Birdnesting: New Spin On Co-parenting

Birdnesting: New Spin On Co-parenting

Instead of the children coming and going, in a birdnesting situation it’s the parents who have two houses

My ex-husband and I refer to the house we bought together, pre-divorce, as Eva’s House, after our 11 year-old daughter, Eva. When we separated, Eva was barely 3 years old, and the thought of taking her away from her home— away from her pets and her fairy garden and her rose-colored bedroom— made both of us feel like Mommy and Daddy Dearest. Instead, we decided that we adults should bear the burden of living in two different spaces.

Over the past eight years, my ex and I have each lived part-time in Eva’s House, and part-time in our own separate living spaces. For a few years, we shared a live-aboard sailboat named Buttercup. My ex would stay on Buttercup while I was at our daughter’s house, and vice versa. It was tricky— and living aboard a 27-foot sailboat during Oregon’s nine-month rainy season isn’t exactly cozy— but it worked. Our daughter, along with our four family pets, has been able to stay in her own home and spend equal time with mom and dad.

Throughout the years, our friends have told us how much they admire our unconventional housing arrangement. Our divorced friends with children often admit they’re a little jealous of our situation. Some friends (and devout Irish Catholic relatives) believe we’ve gone off the deep end, but most of them think we’re doing something cool, groundbreaking, and totally unique. Turns out, we aren’t doing anything special; we’re just another couple of birdnesters trying to do our best as co-parents facing less-than-ideal circumstances.

Birdnesting is when the parents— not the children— go back and forth between two living spaces. It’s a rare custody arrangement, but one that seems to be gaining in popularity. “Adults are searching for models that are acceptable, feel good and also recognize divorce,” Shirley Thomas, author of Parents Are Forever: A Step-By-Step Guide to Becoming Successful Coparents After Divorce, told Time magazine in a 2001 article that was one of the first mainstream media articles to mention the birdnesting movement. “Too many lost their fathers when their parents divorced. They saw abandonment by fathers, or fathers cut off by angry mothers. The pendulum is swinging the other way now.”

In fact, the term birdnesting now pops up in law articles related to custody arrangements and, even if they’ve never dealt specifically with a birdnesting custody situation, most family law attorneys will at least be familiar with the terminology.

“This arrangement isn’t right for everyone. Probably it isn’t right for most divorcing couples,” says Rob Crane, co-founder of the nonprofit organization Kids Stay which offers tips, resources, legal considerations, and personal stories for couples considering a bird’s nest custody arrangement. “However, it can work if you and your spouse can move out of that small, painful place where you now find yourselves, and instead trade up to the larger, warmer, shared place— where the kids stay.”

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Crane, a doctor from Ohio, and his ex-wife, Sandy, write extensively about their own birdnesting situation, which had its share of ups and downs, but was in the long-term a good fit for their family and for their now-grown daughter. Now, the couple is gathering other birdnesters’ stories in the hopes of putting together a book for divorced parents interested in this unconventional custody arrangement.

While birdnesting is gaining in popularity, Crane’s statement that this situation probably isn’t right for most divorcing couples is on target. It takes a lot of patience (which I am guilty of not always having) and organization (not my ex’s strong suit) for co-parents to pull off a successful bird’s nest. And having, essentially, three different homes, isn’t economically feasible for most couples.

When I lost my job as a newspaper editor, my ex and I actually went into what is known as a “doublenesting” situation for a year, while I looked for another job. Doublenesting is when the divorced parents stay in the same house at the same time. My ex had the entire upstairs and I had a bedroom next to our daughter’s room on the first floor. Try explaining this situation to potential romantic partners; that’s not so easy, even in a progressive place like Portland, Oregon. Still, not dating beats living in poverty. And my ex and I had become more like housemates anyway, so the doublenesting wasn’t that big of a deal.

Still, I know that we’re not like most divorced couples. We get along 90 percent of the time, and we really don’t argue too much about our daughter’s upbringing— although I still say he needs to feed her more green, leafy things. But even if you’re not best friends, birdnesting may be a feasible option for you and your ex-spouse. Here is a general guide to help you figure out if birdnesting may be right for you:

  • Is your divorce amicable?

  • Have you and your ex agreed on more than 95 percent of the aspects in your divorce?

  • Would you consider a mediator if you and your ex couldn’t resolve a particular custody or support issue?

  • Have your children grown up in the family house? (Have they lived there the majority of their lives?)

  • Does your family home have ample space for you and your ex? Could you each have your own bedroom?

  • Is it economically feasible for both of you to get separate living spaces and still afford the family home? (Some couples can’t afford three homes, but can swing two, so they share both the family home and the new place. Take it from me, though— beware any sailboat arrangements. It’s not as glamorous as it sounds.)

  • Can you envision explaining your situation to future partners?

  • Do you and your ex have a plan in place for dating situations? For instance, my ex and I do not bring dates to the family home or introduce romantic partners to our daughter unless we are in a serious, committed relationship. Neither of us have any urge to remarry, so this has worked for us, but may not be feasible for those of you who want to be in a long-term relationship that may lead to marriage and/or additional children.

  • Can you explain the situation to your children so that they will not harbor any fantasies that this birdnesting arrangement means that their parents will someday reunite?

  • Did you and your ex equally share household chores when you were married? If not, don’t expect it to change once you’re divorced. In fact, these division-of-labor problems have a tendency to get even worse after a break-up.

  • Can you find other housing that is relatively close-by, so you don’t drive yourself mad going back and forth all the time? The first “other house” I lived in was shared with very close friends, who were like an aunt and uncle to my daughter, and was only a 10-minute bike ride from our family home. The sailboat was a 25-minute drive away and, during rush hour, was a complete pain in the neck to access.

  • Can you and your ex come to an agreement about who pays what, and who gets what share of the equity for the family home once you sell it or once one of you moves out completely? My ex and I pay equal shares of the mortgage and utilities on our family home, and have a legal agreement that will give us equal equity once we sell the house. If one of us moves out and stops paying his or her half of the mortgage/utilities, there is a formula to determine the equity owed when/if the spouse who stays sells the house.

Did you answer “yes” to all or most of these questions? You may want to give birdnesting a chance. Be aware you might find that this situation works best when your children are young, but needs to be altered once your children are older, more independent, and will inevitably have their own reasons for wanting to dismantle your carefully arranged bird’s nest.

“I like being able to stay in the same house and be with the dogs and cats,” my daughter recently told me. “But, if you were to get your own place and live there all the time … would that mean we could get a puppy? And maybe a kitten, too? Because I think I’d like that.”

And that’s exactly how I’ll spin it, if and when I decide that mama bird needs her own nest.

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