By Ellen Barron Feldman (firstname.lastname@example.org)
As a mediator and a collaborative attorney, I have been doing co-mediation exclusively by zoom since March 2020. The context is unsettling at best. Couples are together in their homes, trying to home-school their children, wondering if they will be losing their jobs or able to pay the mortgage, not able to take a break from their spouse if they have an argument or just need to breathe. How is that a comfortable environment to mediate what they want for the future in terms of a schedule for parenting their children or navigating finances when things may be uncertain as they attempt to navigate their divorce? It is a difficult scenario.
We have had many telephone consults where people are confident that they are ready to meet and move to the next stage of the process. They promise to talk to their spouse and email or text with dates when we will set an appointment to mediate. We do not hear back from them. Who can blame them? They may be furloughed or lose their job. Children may have meltdowns when they are supposed to be doing their schoolwork. Camp may have been canceled for the summer or they do not want the babysitter to come because her husband is an essential employee and it is too risky during Covid-19. It may just be too hard to think about negotiating the next stage of their life when life is so uncertain.
The other piece of Covid-19 that causes couples added stress is how to parent during this confusing time. Professionals keep saying that mediation is the best forum because courts are essentially closed except for emergencies. Mediation allows for creativity. But this is all new territory. So you are disagreeing with your soon-to-be ex-spouse, if you are living separately, who goes to the grocery store while you order groceries online. You keep the children in the house while he/she takes them outside without masks. You do not allow playdates while he/she has a significant other with children and continues to spend time together. You will not take a summer vacation when he/she is willing to drive across country with the children not knowing what states will be open for visitors. How is this all supposed to work?
Perhaps you negotiate separate parenting time while you are in the house together and both working from home. Perhaps one parent does the home-schooling/e-learning on certain days of the week and the other parent does the other days. Now that things are starting to open up a bit, maybe one parent takes the children to the park for an hour to give the other a break in the house to get some work done, do laundry or make dinner. Maybe you have separate nights to bathe the children and get them ready for bed so that you have time away from your spouse to give each other a break. This gives young children a chance to see what nights with mom or dad will be like in the future. These are possibilities that you can negotiate in mediation which may not be possible or even brought up by attorneys speaking to each other through pleadings. Attorneys are just trying to reach a final settlement while mediators are trying to reach a compromise that may not be the end result but get you through the process in a step-by-step way that allows you to try certain parenting plans to see how they work.
Mediation allows creativity if people are willing to be open with their spouse, share their views about what they are thinking about regarding Covid-19, as well as create a parenting schedule that may be temporary while parents are working from home and finances are uncertain. Mediation is an amazing way to be face to face, even “computer to computer by zoom”, and negotiate directly instead of through attorneys to learn to communicate in a different or better way for future co-parenting if couples are open to the possibility.