We thought we had co-parenting down—then the pandemic happened

Co-parenting is tough in the best of times, and the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, has made things a little extra weird around here.

We thought we had co-parenting down—then the pandemic happened

A family photo taken the first summer after we'd broken up. Photo: Courtesy of Nadine Silverthorne

“Kids! Daddy’s here!” I yell up the stairs, trying to lure them down from their screens. Daddy, a.k.a. my ex-husband, stands on the front walk waiting patiently. We have a quick catch-up through the window screen as the kids put on their shoes and coats to hang out with him from the porch—at a six-foot/two-metre distance. Like many of you, the novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, has made things a little extra weird around here.

We'd finally started to figure it out...

My ex and I have been co-parenting fairly successfully for the past three years. We’ve been lucky to maintain a respectful friendship that’s allowed us to put our kids first at every turn. We are by no means perfect at it, and we’ve each had to make compromises that we’re not always comfortable with. As mom and dad, we are still a “we,” a unified front in parenting our two kids, who are now 12 and 15. Learning to accept that there are sometimes different rules and styles of parenting in each household has been the biggest curve. But somehow we always forgive each other after angry text exchanges and figure out a path to acceptance, or a middle ground.

My ex and I would both agree that I have shouldered the lion’s share of the responsibility of caring for the kids, who live with me 70 percent of the time in a variation of “nesting” where the matrimonial home has been home base and dad is welcome to see them as his shift schedule permits. Every other weekend, they go to stay with him in a one-bedroom near the beach that we call “the cottage.” Recently, he moved into a two-bedroom in our school district, with a bedroom for the kids and space to store some of their things. It was going to be a game changer, a chance for more separation with the hope that we could all move forward into this next phase of our family journey.

My kids’ dad may not be the “operations expert” I am, but he brings to the table a playful, boyish, outdoorsy energy that the kids very much need in to contrast my cerebral, emotional, “let’s read books in the same room” ways. I need the breaks I get when they are with him to recalibrate and replenish my nurturing energy. I have been grateful for my bi-weekly weekends to myself to go to yoga or go dancing or binge-watch Fleabag. When the kids come back to me they are sunburned, mosquito-bitten and full of giggly stories of exploring beaches and forests with their dad.

How COVID-19 changed it all

Then COVID-19 happened. Right before March Break, with school cancelled for three weeks, we were all sent home to lay low. My ex, however, has an essential job editing the news and needed to keep going into the office to use their broadcast hardware and software systems. As the news he was editing got scarier and scarier, it became harder to decide the right thing to do to keep our kids safe. Our children, delightful genetic mysteries that they are, both have “pre-existing conditions.” While his workplace was taking extra precautions and cleaning offices more than usual, could he be exposed to COVID-19 should a colleague walk into his tiny edit suite?

Late last week, eight days into our self-distancing at home, following government recommendations to keep visits to immediate family only, my ex-husband and I decided that our children should not have physical contact with their father. The realization that this was the right thing to do filled me with despair. How long could this go on? How would I juggle working during the day, homeschooling them (hahaha) and making sure they got enough food, sleep and exercise to keep them healthy, all on my own? I imagined long days full of yelling and nagging my quaranteens. There was crying (mostly me).

While it’s a lot of work, I am truly the lucky one. For one thing, I get daily snuggles (yes, my tween and teen are still cuddly, especially given the current circumstances). I’ve had to let go of a lot, and accept that too much screen time and a permanently messy kitchen were going to be happening. I instituted a loose, independent schedule with 45-minute “periods” of “school”:

  • English (could be reading, writing or watching the movie version of a book that they’ve read)
  • Math (could be Khan Academy lessons or playing Prodigy)
  • Science (could be watching a nature documentary)
  • Geography (the high schooler was behind on assignments)
  • French (play Duolingo!)
  • Art or Music time
  • Gym is “go jump rope in the backyard”

I’m not at all strict about this, but the guidelines are helping me to also be a leader at work, something that I get great value from and is needed during these tough times. When I log off work each day, we try for a walk in nature. In the evenings we binge Schitt’s Creek or work on projects around the house.

Surprising upsides

Fortunately, we are all finding our creativity in this experience. My ex gets to execute on his “fun dad” persona. Like Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful, he’s found innovative ways to bring joy and connection through dark times. He stands on the sidewalk, kids on the porch, playing charades so I can sneak in a 20-minute yoga session. He plays board games with them over FaceTime so I can teach a weekly online class on Monday nights. We’ve tried distance walks on opposite sides of the sidewalk, and we've met in the park and had the tween teach us TikTok dances. It’s a bizarre existence...but who of us isn’t living some sort of Black Mirror version of reality at the moment?

I’m actually amazed by how quickly we’ve adapted to the new normal. I realized early on that if I didn’t adjust my thinking about the situation, I would spiral out of control. My children are here and watching and listening. I’m setting the tone for how they will perceive what we are experiencing, and that will influence who they are in the future. How could I work towards making this OK for them?

On top of my day job, I’m a life coach. My business partner and I often ask our clients thought-adjusting questions like, “What could be good about this?” “What if it were easy?” “Who do you want to be when this crisis is over?” We ask our clients to operate from that vantage point of their ideal future selves. I’m bringing this into my home and work during this unprecedented global event and it’s helping. Sometimes the best way to learn something is to teach it. Sure, sometimes when we say goodbye to dad at the corner, there are tears, but a little gratitude practice and a healthy dose of perspective are helping to see us through. And by the time we are on the other side of this, my kids will get a shiny new bedroom at dad’s place, while dad and I know that we can guide these kids through whatever storms may come.

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Nadine Silverthorne lives in Toronto with her husband, two hilarious kids and one self-entitled cat. She spends her work-week as Senior Manager, Digital Product for Today's Parent and other Rogers Publishing and Digital Content properties, dreaming up all the ways she can get our great content to as many parents as possible. When not sharing details of her life from her iPhone or laptop, you can find her doing something with food: reading about it, stuffing her face or devising creative solutions to get her kids to stop calling her healthy cooking “yucky.”