Six Feet Of Separation: Stories Of Parenting And Divorce During COVID-19

From finalizing a divorce over Zoom to navigating custody during quarantine, the pandemic is making life complicated for couples trying to move on.

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Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Divorce thumbnnail
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

Six Feet Of Separation: Stories Of Parenting And Divorce During COVID-19

From finalizing a divorce over Zoom to navigating custody during quarantine, the pandemic is making life complicated for couples trying to move on.

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Brian and Liz Urban’s divorce was going smoothly — as far as divorces go.

In January, Brian Urban moved out of the Logan Square house they shared with their 8-year-old son, Oliver. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, and both parents realized it wasn’t a good idea to shuttle Oliver between homes so Brian moved back in.

Plus, Liz Urban said it was helpful to have both parents there to help Oliver navigate the confusing and unsettling time the pandemic caused.

“I think having both parents there to talk about what’s happening, and adjusting to school at home and not seeing your friends and answering those questions,” said Liz Urban, who is director of member experience and loyalty at WBEZ.

The couple eventually completed their divorce online in March, and again live separately.

Of course, no two separations are the same. Shannon filed for divorce last December, but she’s still living in the same house with her husband and two sons. WBEZ agreed not to use Shannon’s last name because her divorce is still pending.

“I would say [on] a smoothness scale of divorces, ours is on the less smooth scale,” Shannon said. “It’d be one thing if we were really amicable, but it’s been really difficult to keep the peace.”

In Cook County, there were 41 divorce filings from March 1 to March 16. Then, divorces drastically dropped after Chief Judge Timothy Evans closed the courts. Between March 17 and May 1, there have been only 14 divorce filings. 

The state’s stay-at-home order and closed courthouses have forced meetings with attorneys, mediators and even divorce proceedings online.

For Shannon and the Urbans, the stress comes from more than just unconventional living situations because of the outbreak. From Zoom calls to financial strains, divorcing during a pandemic amps up a highly stressful situation.

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Co-parenting during a separation and a pandemic

Vincent Stark, a family law attorney in Chicago, said the need for legal services doesn’t stop just because Judge Evans closed the physical courts on March 17.

For separated or divorced parents, the coronavirus can create questions about joint custody agreements, such as whether it’s best to keep children isolated in one home or move them between homes.

Orders from both Evans and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker explicitly allow parents to take children between homes to adhere to parental agreements. And if only one parent wants to break their agreement, the parent’s attorney must file a court order.

“I’m telling them to keep a log of their missed time, and we can go into court now or we can go into court later, and you’re going to get that time back,” Stark said. J. Alex Jacobson, a Chicago mediator who works with couples before they get to the courtroom, said she’s been fielding questions about how to co-parent during the pandemic.

“Let’s say, for example, somebody’s an ER doc and the other parent is extremely concerned about what protocols are being implemented to protect the kids,” Jacobson said. She believes mediation could help families sort through those types of questions.

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Will the pandemic lead to more divorces?

Stark said it’s still too early to know if divorce filings will increase after the stay-at-home order is lifted and life returns to some kind of normal, but he suspects they will.

He compared filing for divorce during the pandemic to what usually happens at the first of the year — divorces spike because couples wait until after the holidays to file.

If a couple was already struggling to get along, Stark said, being quarantined in a house with kids and no place to go can increase the tension.

“If they dislike each other, and they’ve talked about divorce, now you’ve got people who’ve been in a house for four or five weeks, it usually doesn’t help,” Stark said.

Jacobson, who said her business has been consistent, expects couples who were contemplating divorce may move ahead with the process, pandemic or not. But, she said, this global period of uncertainty may also keep couples and families in one home until there’s more opportunity to make a change.

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Navigating a divorce in the ‘Zoom Era’

When court buildings closed one day before the Urbans’ scheduled divorce, Liz Urban’s attorney broached the idea of finalizing it on Zoom.

Anyone who has used video-conferencing programs knows that technical mishaps are bound to happen, and it did in this case, too.

“The judge couldn’t dial in and when he did dial in, he was on mute,” Liz Urban said.

When they switched to a Zoom call, Liz Urban couldn’t get her video to work and then was disconnected. Finally, she walked down the hall into her husband’s office — the same man she would be divorcing any moment — so they could share the video screen.

“We had to raise our right hand, and he raised his right hand over my face accidentally, so the judge couldn’t see me,” Liz Urban said.

They soon completed their divorce online, hugged and went back to work from their separate workstations in the same home.

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When the pandemic makes moving on harder

After back-and-forth discussions about who would leave the house, Shannon, whose divorce is still pending, said her husband agreed to move out. Then, financial instability from the pandemic forced them to continue to live together with their two sons. Her husband’s company was doing layoffs, and new job prospects are difficult when unemployment numbers continue to skyrocket.

“When people start to divorce, the first thing they do is they separate their residence, and for various reasons, we’ve been unable or unwilling to do that,” Shannon said. 

But the biggest toll, she said, has been her inability to relieve stress and find some balance.

“I used to go to the gym every single day, and I would go to dance classes and things, and now all that is gone,” Shannon said. “Your mental health really starts to suffer when there’s no respite.”

Shannon can do yoga in the house, but she misses her friends from the gym and said she doesn’t have much of a support system. Plus, she doesn’t like doing the classes in a house she’s sharing with her soon to be ex-husband.

She said this period has helped her find some perspective.

“We’re all going to come out of this, especially those of us in these types of situations, with a really clear picture of who and what we want,” Shannon said. “And I think it’s going to be for the best in the end.”

Carrie Shepherd covers arts and culture for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @cshepherd.