren’t so certain.
“It feels like we’re missing huge life events,” Dawn said during a phone call.
Dawn knew it was the best to keep everyone safe. She has 10-year-old twins in the house who have already been sick. One of the twins was so sick that Dawn took him to get tested for COVID-19, but doctors said his symptoms weren’t severe enough. All she can do is wait to have her family back together and in good health.
Not all parents agree on what to do during a quarantine, said family Law Attorney Nicole Sodoma, managing principle of Sodoma Law in Charlotte, North Carolina. She has gotten multiple calls from parents who can’t come to an agreement.
“There’s a reason people aren’t living in intact families,” she said. “There was a reason they got divorced. There was a reason they’re not living together anymore. It was probably because they didn’t trust each other, it might have been an abuse issue, it might have been mental health concerns – none of those things have gone away just because we’ve got a pandemic.”
One of the main issues is disagreements about the severity of COVID-19. While one parent might be more lenient about letting their child do what they normally do, the other might want to limit the exposure.
A good way to mediate these conversations, Sodoma said, is through a physician. Having a medical professional to give the quarantine order can avoid conflict.
“There are some things that are not going to be within your control,” she said. “You have to reset your expectations in order to make the best decisions.”
Across the nation, parents are adjusting to the first wave of reopening, which can present even more challenges to co-parents. A trip to the reopened beaches might seem okay to one parent, but irresponsible to another. According to Sodoma, some parents aren't ready to leave quarantine.
"If one family member is allowing the children to do things that aren’t in quarantine, how much at risk is the whole family of testing positive," said Sodoma.
Sodoma advises families to over-communicate. She said it's important to approach difficult decisions involving the pandemic with an understanding that the situation is unprecedented to everyone else as well.
Jeff Williams, 51, lives in Portland, Oregon, and co-parents his 17-year-old daughter with his ex-wife. Williams and his ex agreed early on in their separation that they would make all big decisions together before they happened in order to be prepared. Doing this, Williams said, would prevent any arguments that could arise from disagreements on big life decisions and plans.
In these agreements, they discussed visitations, suppers, vacations, schooling choices and college tuition. They had the details set in stone, but nowhere in those discussions saw a pandemic coming.
Williams' ex is in Seattle, so the concern about being able to cross state lines was rising. Williams said being able to have the bigger things pinned down earlier on in their separation was what helped them get through quarantine. Instead of arguing over graduation, school or vacations, they were able to focus on getting through COVID-19.
For some families, the pandemic has derailed jobs, school and financial stability. From April to May, the unemployment rate dropped 1.4 percentage points to 13.3%.
Megan Perez, 46, worked four different jobs in Rogers, Arkansas, before the pandemic hit. As COVID-19 kept getting worse, he lost those jobs and moved in with his parents in April.
"I found myself in a position where I had to choose between food and rent," Perez said.
While moving in with his parents wasn't in his prior plans, he said he's lucky to have food, transportation and air-conditioning. His son is 7 years old, and he shares custody with his ex-wife. He said he's lucky that their relationship was amicable enough to work out issues that could have been a bigger problem sooner in their separation.
Perez said that they agreed that everyone would follow the same protocols. They would be isolating themselves as a family in order to keep everyone safe.
He said that even though they agreed on the quarantine, his son would still miss his friends and his regular activities. His son was in a taekwondo class that went virtual. It was OK at first, but as it went on, he started to miss the more physical parts of the class. He missed interacting with other kids his age.
For co-parents, thorough discussions and planning can get a family through a pandemic, but interactions their children have with others their age is something they can't always provide.
Joanna Cooper, 48, lives in Durham, North Carolina, with her 7-year-old son. She said that there's only so much playing she can do to entertain him. They were playing a game in the yard when she realized that she couldn't provide the type of connection that her son has with kids his age.
"It's nice to see his imagination at work but this is the kind of imaginative play that really other kids are good for and that's where he needs that community," Cooper said.
When the pandemic hit, she and her co-parent had to balance their custody schedule in order to make switching over easier. She made sure that the more difficult conversations always stayed calm.
"There was a little worry here and there that we wouldn't agree about something, so I've had to be diplomatic about how I approach certain things," said Cooper.
Earlier on in the pandemic, her ex-husband let her son have a social-distanced playdate. Cooper was skeptical that her son would be able to stay a safe distance from his friend. The plans weren't run by her and she thought that was something they should have talked about.
"I've learned if I can hold off on my initial frustrated reaction and just give it some space and present it as a topic of discussion more than a criticism that that's more useful," she said.
She said that the conversations can be difficult, but they need to be at the forefront of the relationship in order to create the safest environment for children and loved ones.