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Finding middle ground: Navigating joint custody during a pandemic


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SALT LAKE CITY ( — Last October, Leah Day sat in her one-bedroom basement apartment and prepared lesson plans for 120 seventh grade students while trying to pacify her toddler, Ellie, with “Paw Patrol.”

Despite precautions, both Day and her daughter had been exposed to COVID-19 during a visit with Ellie’s father, with whom Day shares custody. At the time, he wasn’t aware that he had it, but he tested positive soon after and became severely ill.

Day tested negative multiple times, but she still had to report the incident to her school, which required her to quarantine with her daughter for two weeks, working full-time without any child care or family support.

“Tons of moms out there know the feeling of being stuck at home with their kid. Imagine that for two weeks straight with no breaks while working. Single parenting is a challenge anyway, but usually, you have some sort of outside support system,” she said.

Steve Kelly, a recently divorced father to two boys only knows joint custody in the context of the pandemic. Because of the timing of his divorce coinciding with the beginning of the pandemic, the isolation of losing his marriage just seemed even more compounded by the lack of a support system.

“All of a sudden, the world shuts down and you don’t have any connections with anybody,” he recalled. “It really affected me mentally. I was just really depressed. You can’t go out and meet anybody even now because people are so hesitant to meet with COVID.”

Parenting during a pandemic can be complicated, to say the least. It often involves navigating mask-wearing, vaccination, in-person learning, child care, cancelations and closures, quarantining and many other complications. But how do you parent during a pandemic when you share custody of your child — especially in a divided political environment?

What happens if one parent decides to be vaccinated and the other doesn’t? Or one believes in wearing masks in public and the other doesn’t? And how do you compromise if vaccines and masks are most effective when everyone participates, and when children are catching COVID-19 more frequently because of the contagious delta variant?

Finding middle ground

Recently, a woman in Chicago lost custody of her son during a child support hearing because she wasn’t vaccinated. She said a doctor had advised her not to be vaccinated because of medical issues relating to adverse reactions to vaccines in the past. The judge later withdrew the decision, but not before launching a nationwide conversation about navigating joint custody during a time of a deadly pandemic and politicization of public health matters.

Compromise becomes trickier when it’s an issue of public health, but in the end, you have to control what you can control, let go of the rest and hold on to hope, explained Day, a divorced mother of 3-year-old Ellie.

“Finding middle ground is extremely difficult,” she said. “What feels comfortable for some people isn’t comfortable for everyone. You’ve got to be understanding and compassionate so you can peacefully coexist.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, Utah State Courts released a video with some guidelines about joint custody during a pandemic and encouraging parents to stick to the same custody schedule as often as possible, to communicate and be on the same page, and to find a way to make up time for a parent who misses out because of illness and quarantines and the like.

“Family law judges expect reasonable accommodations when they can be made and will take seriously concerns raised in later filings about parents who are inflexible in highly unusual circumstances,” the video says.

Day said she sends her daughter to her dad’s house knowing that she can’t control what her child does, if she wears a mask or not, or whether she’s around unvaccinated people. Her ex-husband is a police officer, meaning his job requires him to take risks and interact closely with other people throughout the pandemic. She was normally teaching in person, which created another potential infection point.

“We all just do our best and hope that she will stay safe, but it’s an impossible situation and we’re all just white-knuckling it through,” she said. “It goes along with joint custody and trying to be a team with someone who is no longer a part of your life. You don’t want to step on each other’s toes and navigating stressors can be difficult sometimes.”

She added that it helps her to remember that both parents are just trying to do what’s best for their child, even if they occasionally disagree about what that looks like. In some cases, keeping the peace might be the better option, but it’s definitely “a hard line to draw, and you have to consider the ramifications long term.”

“I try not to disparage or talk badly about people just because they made a different choice. It is really sad that it has become so political and that I can’t even guarantee my child’s safety,” she said.

Kelly said that he is not as strict when it comes to COVID-19 precautions. He said he doesn’t see vaccines as necessary, so he has chosen not to be vaccinated unless it’s required. He also hates masks, so he doesn’t wear them or ask his children to wear them unless they have to. Instead, he avoids going out often and encourages good hygiene like regular hand washing and coughing into your sleeve, but his overall thought is, “If they’re going to get it, they’re going to get it.”

So far this hasn’t caused an issue with his ex-wife, but Kelly said that if it came down to an argument, he would be willing to compromise.

His wife works in a clinic, so she has been vaccinated and usually takes time to shower and sanitize before the kids come to visit. Their oldest son is 14 and he decided to be vaccinated and wear a mask regularly. Kelly said that he wouldn’t stop his ex-wife from vaccinating their youngest when the vaccine becomes available for younger children, but he wouldn’t take his children to be vaccinated because of his views. Kelly’s parents took the 14-year-old to be vaccinated instead.

Local policies and mandates

Doreen Foote shares custody of her children with her ex-husband, and her current husband shares custody of his children with his ex-wife. A blended family during a pandemic can mean double or triple the exposure, especially if the pandemic rules are more lax with one parent or in one town than the other.

Last year one of her stepchildren was staying with her and her husband when they started displaying COVID-19 type of symptoms. Soon, despite their precautions, everyone in the house became sick except her. Her husband became severely ill. As soon as he began to recover, Foote was hospitalized with bilateral pneumonia and had to be put on oxygen. She recovered, but the illnesses emphasized the risk all of them were taking.

Policies about COVID-19 precautions vary from town to town and county to county and now even business to business across Utah, which can present a problem of inconsistency for children who split time between parents in different parts of the state. Foote’s children spend part of their time in a city with more relaxed restrictions and part of the time when she had been so careful and strict.

“It’s very complicated. It’s like a can of worms. My situation is pretty simple and amicable, but we still have struggles,” Foote said.

“I am worried they’re bringing something into the house. There would be a very small risk if everyone stayed there. And I get it, but it totally opens the floodgates. I don’t know how careful they’re being,” Foote said.

“You can’t control the other side. You can’t get in there and fix things. It doesn’t get me anywhere. I’ve shifted more to working with the kids rather than causing friction with ex-spouses.”