Birdnesting: The pros and cons
Trying to lessen the shock of divorce for the kids? One way is to keep the kid/s in the family home — with the parents going back and forth to a small place nearby when it’s their time to be solo. It’s called birdnesting (nesting, for short), and it’s growing in popularity. But it takes a pretty specific couple to pull it off.
The case for it birdnesting...
When Beth Behrendt and her husband decided to divorce six years ago, they were worried about how it would affect their kids, who were 5, 9, and 12 at the time.
“The statistics about the harmful effects of divorce on kids are pretty scary and had us both really worried,” says Behrendt, a freelance writer in Fort Wayne, ID. “But staying married was no longer an option. I read a brief description of birdnesting, aka nesting, in a divorce book called It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way by Laura Wasser. The concept immediately struck me as a great way to keep the boys’ daily lives consistent and really lessen the trauma and stress of divorce.”
In the time they’ve been birdnesting with the help of a small, one-bedroom apartment five minutes from the family home, they’ve run through several set ups, most of which are tailored to his work, for which he travels frequently.
“The fifty percent of the time that I’m in the nest, he is out of town,” she says. “When he’s in the nest, I go to the apartment. The first year after our divorce, we had a set schedule of four nights on, three nights off. But his job changed, and we adjusted our plan to fit that — I’m self-employed, so it was not a problem for me to be more flexible.”
As in Behrendt’s case, many divorcing parents consider this arrangement to lessen the amount of distress kids of divorcing parents experience. Studies show that the short-term effects of divorce on kids include anxiety, anger, shock and disbelief, especially if the children are younger.
“Often, if the child is under five, the change can be too much, so the parents will change homes while the young child stays put,” says Kim Martinez, M.S.,LMHC, FCP-CC, ITDS, True North Counseling Services. “This allows for continuity for the child, which translates to less chaos on the days the parents would normally hand over the child.”
There are other plusses. Behrendt says the arrangement has proven less expensive over the years since she and her ex-husband aren’t setting up and maintaining two full-sized homes.
“It’s also less stressful for the kids,” she says, since “they’re not keeping track of their stuff between two places, and their friends can find them at the same house all the time. And it’s less hassle for the parents — you’re not constantly driving back and forth to get or deliver things your kids forgot at the other parent’s house.”
...and against birdnesting
While to some birdnesting can seem like a perfect solution, others may encounter issues that could make the arrangement untenable.
For example, dating can be a challenge, says Behrendt.
“It’s important you are upfront about your situation early on,” she says. “Some people will not be comfortable with your nesting situation. But — the good news! — most nesters I interviewed, as well as my ex and myself, have found new partners who are supportive and understand the choices we’ve made for the benefit of our kids’ wellbeing.”
But others say kids can get confused with their parents ostensibly living in the same homes, and think they may be reconciling, a concept Behrendt refutes. She says she and her ex-husband rarely overlapped for more than a few minutes and reserved discussions about the divorce, finances, and new relationships for outside of the nest.
“I think the only way nesting is confusing to kids is if the parents behave or talk in an inconsistent way,” she says. “It’s important to communicate clearly and frequently with your kids about what is going on. We were very clear with them that our married relationship was ending but parenting them was our priority, and keeping them in their home was how we were going to make that work.”
Another factor to consider is the parents’ pre-divorce relationship. If they had an acrimonious split, or were estranged for years “having the two adults living close together is not ideal,” says Glenn C.W. Scott Jr., LCSW Director - Youth Partial Hospital Program, Loma Linda University Behavioral Medical Center.
Though Behrendt and her ex-husband have been successful in their six years of birdnesting, others advise keeping it short-term, or until the fallout from the divorce has settled. This gives kids the time to emotionally process the change to their family and get used to living with one parent at a time.
“Whether divorced parents choose to adopt this lifestyle indefinitely is up to them and their circumstances,” says Martinez. “It may become a bigger problem as the parents move onto new relationships or even new marriages. Few stepparents would be comfortable living in the same house, at different times, as the ex of their spouse.” More typical is to “start out birdnesting and then switch to a more standard child share arrangement when the children get a bit older.”