Written by Divorce Attorneys & Former Spouses Vanessa Hammer and Brendan Hammer
From lost jobs to lost homes, from reduced income to reduced interaction, and from kid’s staying away from Spring Break to kid’s staying with infected persons – COVID-19 is animating almost every aspect of what we do as divorce lawyers. In a normal time, coparenting for divorced or separated parents is hard but rewarding work.
However, our situation is unique--my ex-wife and I live together and co-parent our child..., and yes, in case you missed it in the first sentence of this article, my former spouse and I are both divorce attorneys. And if coparenting a child with your ex-wife, when you are both divorce lawyers, is complicated, then living together, isolated, as a family under one roof during a global pandemic is very interesting. It is also clarifying.
In a way, the isolation that we are sharing as a divorced, coparenting team is a form of consolation; for each of us as well as our son. Understandably, our son is afraid. Unable to be in school or sports or socialize with his friends and teammates, he is figuring out how to adapt to the new (temporary) normal. With soccer practices, classrooms and scout meetings all on Zoom – he is remaining engaged despite being apart from his usual life and interactions. Staying engaged despite being apart; this is really the spirit of coparenting, whether during COVID-19 or otherwise.
It is far too easy, in divorce, to allow your own feelings and emotions toward your former spouse, or soon to be former spouse, to infect and sometimes control the things you say and do. Before the virus, it was tempting for divorced parents to fall victim to the temptation to fixate on every perceived slight, to scrutinize the tone and timing of every communication, to make the issues between the adults become issues about the children. With the virus crisis now affecting us all – it is more crucial than ever to double down on the spirit and intent of coparenting: to place your child’s interests first, to communicate transparently and openly, and to insure maximum security, stability and consistency for your child on every level.
COVID-19 is dangerous. The daily medical reports tell of a seemingly unending tally of the afflicted and the lost remind us that this virus is omnipresent and does not discriminate. The secondary effects of the social distancing and quarantine in which we must participate has the potential to create a space where, if parents are not mindful, a psychological danger can also appear. As divorce practitioners, we have both seen and observed the professional, economic and other impacts of the virus in our clients’ lives and in our own. Like them, we wake up every morning to an uncertain and unfamiliar world. We spend our days separated across three floors, conducting remote hearings, participating in conferences, and trying to provide the best counsel we can to clients in conflict all while trying to keep our son’s education on track and manage the home we are sharing together. Our own conflict, as a father and mother who once were married, pales in comparison to these challenges.
Just as there are no atheists in foxholes (or few, at least) – the immediacy, gravity and scope of a crisis like COVID-19 has demonstrated to us that we should not make small things big or make big things small. Perhaps the best thing that we have done as a team is to radically embrace what this unsettled time has brought. To admit our fears and share our concerns. To talk about the things that worry us for ourselves, our clients, our families of origin, our legal practices and, most importantly, our son. Some of those fears are about the virus itself. In mid-March, mere days before our Governor implemented a Stay-at-Home order, we had to take our son to the emergency room for something not-related to the virus. Due to COVID-19 precautions implemented by the hospital, only one of us was allowed to accompany our son in the emergency room. We had to make a split-second decision as to who would take that charge. There were no arguments, there was no posturing. We knew which of us had to go in. The trust and goodwill we had built between us over the years was immediately called to the forefront. While our son recovered quickly from his issue, one of us did not. Over the next two weeks, we self-segregated within the home, called the doctors and department of health, monitored temperatures and basically sat in waiting for the worst to happen. Thankfully, treatment and time resolved things but those two weeks were the scariest we had endured in a very long time.
Treatment and time usually resolve things for the lucky ones. If there is one prescription that we can provide to any divorced or divorcing parent during this time, it is this: use the gift of this time to focus on what really matters for your child.
Perhaps like us, you have noticed that time both accelerates and slows down during the “lockdown.” At times, we each frantically run up or down the stairs to draft an order, take a call or put out a figurative fire for our clients. At other times, the minutes and hours extend and we can take time to introduce our favorite 80’s movies to our son, to bake a cake, or play a leisurely game as a family. This crisis, for us, is marked by long periods of unscheduled time, punctuated by acute periods of activity. In some ways, the disruptions to the scheduled life of a lawyer are a gift. The board games that had once collected dust are now in frequent use. The homemade dishes we have cooked have replaced the all too easy reliance on a food delivery app. There are things that we read, think and discuss that would not have accessed our radar in more “normal” times.
With time suspended, we can reflect. With time to reflect, we can act thoughtfully. And when we act thoughtfully, we can choose more calmly, compassionately and considerately. This does not mean that tensions do not run high here. They do. Tensions are high everywhere. But oddly enough, when you have been through the demise of your marriage together, perhaps you are better equipped to ride out the effects of a contagion together.
Every marriage that ends does so along unique but also similar fault lines. From regret to anger, from betrayal to mistrust, with a sprinkling of blame, shame and guilt throughout – divorce is often traumatic for these and a myriad of reasons. The hopes, dreams and goals that marked the relationship on the day it began become a gaping hole where joy used to live when divorce is the painful decision to be made. Property and income divided. Friendships and loyalties are divided. Divorce separates and distances us more acutely than almost anything we have seen prior to physical distancing during Covid-19. There are some who, out of the ashes of the marital demise, can maintain enough of that which was right about the marriage to make coparenting work in divorce. We have certainly attempted to do that for the last five and a half years.
For those of us who work in divorce, we see the toll that distance can have. For those of us who have also been divorced, we also know that damage. And perhaps it is those of us who work and live in a world marked by distance can offer a ray of hope to those who are grappling with an additional form of distance during these times.
At the end of the day, coparenting is an action verb. It is a thing you do daily – during good times and bad. It is not a status anyone can confer and it is something no Court can require. Very few people look back at their divorce and think “I wish it had been nastier.” In coparenting, we count moments, not minutes. We attempt to create a new and different world for our children. Though we are apart, we continue to work together. We encourage every parent in conflict to draw a little deeper breath, take an extra moment, and reflect during this challenging time.
A virus can erupt at the other end of the world and capture the planet in a matter of months. We are all globally interconnected through commerce, trade and travel but we are also connected in other ways – smaller yet powerful ways. We are connected to our former spouse or partner; that person with whom we brought new life into the world. May we all take this time when we are farthest apart to become a little closer for the good of the children we hold in common.
Read more about navigating relationships during quarantine
About the Authors
Vanessa Hammer is a top rated Family Law attorney in Chicago, Illinois. She has been designated a Super Lawyer for 2018, 2019 and 2020, and Illinois Super Lawyers Rising Star for 2012 and 2013. Vanessa L. Hammer, an attorney with Hoffenberg & Block, LLC in Chicago, Illinois, helps clients address Family Law situations. She received legal training from University of Houston Law Center. She graduated from law school in 2006. Vanessa Hammer became licensed to practice law in 2006.
Brendan Hammer is an experienced courtroom litigator who represents a variety of individuals from executives and entrepreneurs, to medical/legal/creative professionals, to political figures, professional athletes and their spouses. He concentrates his practice on the litigation and negotiation of complex family law matters. Brendan is certified in divorce mediation through Northwestern University and is on the Faculty of the National Family Law Trial Institute. He serves on the Advisory Council of the David Lynch Foundation (Chicago) and the Advisory Board of Family Law Center of the DePaul University College of Law.