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Kindness in Parenting – Christmas, Covid and Beyond…

Our blog this month is written by one of our Partners, Renee Konotopsky. Renee is an experienced family law lawyer who helps families navigate through times of crisis. Below, she examines some of the pressures put on families during stressful times such as Christmas or the current Covid19 crisis. The remedy she suggests for families is simple… kindness.

I actually started to write this blog in December last year, but as December tends to do, it got away from me. But it recently hit me that the same issues that frequently come up in or around November/December each year on our family files, my colleagues and I are also seeing right now in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.  

Separated parents are in conflict. They are arguing about schedules and requesting extra parenting time – also withholding parenting time – from the other parent. Arguing the perspective of the best interests of the children, parents sometimes try to renegotiate time during Christmas, believing that their version of the holidays will be better for the children then what the ‘other’ parent can offer. Similarly, now under the fears of COVID, parents are unilaterally making changes to agreed upon parenting arrangements, as well as to their formal Agreements and Court Orders arguing that the ‘other’ parent is not following the COVID protocols the way that they would. As you might expect, unilateral actions of this kind often create further conflict, and conflict begets more conflict.

During the holidays, separated parents also attempt to micro-manage the other parent about where they have been, where are they going and who they are allowing to be around the children. This is also true during the time of COVID. Parents, already mistrusting of one another, question their social distancing practices, testing their level of risk tolerance, especially when it comes to their new partners.  Moreover, as separated parents are sometimes wont to do, they scrutinize their children’s routines in the ‘other’ residence – are the kids staying up too late over ‘there’? Are they doing enough reading and online school work over ‘there’? And, my God, what are they eating over ‘there’? Of course, there is now an added worry with this last issue: parents are not just concerned and critical about how much sugar the ‘other’ parent is letting their kids eat at their house but now in the face of the COVID protocols, parents are also judging whether the other parent is ensuring their kids have washed their hands both before and after eating the cookies and whether it meets the appropriate song-length. 

As family lawyers, we get it. Holidays are hectic for everyone. Even all of the fun things about Christmas – shopping and baking and parties and concerts and family – are somehow also stressful when you add weather, travel and over-scheduled, finite calendars to the mix of two different, competing households. And, of course, the cost of Christmas creates stress itself, not only leading up to Christmas but well into January when the winter blues really take hold. We know that stress and the expectations that we put on ourselves and our families – for that perfect holiday meal/gathering/moment – can leave little room for patience and flexibility and tolerance for an ex-spouse who – in your opinion – has not shown you the same grace.  

As a parent of 3 children (14, 11 and 8), I do understand the knee-jerk approach to put on the brakes, shut down the household and put the kids in a bubble during the COVID health crisis. In fact, we have been directed to do so by health officials and our government bodies. Kids are not going to school, they are not playing with their friends, they do not have their usual outlets with their organized sports or recreation and they are not even being dragged along to the mundane errand runs of going to the Costco or the grocery stores so why should they be allowed to go over to that ‘other’ house?      

And what about that ‘other’ house? Perhaps it is a temporary accommodation since the property and finances have not yet been settled and the other parent does not have the financial freedom to make long term choices on housing. Perhaps that ‘other’ house is a family members’ place since the separation is even too young to have set up temporary accommodations. Or maybe the ‘other’ place is more settled but has a new partner – and even a new partner’s kids – coming and going.

What is maybe lost on some parents trying to navigate a separation and divorce is that the ‘other’ home could be yours. The other parent’s perspective maybe similar to yours, questioning what you are doing over ‘there’. And unfortunately, in all that finger-pointing, parents forget to recognize their common intentions/goals. Both parents likely have the same goal of trying to make the holidays fun and magical for the children, or that their children and themselves remain healthy and safe in this unnerving period of COVID. So why can’t parents work together to ensure it happens in both homes? Some parents are not prepared to extend an olive branch to the other parent – or certainly they are not prepared to be the first to do it – to try to put yourself in the other parent’s shoes, to communicate respectfully without an agenda, and to try, really try to successfully co-parent. After all, the children did not choose any of this and isn’t it a parent’s job to help them to go back and forth between the homes during the holidays or COVID, or any other time of the year, without fear and anxiety, without the worry that one parent is going to be upset with them and/or the other parent if the children actually enjoyed their time with the other parent? As family law lawyers I think part of our job is to challenge our clients to view the ‘other’ home as the children’s ‘other’ home. The home where the children and their mother (or father) live, together.      

If we follow the adage that charity (or kindness) starts at home, by extension then, shouldn’t the kindness be in both of the children’s homes and between both of the children’s homes? 

Generally, as humans, we are kind to strangers and want to help others. We see that heightened sense of community during the holidays as well as during a crisis of any kind, and currently with COVID. We recognize the less fortunate around us and our natural response is to question: How can I help? Leading up to the Christmas season, we volunteer our time with charities, we provide monetary and food donations to as many door knockers, tele-a-thons and dressed-up Santas in the malls as we can manage.  During COVID, despite the world-wide fear and heartbreak of losing loved ones, we see countless examples of support and admiration for our health care front line workers, our neighbourhood grocery clerks and delivery people, and we extend love to the community as a whole that we will get through this – supportive comments, cut-out rainbows and hearts in the windows and donations to local foodbanks and other charities to help ease the shortfall.      

Well, how about being kind to those closest to you? Your family. Some of you might think your ex-spouse is no longer your family. Family law lawyers should challenge parents going through a separation to realize that they were a family unit yesterday and they will still be a family unit tomorrow, it just looks different. So be kind, be patient, be tolerant. We try to teach our children to see the best in others (and in each other). Parents need to do the same.