A Frank Conversation About Co-Parenting in a Pandemic

A Frank Conversation About Co-Parenting in a Pandemic

Divorced parents. A 13-year-old-daughter. Quarantine. Could it be any more uncertain?

When the coronavirus hit, my primary concern was my 12-year-old daughter. Her dad and I have been divorced for several years, and we’ve always managed to co-parent without conflict: Since she was eight years old, she’s spent alternating weeks with each of us. But in addition to being co-parents, Erik’s also my friend — and I’ve always been grateful for what we’ve built as ex-spouses. But then there was a global pandemic.

Suddenly, he and I were disagreeing on what to do, and flailing for answers to problems we didn’t even understand. While it’s certainly not over, right now it seems like the worst (or at least the first) has passed. In honor of Father’s Day, I called him up so we could post-game our pandemic parenting. From puberty to messiness, and from lackluster birthdays to maintaining an optimistic outlook, we get into everything. So here’s to you, dads: Married, divorced, single, or otherwise, you’re raising the kids who are going to help make this world a better place.

Aliya S. King: We were in a staff meeting at LEVEL talking about pandemic parenting, and I feel like you really got it right. Do you feel that way?

Erik Parker: I don’t know. I think there’s degrees of pandemic parenting. And we’re all getting graded on a curve. Even the kids, they’re getting graded on a curve in school. Parents are the same way. Everything is different, so we can’t be graded the same. These are circumstances where we’re giving a certain amount of grace to everyone.

ASK: Early on, when the coronavirus hit, we made the decision that our daughter was going to stay with you full time. There were confirmed cases of Covid-19 in my building — and with hundreds of residents there, it just made more sense for her to be in a more controlled environment with you.

EP: Right, we had to do it.

ASK: I was surprised that she followed the rules, even with me. I’m her mom! When I came to your place to visit, I thought she would sneak in a hug, but she stayed six feet away and kept her mask on. She was vigilant.

EP: She had to be. It was her way of controlling her environment. It was a coping mechanism for her.

ASK: I get it. But it still freaked me out.

EP: She needed those guardrails. If the news said we have to do this, and if I was telling her we have to do this, she needed to follow those rules.

ASK: Do you think you had it extra hard because it was just you and a 12-year-old girl who was turning 13 during the pandemic? That’s a tough age — especially for a daughter.

EP: I think it was actually tougher for anyone with younger children. They needed more involvement with school, and explaining things is much easier with an older kid.

ASK: What did you have to explain to our daughter during the pandemic?

EP: Just the basics about being careful. Which she knew because she watched the news with me and she talked to her friends. I had to explain to her why it was safer at my house than mom’s house. And then I had to tell her that it was not forever. I told her there would be some normality at some point.

ASK: But we don’t know that. We still don’t know that.

EP: I know. I told her because I believe it. But…

ASK: Our kid is very sensitive. We couldn’t even console her because we didn’t know anything.

EP: I know.

ASK: We’ve been divorced for a while now. What does being a child of divorce mean in a global pandemic?

EP: It highlights things. I think you can probably ignore your parents being divorced most of the time. But during a pandemic, you’re not quarantining with both your parents — and adjusting to staying with one parent for a long period of time is different. I’m sure she felt it in a different way. She was with me for almost three months and it was abrupt.

ASK: I didn’t see her until her 13th birthday. With social distancing and masks. Do you think she’s different now? Now that things are creeping to normal?

EP: I think she’s struggling with the trauma. I think she might have a form of PTSD. She got thrown into one house instead of moving back and forth. She didn’t see her mother for three months. Her support system at school was gone. And she didn’t have end-of-school-year closure.

ASK: That hurt her so much. I could tell.

EP: You know kids save their big plans for the end of the year: I’m gonna change this, I’m gonna kiss that crush, I’m gonna do this or that. The end of year is important in seventh grade.

ASK: And her school is so small, the ceremonial things are really important.

EP: The school is built on ceremony.

ASK: And she doesn’t have friends outside school. When you and I were young, we had neighborhood friends, siblings, school friends. She only has school.

EP: When she saw the eighth graders getting their diplomas in the drive-by ceremony, she said it was the first time she felt normal.

ASK: She said that?

EP: Yeah. She was able to have some kind of closure — she hadn’t seen anyone in person in months.

ASK: I want to talk about how you parent daughters, specifically. You have a very close relationship with our daughter. Do you feel like you’re getting it right?

EP: To some degree, yes. I don’t think it’s more so than other fathers. Our generation in general has closer and more involved relationships with their daughters. My biggest fear in quarantining was that she would end up getting her period for the first time while she was here with me. I did not want that.

ASK: Why not?

EP: I don’t know what she would say or how she would react to it.

ASK: She and I have had conversations. She’s ready, no matter where it happens.

EP: Yeah, yeah, I know. But we don’t talk about those things. I don’t want her to feel like she can’t talk to me about it. But I also don’t want her to talk to me about it. It’s a conundrum.

ASK: That’s silly.

EP: I’m just saying.

ASK: What’s been the hardest part of pandemic parenting?

EP: Her 13th birthday was tough. It would have been better if we could have done a caravan or something. People were doing that later. But her birthday felt very anticlimactic — especially for someone who is turning 13. But it could have been worse. She could have spent her birthday in a hospital with the coronavirus.

ASK: How concerned were you that she could contract it?

EP: Early on, I was concerned because she has asthma. Not as much now.

ASK: If her school opens up, are we sending her in September?

EP: That’s a good question. Her school is really small. They might be able to pull it off. But I really don’t know. We have time to sort it.

ASK: What did you learn about our daughter during this weird time? Did she change at all?

EP: I just see how grown-up she’s getting. Just physically, she’s clearly having a growth spurt. Also, in the beginning of virtual learning, she was struggling. She wasn’t on top of her work. And then, you started to call her each morning to help her start the day. Because I didn’t want to get up in the morning.

ASK: I was really annoyed by that.

EP: Yeaaaah. Well, it worked out, I think it ended up being helpful for all of them to try to figure it out. These kids are being trained for their future.

ASK: They’re so strong!

EP: And they’re evolving! They now know how to live through a pandemic. They know how to deal with inequalities and protests — and then they still have to have their weekly assembly and drive-by graduations.

ASK: What would our kid prefer, in-person or virtual school?

EP: In-person, for sure. But she worries a lot too. If she knows it’s safe, she’ll go to school.

ASK: What was the best part of virtual learning? For me, no commuting was beautiful.

EP: Yeah, she has to be at school at 7:30. Definitely no commuting was great.

ASK: This is not our first go-round with a 13-year-old. Our oldest is 23 and lives in L.A. How are the girls different?

EP: The oldest was more self-sufficient at 13. She was private too. By seventh grade she was already moving into her journey of separation from her parents. The younger one is definitely still more connected to her parents still.

ASK: What should we do this summer with her? There won’t be an outdoor camp obviously. But she can’t just sit around all summer.

EP: She’s going to do drama and dance.

ASK: I’m thinking about guitar lessons on Zoom.

EP: I just remembered something that was really problematic during the middle of the pandemic.

ASK: What?

EP: Her hair.

ASK: So glad you brought that up. I forgot to tell you — what you did with that girl’s hair was amazing. You took her twists out, detangled and then re-twisted. With all that hair that child has? Incredible. I’m so proud of you!

EP: Her hair was unruly and messy and scary. It looked like it was about to be a serious problem.

ASK: Because it was!

EP: Keeping the house clean with her is also a lot. She’s messy. I’m used to sending her back to you on Friday and I have a minute to clean up and live in a clean house until she comes back. She wrecks a house. Seriously.

ASK: We talked about how she is a child of divorced parents and how that can impact her. I am so grateful that you and I are still close. I hope that helps her whether it’s a pandemic or not. Does it matter if we get along?

EP: Of course it matters. She doesn’t like conflict anyway. And during the pandemic, it highlights that your parents are both not there with you. So knowing that they get along and both communicate well with each other? That matters, for sure. It’s good that she can see that all the people in her life care for each other — and her.

ASK: Sidebar: Is it hard for you to get her outside?

EP: I have to drag her out!

ASK: Yeah, at my place, if it’s up to her, she’d never leave.

EP: Oh! And she eats too much. That made pandemic parenting very challenging. Every time I walk by her, she’s standing in the kitchen, staring into the fridge.

ASK: Same at my place.

EP: I buy groceries, they’re wiped out immediately.

ASK: She’s 13! Remember, growth spurt? Buy more food.

EP: I tried that. She ate it all. She was eating out of boredom at first. I was, too.

ASK: She told me you never have enough food over there.

EP: Lies. She eats it all and then stares in the fridge.

ASK: Okay. Parenting during a pandemic, last thoughts?

EP: Periods, eating all the food, messiness, virtual learning. I think that’s about everything.