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The struggle of maintaining contact between divorced parents and their children during the pandemic

The research started a year ago and kept running during the pandemic. Associate professor of Corvinus University of Budapest and researcher at the Institute for Social Sciences Ivett Szalma, as a sociologist researching families, wanted to know how divorced parents maintain contact with their children living separately. Did the curfew, the fear and the new working conditions change anything about how families live their lives? What was their attitude towards the virus and the new ways of communication?

With the outbreak of the global pandemic the question quickly emerged: what is happening with visitations of divorced parents? Ivett Szalma and Krisztina Révai started their research last spring, and they published their study with the findings in the latest issue of Szociológiai Szemle.

“When the pandemic started, we were still somewhat involved in the previous study, and we saw this one as the second part of a series” - says Ivett Szalma. Between March 24th and April 2nd they contacted their previous respondents again, asking them if the virus situation had changed anything about how they kept contact with their children, how serious they thought the situation was, and to what extent they used technological devices differently than before. (In picture: Ivett Szalma.)

"At the beginning of the pandemic it was very easy to talk to people. It was such a new situation that they were happy to talk to somebody about what was going on with them."

Everybody was very eager to talk to the research team. Among the 22 respondents there were 14 fathers and 3 mothers living separately and visiting, and 5 of them shared custody of their children. Ivett Szalma remarks that " in Hungary when we say visiting parents we tend to mean a visiting father because here 87% of single parents are women." The case is different in other countries, for example, shared custody is getting more and more popular in Scandinavia and Germany. The classic formula is that the child spends one week with the mother and one week with the father alternately. This arrangement is chosen by 13% of divorced couples, and it is typically a middle-class phenomenon as it has many criteria: for example parents need to be on good terms, and live relatively close to each other.

The research was made possible by the support of Bolyai János Research Fellowship, and the New National Excellence Program (No. ÚNKP-19- 4-BCE-11) of the MInistry for Innovation and Technology.

Due to the curfew shared custody became less frequent according to the findings of the survey. Among the 22 families involved in the study, 6 experienced a significant change in visitations due to the virus situation. 9 parents completely suspended personal visitations, in spite of the fact that curfew regulations allowed visitations stating that they cater for very basic needs, almost like shopping for groceries. According to Szalma, families were pretty much left on their own to decide, but in many cases the conflict between the separated parents, and the fears were an obstacle to agreements. The suspension or change in visitations had other and varying reasons too: changed working schedules and circumstances, upset work-life balance and distance education. The scholars even encountered a father suspending visitations in an effort to protect the mother who otherwise lives with the child, because in case of an illness he would not be able to take care of the child.

The responses were “very descriptive of the uncertainty of the situation” - says Szalma.

"It was very clear throughout the whole study that families were talking about a temporary situation and had no strategies, everything was just tentative."

The respondents had very different ideas about the dangers of the virus, and many of them kept changing their opinions about how to best protect their children. 7 out of 22 parents did not change anything about visitations during the pandemic. 5 of these parents had no fears at all, two of them, even though they were afraid, also had other considerations during the initial period. "One of them was influenced by the fact that the school had closed and the children needed stimulus, so the child needed to see his father at least."

A very important aspect of the study was online communication because when researching this topic, usually face-to-face visitations are examined. Ivett Szalma claims that " there is a connection between the two. The majority of the studies show that online communication is only complementary to face to face meetings. Those who don't see each other face to face would not do so online, either. And those who do, usually complement that with online communication." A very important conclusion of the interviews was that, irrespective of the age of the children, everybody uses ICT technology. Using these devices is completely normal even for a one-year-old child, but independent use, without parental supervision, starts at the age of 7-8. " Even the skeptics admitted that at this time modern communication technology was necessary." says Szalma. Online communication gained special significance in families where face-to-face meetings between parent and child had completely stopped. A father living in Vienna chose this way to help the kids with their homework because had he visited his children in Hungary he would have had to spend the following 4 weeks in quarantine.

As much as their new working conditions allowed, parents helped their children with their studies, but with various intensity. In cases of children with the same age, some people claimed to have worked with them a lot, while others said the kid had been completely self-reliant. “All in all, the results show that the fathers were involved too, even the one living in Vienna tried to help." However, as we are talking about a small-scale, qualitative study, its findings are not to be generalized.

The study also wanted to find out about the future plans. Does the visiting parent want to make up for the missed visitations, and is it possible at all? Women were more concerned with making plans, and they wished to spend more time with their children after the pandemic was over. " Conflict between parents surfaced here, too. One father for example, keeps track of exactly how many visitations were cancelled and he is adamant the he will make up for every single one of them." However, the majority thinks that these meetings cannot be made up for.

"A young father put it in words: it's not like borrowing a couple of bucks which you will return in a couple of days. Visitation doesn’t work like that. This simply was a time without seeing them." Ivett Szalma recalls the response.

By: Tünde Taxner

Translated from:

Images: Pexels

June 4th 2020

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