Keeping Your Sanity during a COVID Custody Fight

Stacy D. Phillips

As we mark one year since the first shelter-in-place orders were imposed, there is practically no part of divorce that the COVID-19 pandemic has not impacted. In too many ways, the frustration at our lack of control over the events of this last year and now well into the first quarter of 2021 has exacerbated the emotional, psychological, and legal wars of separation and divorce. A particularly active battlefield where control becomes a constant tug-of-war has been the highly charged disagreements that come with fights over child custody.

With tensions as high as ever, I have taken note that many of my divorce cases that would normally settle are not settling—not just the ones involving custody. Moreover, as tensions are higher than usual, parents who are separating or divorcing are now, all too often, using disagreements over their children to score points against their ex-partner. Making matters worse, these unhappy couples have often been stuck in the same household without the normal boundaries between life and work or they may be living in separate homes but do not look at COVID-19 protections the same way, causing an accelerated unraveling.

Keeping sane during a custody fight is not easy, and especially so during COVID-19. It requires positive thinking, setting aside pettiness, and finding creative solutions that are in the best interest of your children. Despite the ongoing uncertainties of managing this school year, securing vaccine appointments for loved ones, and worrying about our health and safety, there are many ways to keep your cool during one of life’s most stressful and unfortunate circumstances.

Surge in Bitter Battles

One unusual by-product of the pandemic is that it has allowed more time to think and reflect upon major life decisions, leading to the end of many flawed, damaged relationships. For those presently facing a divorce battle over custody or financial difficulties that they were not anticipating prior to these odd times, there has been a marked spike in anger with parties digging in hard and not giving up on even the smallest disagreements.

During the pandemic, more divorcing and separating couples remain living in the same household longer than they otherwise would have been. Not only that, many are teleworking from this same location, and dealing with work and managing children without consistent childcare. It is not surprising that tensions have surged, and bitter battles are erupting over some of the smallest things. Without control over the ability to safely see family and friends as an outlet, compounded by the dearth of traditional social activities, many parents are forced to allow their children to have more screen time than they otherwise would. And with many of us on our own screens and Zoom calls for much of the day, our eyes and brains need a rest.

Sources of Tension

A major aspect of custody fights during COVID has been disagreements over in-person vs. virtual school. We have all wanted to keep our children safe, and part of that has been the need to evaluate their psychological health as well as their physical health. There is a debate raging across the country pitting the benefits of in-person school for a child’s psychological health and educational growth against the virtual learning environment’s ability to prevent the virus from spreading to our educators and other vulnerable community members. Each county and school district is using its own system to address these unprecedented challenges.

The custody fights that I am seeing often involve disagreements over where a child spends their virtual school days, whether they can form a pod with other students from their neighborhoods or schools, whether it is safe to engage in extracurricular activities and sports, and if visitations to other households are an acceptable risk. I want to believe many of these battles are being waged in good faith, but it often seems some parents are using these disagreements as opportunities to deprive their ex-partner of access to their child.

Finding Creative Solutions

With all the tension and anxiety that COVID has wrought, I am heartened to have observed working parents doing the best for their children against the odds. Remote working has provided opportunities for flexibility in schedules to work around virtual school schedules. For those stuck with virtual school and less flexible jobs, many parents have weighed the risks and grouped children together in a pod with a hired facilitator to help manage younger students’ assignments and video call schedules.

It seems easy to say, but, allow yourself to make the best of a bad situation by looking for ways to find the gallows humor all around us. Stay active on text chains with your friends and share funny memes with other moms and dads in your neighborhood. Most importantly, find time for yourself where you can exercise or even get away for a vacation to breathe. Take socially distanced walks with your friends and neighbors as regularly as possible. During these emotionally demanding times, taking care of your mental health is vital to responding to a difficult custody battle and finding solutions that are in the best interest of your child.