We turn on the news for the latest update on COVID-19 or check social media. Immediately we’re inundated with information, images, and confusion. For parents, it’s stressful, navigating a flood of challenges, as Covid-19 promises to come in turn to each of our communities. For separated or divorced co-parents, the challenges of “social distancing” are compounded with different social-emotional layers than our partnered friends face. And we feel that difference.
Because co-parents live apart, we face unique challenges. Making parenting choices in the context of a divided family can be extremely fraught, as any pressure to reach consensus or compromise is far less than when you lived together. Meanwhile, the loneliness, frustration, and grief provoked by the current reality may remind us acutely of the reasons we separated, adding to our distress. New loss has a unique way of reviving old loss. We are less able to stay calm, think, and communicate from a grounded place. We may panic; we may become emotionally overwhelmed.
Fortunately, we already possess an abundance of tools that can help us slow down, take a deep breath, and have success with navigating the heightened turbulence of co-parenting during COVID-19.
In this two-part series, we will offer up some helpful ideas to support you and your family during these challenging times. But to begin with, let’s take a moment to acknowledge and honor what may seem obvious to you, but not to your partnered friends and family:
Co-parenting while simultaneously handling the crisis of COVID-19 hurts.
First, there’s grief. As humans, we’re wired for connection. We long to belong and grow in relationships; they’re the arena where we learn and access comfort. When our social connections are disrupted, we feel the heartbreak in our bodies. We are distressed. So what happens when Covid-19 forces a community to hunker down to its most basic elements – family units? We come face to face with how our family units are different from “the norm,” the marital construct, the nuclear family. We wake to feel separate, stigmatized, alone. We experience a deep and unrelenting panic. It may rise without warning in our throat, our shoulders, jaw, or belly.
Even if you have lived apart from your ex for years, you may begin re-experiencing waves of fear, loss, and sadness. And if you have not re-partnered, the reality of being un-partnered in uniquely trying times is front and center. This feeling of difference is a type of loneliness. It can leave you feeling adrift or resentful as you consider juggling childcare on top of additional professional obligations or even job loss that your partnered friends or family are not facing. You may feel self-conscious or “less-than,” telling yourself, “at least they have each other,” or “they obviously have something that I lack.” In these moments, know that you are not alone; these reactions are normal, even predictable, especially in uncertain times.
Remember, you’re already an expert.
John Gottman, a leading researcher in the field of relationship distress, talks about “love maps.” Love maps refer to how well we know the internal and external worlds of those closest to us. It asks whether we have “owner’s manuals” of those we love. While you likely don’t have a love map of your ex, you probably know more than you realize concerning what works and what doesn’t in dealing with them. And equally important is cultivating your own personal owner’s manual, and knowing yourself.
When you’re in distress, do you tend towards anxiety or problem-solving? Do you overthink – googling and polling friends and relatives? Or, are you prone to distraction, losing yourself in unrelated issues or projects? Maybe you tend to minimize or talk yourself out of your concerns. How about your former partner – what do you know about how they manage distress?
You are already an expert in this arena. You probably have these answers at your fingertips. But what good does that do you? Whether you’re looping in your head with worries, seething over a disagreement concerning whether your child should attend a birthday party, or rolling your eyes at your ex’s concerns over handwashing, it’s all versions of the same thing: ways to avoid feeling grief.
Your first job here is to hang out with your grief, because in these rough waters, acceptance is your bright red, bobbing buoy.
Our stormiest emotional times can trigger what Gottman calls “diffuse physiological arousal (DPA).” DPA is how your body reacts to a sense of threat: heart rate speeds up, pupils and blood vessels dilate to prepare for action, and your breath gets shallow and fast. This reaction impairs taking in information and limits your capacity to communicate well.
Remember, you have what you need to captain your ship as those of us who have navigated separation or divorce are already veterans of upheaval.
Here is where we learn to hang out with our grief, put our arms around it, and let our acceptance become a buoy. If acceptance is the buoy in the water, your breath can calm the waters. Even taking 60 seconds to close your eyes and imagine yourself holding onto the red buoy with a slow out-breath, can help. When you slow your breath, other aspects of DPA slow down in response.
And do not underestimate the power of giving your mind and body an intentional reprieve and shifting gears. During the insanity of COVID-19, cultivate islands of the ordinary and find windows of calm where you can rest your gaze. Notice the crocuses emerging from the earth while walking your dog. Write, cook, face-time with a friend, or have a much-needed cry. Give yourself permission to rage. You got this.
The bottom line is that information, tools, and mindfulness can help you keep your head above water while you embrace (or even cling to) the big red buoy of acceptance. And if that’s not enough, know that insurance companies are covering teletherapy for the vast majority of us in light of COVID-19, providing a lifeline for individuals, co-parents and couples seeking online therapy.
For ideas in maintaining calm through co-parenting communication and negotiation, please check out Part 2, coming soon.