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Staying Together — In Quarantine — For the Kids

Couples co-parenting in lockdown are trying to put the children’s wellbeing above the awkwardness of living with an ex

Wayne Brady, the Emmy Award-winning actor and everyone’s favorite member of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, has an unusual lockdown arrangement: He’s self-isolating with his 17-year-old daughter, his ex-wife and her boyfriend. “My ex-wife Mandie and I, we have a different and I think a very special relationship than a lot of people who co-parent,” Brady told Access Hollywood. “Mandie, her boyfriend Jason, my daughter Maile, we are a family. We are like this nuclear family.”

Brady is fortunate enough to be self-isolating with these three others across two neighboring households, with a “big backyard and lots of land.” It’s not surprising, then, that he’s described this pandemic and attendant lockdown requirements as “an amazing time for family, because it’s kind of like a time-out.”

But for people in more humble circumstances, quarantining with an ex because of shared childcare responsibilities can be a mixed bag, if not a nightmare. For Sophie, a 42-year-old freelance editor in London who split last year from her cheating partner of 16 years, it’s certainly not as idyllic as Brady’s situation. “My ex only moved out at the beginning of the year so we don’t have any formal court-ordered arrangements, but the rules here are that children can see both parents,” she explains. “I take the kids to him every day between 4 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., and I don’t talk to him or make eye contact, because I hate his guts.”

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Me: “Mike, let’s make a video re-enacting the other night when you became furious after I asked you if you were engaging in sexual intercourse during the Coronavirus.” Mike: “No.” Me: “Can we make a video of how funny it was just now at Whole Foods when I called you my boyfriend loudly in the cheese aisle and it made you uncomfortable?” Mike: “I’d rather not.” Me: “Mike, this is really boring, you’re the only person over the age of seven I can have in-person contact with due to the family bacteria and you’re totally not nurturing my creative spirit here.” (Drives down Lorimer in silence). Mike: “I think I’m going to move to the country when this is all over.” Me: “Okay.” #divorcestories

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Sophie’s finding that her ex is being maddeningly uncooperative and unhelpful, adding even more strain on the already tense relationship. “He was totally useless in the run-up to lockdown,” she says. “He didn’t think about it at all, and didn’t make any plans. Two of our children get viral wheezes so I had to be the one to make sure we got medication and had enough supplies.”

He continues to do the bare minimum, too, in quarantine — at least in terms of keeping their “pod” a closed circle. “He was very evasive when I asked whether his girlfriend is coming over,” she explains, “so I don’t actually know how safe his place is.”

Luckily, despite the huge headache it’s been for Sophie, her kids — two girls and a boy, all under 10 years old — are adjusting fine. “They’re actually doing really well with this new normal,” she explains. “They get to see their dad every day, they get to decide where they sleep and they don’t have to see me and him arguing.”

Things are a bit less fraught for Phoebe, a 35-year-old artist in Australia who’s living with her ex and their two kids (ages 9 and 6). “She and I separated amicably a year ago, but have continued living and parenting together,” she tells me. “We get along just as well as ever. We’re a couple of unusual people overall, not especially concerned with living how everyone else lives, and I’m proud to be raising a couple of confident weirdos.” 

It can, however, still be difficult for Phoebe to find sources of emotional support, given the unusual makeup of her bubble. “It’s a depressing and often upsetting time to be alive, and I feel like I need to keep a lid on my emotions a lot of the time because I’m sharing a living space with not only children, but a person with whom there’s been this agreement of ‘this is not the person you turn to emotionally anymore,’” she explains. “Plus, while I haven’t done much in-depth reading about this, I’ve certainly heard it can be unhealthy to put your kids in a position where they have to be the ones comforting and reassuring you.”

Because kids take priority in these situations, one or both of the parents involved can end up separated from their own partners, which is the case for Phoebe. “I have a girlfriend who lives interstate. We’ve been together for six months, but as per the lesbian cliche, we got very serious about each other very quickly,” she says. “We have a strong relationship, and we’re supporting each other really well through this.” 

For the parent who isn’t in their usual residence, this kind of quarantine arrangement can mean being without resources or creature comforts, especially if the lockdown took effect unexpectedly. That’s what happened for Matt, a 37-year-old behavioral psychologist on lockdown with his ex-wife Steph, a 39-year-old clinical psychologist, and their four-year-old son, Bear. Ordinarily in New York City, the three have been sheltering-in-place in California for the past six weeks, where they were on a family vacation. “I have a pair of jeans and a pair of swim trunks and about three shirts,” Matt laughs. “Nobody was expecting eight-plus weeks of road living.”

The three are likely to be in this situation until the end of May, which for them isn’t as bad as it sounds. Bear “just thinks he’s on vacation,” and despite splitting more than three years ago, Matt and Steph are used to co-parenting as friends. Even pre-pandemic, they had a non-traditional arrangement, with Matt helping raise Bear at Steph’s house and sleeping over on her couch several nights a week. 

The two are on almost eerily good terms, finishing each other’s sentences and trading good-natured barbs. “Compared to divorced people who don’t talk to each other, we’re doing great,” Matt laughs. “But internally, I hate you and would like to not be stuck in this house with you anymore,” he jests at Steph, who laughs while he speaks. 

It’s not like their split had “unicorns and butterflies everywhere,” Steph says — the two have “come to understand that [they’re] not meant to be in a romantic relationship together” — but she thinks one reason they’re able to co-parent so effectively is because they still deeply care about each other. “We genuinely respect and admire each other,” Matt agrees. “I don’t think it would work if we didn’t love each other.”

Steph says the two fight “all the time,” and Matt laughs in good-natured agreement. But both think parenting as friends can sometimes be easier than parenting as lovers, because they’re able to be more cool-headed during arguments. “We’re both better at diffusing them and letting it go,” Steph says, “because you don’t really have the same expectations from a friend as you do from a romantic partner.”

“The stakes are different, right? When you’re in a romantic relationship and you fight, the stakes are that you’re not going to be together anymore,” Matt reasons. “We don’t have any stakes anymore! We already did the leaving.” 

Ultimately, Steph and Matt have a mutual guiding principle of doing what’s best for their son, which is how they navigate situations like this one. “It’s a good tie-breaker in any fight, because you just revert to what’s best for Bear,” Matt says. “And of course, you don’t always agree on what’s best for Bear, but that happens with married couples, too.” 

“From talking to friends,” he adds, “it sounds like our experience is much like theirs, except without the make-up sex.”