Esther Kleiner’s two children alternate between living at her home, and that of her ex-partner.
Her current partner is in the same boat — so between them they have a lot of schedules to coordinate.
“That is complicated enough without adding the coronavirus on top,” Ms Kleiner says.
She’s one of many Australians living in a blended family, or co-parenting with an ex, suddenly negotiating the rapidly evolving coronavirus situation.
It’s necessitating new, and sometimes challenging, conversations.
“People who don’t have the best relationships with their exes, the parents of their children, are almost forced to communicate,” says Ms Kleiner, who’s unsure how that’s going to play out in her family.
“I’m wondering in my head right now, is this going to be a good thing or is this going to be a bad thing?”
Psychology lecturer Rachael Sharman, a specialist in child and adolescent development, says the coronavirus has created more potential “points of conflict” for blended families.
“I can certainly see more conflicts unfolding and difficulties in deciding what to do with the kids,” she tells ABC RN’s Life Matters.
“We all have heightened emotions, and don’t really know what’s ahead.”
She says that can prove divisive — but with the right focus, it doesn’t have to be.
Ms Kleiner says the question mark hanging over well-established arrangements is a tough one for families like hers.
“I think what makes blended families complicated is that we’re so run by routine and schedule — ‘I’ve got kids on that day and you pick them up on that day and then we do this and we do that,'” she says.
But this pandemic is forcing many of those arrangements to change.
Families are suddenly needing to negotiate, for example, what exactly isolation should entail, or whether a child should be attending school or doing remote learning instead.
The challenge is compounded in relationships where there may be little or no verbal communication, or where care arrangements are determined through court orders or by text message.
Dr Sharman says unfortunately, the situation will divide blended families into two groups.
One will focus on a bigger picture, seek to pull together, and — even in the face of disagreement — find ways to move forward in the best interests of the child.
But that won’t be everyone’s experience.
Dr Sharman says, for a second group, the pandemic “will escalate tensions”.
“Now we are in this incredibly ever-changing, evolving scenario, and all of a sudden you need flexibility — and you don’t do flexibility; you haven’t done flexibility with your partner ever since you got divorced or separated,” she says.
“So that’s a really tricky one for people. These are unprecedented conditions.”
Getting on the same page
Ms Kleiner says being open about her needs with her partner and her ex-partner will be essential to getting through the next few months.
“They are not mind readers — especially at a time when we all have heightened emotions and don’t really know what’s ahead,” she says.
“Good communication is always helpful.”
Scott Kolbe, who shares custody of his 10-year-old son with his ex-partner, agrees.
But he says keeping communication channels open can be tough.
“It’s always challenging when you have had a relationship breakdown,” Mr Kolbe says.
“We didn’t have any major problems like a lot of people do, but it’s still traumatic to go through that with anyone. So it’s still hard for us to talk.
“But you have to think about the child, more than your own problems, and see if you can push through that a bit.”
Luckily, in discussing things like social distancing — conversations that include Mr Kolbe’s current partner and their two small children — everyone is “pretty much on the same page”.
Mr Kolbe’s blended family is isolating itself to the two homes, “so my son can go backwards and forwards”.
“We’ve created our own blended-house cluster,” he says.
He and his ex-partner are considering an online chat program to organise different discussions around their son’s learning, and they do a lot of text messaging.
The focus of their communication is their son’s wellbeing, and it’s working well.
“At the moment, I think it’s really just about making sure that the parents can talk to each other and be honest and open, and also making sure that we are telling each other how our child is doing or our children are doing during this time,” he says.
Keeping the focus on your kids
While Dr Sharman says coronavirus “is going to inflame some tensions”, that doesn’t mean parents can’t find good ways to handle them.
She’s encouraging people to “try and take the high ground”.
“It’s not about you. We’re in the middle of a global pandemic. It is about your kids,” she says.
Dr Sharman advises parents to think ahead about “the ifs and buts”, and have a plan ready for a range of scenarios.
What will you do if a parent or child develops virus symptoms? If the government announces school and childcare centre closures, where will your child spend their days? What if one parent can work from home, but the other can’t?
“Get on the front foot about this. Don’t react and wait for things to happen,” Dr Sharman says.
Expect to have to be flexible.
“Think about this: if you’ve got your kid week-on, week-off with the other parent, but someone in the house becomes sick … those parenting arrangements are going to suddenly have to become much more fluid and flexible and responsive,” Dr Sharman says.
And keep your eyes on the prize.
“Try and take a step back and take the focus off yourself, and focus on the child and what’s best for them,” Dr Sharman says.
“What can you do to try and make the situation as healthy and safe as possible for the children?”
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