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During the recent COVID-19 pandemic, a view developed that once the home quarantine ended, there would be a tidal wave of divorce actions surging into the New York courthouses. With New York City well into Phase 4, all remains calm. There has been no significant rise in the number of divorce actions commenced in New York when compared to last year at the same time; and, lines are not curling around city blocks outside of the offices of matrimonial attorneys.
Has anything changed in New York family law since March 18 when Governor Andrew Cuomo shuttered the State? YES. The change is very subtle-probably immediately imperceptible. The change is not by executive order, legislative enactment or judicial order. This change will emerge over time (weeks, months maybe even years in some places) as cases snake their way through the court system and when settlement negotiations begin in earnest. This change is one that has been experienced by numerous litigants, attorneys and judges-at least those who parent a child within the primary school system.
The definition of a parent today has changed-possibly forever. To a large degree, “parenting” was largely taken for granted. Although women have made massive strides compared to men in the workplace and professional roles in society, women are still perceived as the primary caretaker of a child. The daily care of a child in a heterosexual household is handled primarily by the mother. Thus, the essentials to raising a child almost singularly fall on (and are addressed by) women-i.e., feeding, washing, clothing and educating a child.
It is the last piece of childrearing-education-which perhaps has undergone the most monumental change in parenting. During the COVID-19 pandemic, both parents have been locked at home with a child with both parent and child fumbling their way through ILearning/Elearning. With babysitters, nannies and au pairs-in many instances-absent during the state-imposed quarantine, helping a child with homeschool fell to mom and dad. Ilearning/Elearning was extremely challenging for both student and parent. If there is any doubt to what is being described herein, please refer to the following link https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fRm2WP__ApE. More importantly, Ilearning/Elearning required extensive participation by whichever parent helped their child during school hours.
Accordingly, a parent was no longer just engaged with a child’s education by ensuring homework assignments were completed for the following day. A parent was now actively engaged in the learning process-sometimes all day long. A parent who was likely learning to work remotely, was simultaneously engaged in teaching their child remotely and participating in Zoom calls with teachers and educational leaders, printing out worksheets, learning about Google docs to get homework submissions posted, and so many other tasks. And, there was the realization early on that “school” no longer ended at 2:30 pm or 3 pm; suddenly, schoolwork was completed by noon or 1 pm. This did not mean mom and dad could attend to their professional obligations at that time, as a child still needed to be parented-depending on their age.
The fantasy that a parent could balance child-rearing with a career came crashing down. Rather, child-rearing required hours of dedicated attention dictated by the school, and a parent could only work intermittently between “classes.” Instead of balancing careers, a parent was forced to choose between either participating in their child’s educational process or carrying out their work/professional obligations. Trying to do both simultaneously typically resulted in failing to accomplish anything on either the work or educational fronts.
Men/fathers rarely had to “balance” their careers and child-rearing responsibilities. Typically, the professional responsibilities of men/fathers took priority over their parental obligations. In contrast, women/mothers who had professional careers were tasked with “balancing” both. Rarely does one find the woman/mother who prioritizes their profession over motherhood. If both parents actively participated in Ilearning/Elearning during the pandemic, then both sexes have come to appreciate the full panoply of obligations and concomitant investment of time that defines “parenting.”
The change that matrimonial cases will likely experience is that judges, attorneys and litigants have, to varying degrees, participated in Ilearning/Elearning with a child, so that participants in custody cases (should) have a better appreciation of the value of “parenting” a child and ALL that it entails.
With this knowledge and first-hand experience, it remains to be seen whether divorcing parents will continue to “fight” for equal time with a child. It may be that parenting during quarantine has demonstrated that it is an obligation with far reaching implications-more so than initially believed. Similarly, attorneys, judges and perhaps even mental health professionals involved in contested custody cases may have a greater (or even alternative) appreciation for the role a parent plays in the education and overall rearing of a child.
It will certainly be interesting to see whether a parent not previously engaged with a child on a daily (or significant) basis will demand 50/50 time with that child with the commencement of a divorce in this post COVID 19 pandemic quarantine. Indeed, for many parents, the education landscape for the coming fall is still uncertain. Access arrangements for parents in divorce will have to accommodate ILearning as well as the hybrid attendance being contemplated.
Certainly, the professionals who assist parents through a divorce have a new appreciation of parenting (i.e., educating) a child today. Decisions rendered by the New York judiciary involved in child custody cases is one barometer to keep an eye on.
ERIC WRUBEL is chair of the matrimonial department at Warshaw Burstein.
News Source: www.Law.com