For the last few months, Kelly Knock has been vigilant about enforcing quarantine rules. But as restrictions relaxed, the discussions with her husband, Darrell Glaser, surrounding the safety of their two children, ages 3 and 6, became more strained.
“When it was just our little bubble, we were both doing OK. ... We could manage our situation,” said the Baltimore resident. “But now that our bubble is overlapping with other bubbles, there’s just more to disagree on.”
So when the kids have a play date, Knock insists on masks — and Glaser does not. When her 6-year-old son has a socially distanced bike ride with friends, she is constantly saying “back up” while her husband is silent.
“Sometimes, I wonder if it would be less stressful not to have a play date at all,” she said.
Now that many parks, child care, camps and other businesses are reopening, what happens when you and your spouse can’t see eye to eye? How do you navigate this murky new stage? Who gets to decide if, after almost 12 weeks at home, one partner wants to attend brunch with all the relatives — but the other says it’s too soon?
In the early weeks of the crisis, when everything was closed and streets were empty, it was easier for partners to agree. Despite more than 121,100 deaths and 2.3 million confirmed COVID-19 cases across the nation as of June 24, some people seem to think the threat is over. A global pandemic isn’t like other parenting issues — say, screen time or curfew — because these decisions can be a matter of life and death.
At the Knock-Glaser household, it’s mom, a real estate agent, who holds firm and dad, an economist, who is more apt to view the world through statistics. On a recent weekend, when the family had their first outing in months, Glaser reassured his wife that they had more of a chance of dying on the road to the Chesapeake Bay than catching the coronavirus.
Still, she has good reason to be wary. Their son was born prematurely and at age 3, he contracted an autoimmune disorder, which required hospitalization and an intravenous dose of plasma.
“I’m probably being irrational because of past trauma, but there’s still a lot of ambiguity around COVID,” Knock said. “There’s still a lot we don’t know.”
Ben Karney, a professor of social psychology at UCLA, says that even when emotions run high, couples can bridge their differences constructively. The key? Start from the point that you both have legitimate preferences.
“Now, you’re in a negotiation, not a debate,” he said. “It’s still not easy, but it’s better than a debate, when you try to convince your partner that what they are feeling is wrong.”
These are two different preferences, albeit with higher stakes, Karney said.
In the case of the brunch gathering, he gives an example, starting with the more risk-averse mom acknowledging dad’s feelings; that she understands he really wants to attend.
Dad might respond: “This time, I won’t go. I get that it makes you anxious and I will prioritize your feelings over my desires.”
Or an equally valid response from Dad could be: “I get that you’d rather I didn’t go — and I know it will upset you. I’m not saying you’re right or wrong. ... But, this time, I am asking you to make this sacrifice for me.”
Such honest dialogue has been difficult for one Chicago-area couple, who have asked for anonymity. For the last few weeks, they have been deadlocked over whether their 9-year-old daughter should go to camp.
Dad is emphatic about their 9-year-old staying home. Mom thinks it makes “absolute sense” for Emily, their only child, to attend for a variety of reasons, including socialization (especially since she has been out of school for three months) and the fact that both parents work full-time jobs and need child care. With the precautions that the camp was taking (sanitizing, limiting capacity and more), she felt the risk could be managed.
“I’m very aware of the reality of COVID and I’m not brushing it aside, but I felt like it was safe to send her,” she said. “We’ve had similar disagreements regarding the virus, and he makes me feel as if my position suggests that I didn’t care about our daughter’s safety — which was unfair.” (Emily is staying home.)
When separation, divorce and stepparents are added to the mix, discussions over resuming activities can become even more complicated.
Mary Owen married Mark Thomas two years ago, and was quite certain she had the necessary skills to steer clear of conflicts and remain calm — not only with her husband, but also with her two stepdaughters, now 3 and 7.
But then the virus came along, making it more difficult to get on the same page, especially about shuttling back and forth between their respective homes.
Recently, the couple clashed over attending his older daughter’s birthday party. Owen knew there would be a crowd and that safety protocols would be nonexistent, so she asked Thomas to decline, fearing that he could become infected.
”I lost,” she said. “The virus has just exacerbated everything. Also, in divorce, I think there’s a lot of guilt. Mark is a really good father and finds it hard to say no. But there are times I want to say, ‘Wait, what about me?’ I live here, too.”
David L. Hill is a pediatrician and co-author of the new book “Co-Parenting Through Separation and Divorce” with Jann Blackstone, a retired child custody mediator in California. They recommend starting difficult conversations by envisioning the future relationship you would like to have with your child’s co-parent in 20 years. Imagine graduation or a wedding day. Then, ask yourself: “What can I do today to achieve that vision?”
Hill speaks from personal as well as professional experience. He has two sons, now 15 and 18, from his first marriage. His second wife (whom the kids call their “Bonus Mom”) has an immunodeficiency, so the most prudent course of action during the pandemic has been for Hill to forfeit weekend visits with the boys — for now.
”Even in these sad and scary times, keeping your focus on the kids helps parents step out of all the pain and anger that occurs around separation and divorce,” he explained. “It helps you pull back and gain some perspective.”
For her part, Knock finds herself carefully picking and choosing her battles, although lately, whenever things get too tense, she says she’s the one most likely to concede.
“With all that’s going on, we just can’t afford to disagree right now,” she said. “I just want to keep the peace.”