Who’s in Your Herd?

Photo: Dmitry Zvolskiy

Given the uncharted territory of the COVID-19 pandemic and the extra stresses it brings, I reached out to some of the family professionals in our Collaborative community to hear how they’re working with separating and separated families. Last week, I spoke with Stella KavoukianLaurie Stein and Jared Norton, who each graciously shared their experiences working with parents.

Everyone acknowledged the newness – Laurie finds that reminding everyone of this at the outset, pulls parents into problem solving. Instead of looking to her to have the answers, it encourages agency: “We all have to be smart and creative together.” This was echoed in the endorsement of a highly experienced family law judge in Hamilton who refused to grant emergency status to an access motion based on COVID-19 issues. Justice Pazaratz concluded his endorsement:

None of us have ever experienced anything like this. We are all going to have to try a bit harder – for the sake of our children.

Even parents who would normally choose court for solutions must work things out.

An essential difference between COVID-19 and other co-parenting issues such as appropriate diet, bedtimes, screen time and chores, is that you can’t separate what’s happening in each home. With such a highly contagious virus, the decisions made by each parent have a much broader potential impact. Laurie speaks with clients about identifying their “herd;” even using that term helps depersonalize the discussion somewhat. Who is inside each house at any time and do they in turn have close contact with others? This can get complicated with new blended families in one or both households. It can also feel intrusive for separated couples protective of their privacy. Laurie emphasizes the need for honest discussion to create agreed upon rules, which will almost certainly involve compromise. Does one household include particularly vulnerable members such as elderly grandparents or an immune compromised individual? Does one household’s “herd” include an adult in a high-risk profession like a healthcare professional dealing with COVID-19 patients?

The discussions will be challenging. The frequent pattern of “opposites attract” in forming couples, with a “Felix and Oscar” dynamic, can be extremely difficult to navigate when the love is gone. Add the extra fear and anxiety of a potentially deadly virus and communication might feel impossible. This is when help is needed. Stella spoke about former clients reaching out for assistance. They need to create new protocols to address COVID-19 within the realities of their own family’s circumstances. “Sometimes they just need a referee” (virtually with Zoom or phone) “to keep their discussion productive.” I suspect her calm voice may also help!

The “double whammy” for many families is that they are suddenly facing new financial hardship. At the very least, there is a lot of financial uncertainty. This impacts both the stress level of the families and their ability to pay for help. Jared worries about the long-term impact for children whose parents feel trapped under one roof, unable to move forward with their physical separation into two homes. Safety, food and shelter come first; we also know reducing conflict and stress in parents creates better outcomes for children.

With children at home 24/7 and most childcare help not an option as a result of social distancing restrictions, it can be challenging to find privacy for a virtual meeting with a mediator or therapist. Jared described a recent mediation where one parent participated by phone from the car in the driveway. As the phone battery died, a break was called to charge the phone in the house.

Flexibility, creativity and a dash of humour are invaluable resources – along with the wonderful family professionals and mediators in our Collaborative community.

Jacqueline Peeters

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