Sunday, February 14, 2021

Rona and the Blended Family

 I've really tried to follow CDC guidelines to avoid contact with COVID-19. I've tried to even go further in protecting myself and my family by limiting the places I go. I teach at a school that opened in a hybrid schedule to best facilitate social distancing, make enforcing masks easier, and give students the option of staying home full-time if that feels safer to them. I go to a gym where the members are mindful of social distancing and cleaning the equipment they use, and will call each other out for failure to do so. Even then, I only go to the gym for workouts that I can't do at home or outside, like swimming, which seems like the safest gym activity to me. I go grocery shopping once a week, and big box shopping once a month, and refuse to go inside any other retail or dining establishments.

And still, the Rona got me. I'm trying to figure out where and how I got it, but it basically comes down to three places, and each of them hard to avoid. It's also possible that I could have been more vigilant, but in the end, it's too late for what-ifs.

It had me laid up for a couple of days with intense muscle aches and fatigue, but no respiratory symptoms, thank God. On days four and five, I started feeling well enough to start teaching from home, another advantage of the hybrid model, but at first, while I made it look easy on the outside, I was taking naps in between classes. This was back on the MLK weekend and I'm still catching up on grading. By a week after symptoms, I felt fully recovered and somewhat restless about being cooped up by myself.

The other impact was that it basically scattered the family structure in several ways. My oldest daughter took my granddaughter to a hotel for a week to quarantine, and then spent the rest of the time at her mother's place, waiting for me to get a negative COVID test that has yet to come. My wife, blessed saint that she is, was single-handedly taking care of the kids and house for the entire two weeks, in addition to feeding the prisoner down the hall. We actually created a kind of airlock in the hallway leading to the master bedroom, placing an end table from the living room in front of the door to place food and using a system of knocks to make sure we don't surprise each other and come face to face. As of now, however, everything is back to normal, or at least, as normal as it was before, except that my grown daughter is still waiting for my negative test result.

Still, one thing that this experience opened my eyes to is how different the experience of pandemic, quarantine, and COVID is for blended families. The pandemic has hit all families hard, but blended families suffer in unique ways with unique challenges to face.

1) Co-parenting and shared custody agreements

I actually looked for some articles on the subject of blended families and pandemic to try to understand this better, but one thing I noticed about many of them is that they mostly deal with the issue of step-parenting and not co-parenting. The issue of how to manage a pandemic in a house with step-children is certainly an important one, but my thoughts were more on how to manage these protocols when you have children in the house that travel back and forth between homes on a regular basis. The most obvious solution is to lock down at one parent's home, but which one? One or both parents may not be willing to give up their shared custody agreement.

Even if they do so, for the greater good, it can create resentment towards the other parent and extended family. It might seem petty, but consider how hard quarantine and shelter-in-place orders are on all families, and then consider how much harder that would be if you had to make a choice that meant not seeing your child for an indefinite amount of time. It's tough, even for good reason, to give up the time you spend with your child, the influence you have over them and the joy they bring your home, especially when you feel like that time has already been reduced by divorce and court decrees. Some co-parents have been able to make that hard decision and determine one home as the safest or most convenient place for the child until the pandemic is over, but a lot of others have stuck to their custody plan and made the best of it, trying to keep the child and themselves safe under those circumstances. It can work, to be sure, but it takes a lot of communication and compromise from everyone involved.

2) Different pandemic policies at home

In addition to the fact that blended families are more likely to have children that travel back and forth between homes, and therefore more likely to create opportunities for infection, they also deal with the reality of differing standards of pandemic safety, and different interpretations of CDC guidelines. The differences in my situation were pretty minor, and since my children have aged out of shared custody and can (and do) pretty well come and go as they please, just minor communication between my ex-wife and myself was all it took to develop some safety protocols that we agreed on.

One easy policy to develop was vigilant testing for anyone changing residence or feeling any sort of symptoms, from the biggest all the way to the littlest. On the other hand, one point of contention was my going to the gym. We ended up compromising on that issue, and, like any good compromise, both walked away from it feeling as if we didn't get exactly what we wanted. But in the end, I think that our negotiations were easy and motivated by trust - in the science, in each other, and in the kids. What about families where that trust is damaged, or dead? What if one co-parent is dedicated to following CDC guidelines, while the other is an anti-masker who thinks that the whole thing is a hoax? What kind of compromise can there be in that dynamic?

This is one of the hardest things about co-parenting, when the two parents have totally different standards on important matters, and it's what makes the pandemic so hard on blended families. What would I do if I were in a situation with young children to protect, unable to change the court ordered custody agreement, and equally unable to convince my opposite number to enforce even the simplest safety protocols. I thank God that isn't my life, but I pray for parents in blended families who experience exactly that. There are legal options available, and at some point, perhaps a co-parent has to make use of them, but they come at the cost of increased conflict with the other parent, and possibly even resentment from the child.

Overall, it seems like at every turn, whatever challenges families face, blended families find them more complicated. There's a mental and emotional cost that blended families pay that might be hard for others to even understand, and this is in addition to the stress we've all endured during this time. Hopefully, the increased access and better distribution of vaccines and all of the effort and sacrifice we've already invested will pay off in a return to some kind of new normal. Still, as a part of that new normal, keep washing your hands, keep isolating from others when you have symptoms, and keep considering ways that the new normal is going to affect the blended families that you love.

"Blended families already had unique financial issues — then the pandemic hit"

"Social Distancing and Stepfamilies"

"Challenges of Coronavirus for Divorced and Blended Families"