Looking back at 2020, it is truly “20/20.” As we begin to understand the economic and social impact of the past year, we can now see some of the impact the pandemic is having on families.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we at Van Oorschot Law Group and other lawyers, have been discussing about how separated parents might navigate parenting during the pandemic. In the early days, no one knew that nearly 12 months later we would still be subject to stay-at-home orders, on-again/off-again school closures and parents remotely working from home.
The quote “a family that plays together stays together” certainly got turned on its head in the past nine months, as families were no doubt “together,” but there wasn’t a lot of playing going on. This mandated close proximity brought a lot of introspection and closeness for some families but, this is not the case for all families.
Divorce on the Rise
It is no surprise that many published reports tell us about divorce being on the rise as a result of the pandemic. Historically, many struggling marriages were masked by busy lives of work and children whereby parents saw each other for a few waking hours a day. This made it easier to stay together, especially for the sake of the children. But when the struggle of marriage and family is front and center, the ability to cope with a failing relationship is harder and is leading couples to call it quits on the marriage sooner than may have occurred in pre-pandemic days.
The Pandemic’s Effect on Custody
Before the pandemic, most parents had their designated roles in the family. One parent may have been working outside the home; the other working at home and taking care of more daily parenting duties than the other. In families where one parent had primary parenting responsibility, a very common assumption (and often reality) is that the parent with the greater parenting responsibilities maintained this role after the divorce. They would, therefore, have greater custodial time with the children.
However, this past year turned everything around, including the parenting duties for most parents. The dynamic (and past status quo for many) of one parent working outside the home and the other having greater parenting responsibilities ceased to exist. Thus, the longstanding assumption that one parent will have more custodial time with the children after divorce may no longer be the case. Parenting roles have been heavily disrupted and a new status quo in many families has been created by virtue of the pandemic. Indeed, for many families, while the pandemic may have caused or accelerated the divorce, it has also created more engaged parenting. Arguably, this is a major benefit to the children.
The Flip Side. While the pandemic gave rise to many parents having equal opportunity to be engaged with their children, there were some parents that, riddled with the dissatisfaction of the marriage, took a “time out” from parenting altogether. It’s entirely possible that the parent who withdrew from parenting (when parenting was needed more than ever in terms of effort and time) could face negative ramifications during the divorce when attempting to claim that they should have higher levels of custodial time with the children after a divorce.
The Chips Have Fallen
As families work to readjust and look forward to this next phase of the pandemic, and hopefully starting to take steps to return to some semblance of normalcy in the world, parents and lawyers will be looking very closely at how parents parented in 2020, during the worse social and economic crisis of our lifetimes. This very macro experience will no doubt be examined during each and every custody matter and will impact all families that move to the next phase of divorce.