Lisa and Spencer Rufiange are navigating the COVID-19 pandemic as a team. They are separated but remain close as co-parents of their 10-year-old daughter, Madison.
“I’ve often joked — half joked — that he’s a better father than I am a mother,” Lisa Rufiange said. “He always has her best interests in mind and I think during this particular time, it’s a time to become more cooperative and more fluid, not less.”
Often that is easier said than done. For some Canadians, the fallout of the pandemic — job loss, school closures, financial strain (to name a few) — has amplified already difficult family circumstances.
“The people who had sort of healthy functioning co-parenting relationships before this, for the most part, are finding that they’re feeling kind of pulled together in this,” said psychologist Vanessa Lapointe. “They are able to kind of stay the course and continue on with the dynamic of the relationship.
“But as happens with a lot of things, when the going gets tough, whatever dynamic that’s playing out in your relationship, it’s going to become really, really heightened.
“And so, if it was challenging before now, it has suddenly become very, very challenging.”
According to a communications adviser from Alberta Justice, all court orders regarding child custody remain in effect.
The province’s chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw also clarified that current restrictions do not mean “parents or children would need to choose which household they stay in.”
She added that parents should do their best to contain the number of people their families are in contact with.
Establish a family plan
Karen Stewart, founder of Fairway Divorce Solutions, advises co-parents to come up with a family plan of steps they will take to keep their children physically and emotionally healthy during the COVID-19 crisis.
“Sit down with a piece of paper and pen and write out, ‘How are we going to handle this?’ Do it in a place when you’re calm, you’re in a planning mode versus a reactive, short-term mode.
“Write 10 things we are going to do as a family. The number one thing that needs to be on there is obviously the protection of the kids.”
Nail down off-limit conversations
After ensuring children’s physical safety is looked after, Stewart advises mapping out how to protect their emotional health. One way is to put all conversations that lead to heated arguments or stress on hold.
“We’re not going to talk about the future financial situation. We’re not going to talk about long-term custody arrangements,” Stewart said.
“We are going to deal with this short term. So there should be some conversations that are taken off the table until this is done. If you’re dealing with lawyers, put them at bay.”
Step into your co-parent’s shoes
Lapointe says co-parents can defuse arguments by taking a step back to try to understand how their co-parent is feeling and what’s behind their behaviour. For example, if one parent refuses to send the children back because they feel their counterpart isn’t taking enough steps to make sure they stay healthy, the other parent should consider what’s at the root of their anxiety.
“Rather than going to, ‘You can’t keep my kids from me! You’re being unreasonable in all of this!’ Go to, ‘Oh. I wonder what’s up for them? I wonder if they are really scared and controlling things in this way is allowing them to feel more settled in this.’ And just hear them in that,” Lapointe said.
“‘You are such a good mom/dad. I really appreciate how much you are thinking through this for our children.'”
Lapointe says that doesn’t mean handing over the children for the next three months, but it means listening instead of immediately trying to overpower them in their concern.
See the opportunity
Lapointe considers the pandemic an opportunity to potentially reset relationships that aren’t working. The psychologist says children express what’s between the parents, so finding a healthy co-parenting dynamic is vital to their emotional well-being.
“Think about that during a time when we have this virus that is COVID-19 all around us and now you’re going to let this virus that is the toxicity of your co-parenting relationship further infect your children because they will be at the effect of that. And so this is an invitation guys,” Lapointe said.
“It’s an invitation to stand up, step in, to work on yourself so that you can change the way you are looking at things and then to find a way from that very adult, very present, very emotionally grounded place and space to navigate this bumpy terrain with your co-parent.”
Lisa and Spencer Rufiange have been “happily” separated for eight years. The pandemic has pushed them to work even more creatively together as Lisa assumes the role of Madison’s Grade 5 teacher for the foreseeable future. Their advice for co-parents is be present and focus on the logistics of seeing their children through this crisis first.
“Deal with the differences later. Just work on the co-parenting aspect. Deal with the situation we’re in right now.”
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