Parents Going Through Divorce Are Trying Bird Nest Parenting – Here's What That Means

Anna Whitehouse and Matt Farquharson are currently trying this type of living arrangement with their children.
Matt Farquharson and Anna Whitehouse attending the UK film premiere of 'Marriage Story' in 2019.
NurPhoto via Getty Images
Matt Farquharson and Anna Whitehouse attending the UK film premiere of 'Marriage Story' in 2019.

Journalist, broadcaster and influencer Anna Whitehouse (who you might also know as Mother Pukka) is splitting from her husband of 17 years, Matt Farquharson.

In a post on social media, Whitehouse said the pair were “kindly untangling”, and added how proud she was of herself and Farquharson for “landing the plane” for their family.

The 42-year-old has also shared that, since separating, the former couple are trying “magpie parenting” – also known as bird nest parenting.

She described it as “a set-up where the kids stay in the family home and the parents live outside, crossing over – for us – every Sunday with a big lunch”.

“We’ve definitely had looks of slight confusion when we explain our situation,” Whitehouse wrote on Instagram. “But it’s been working really well so far. Time will tell. But here we are. And everyone is somehow smiling.”

What is magpie/bird nest parenting?

In 2016, Co-op’s Legal Services found 11% of separated and divorced adults in the UK had tried this type of arrangement, which is a way to keep a couple’s children in the family home, with the focus being on providing them with stability during a time of huge transition.

Instead of children having to flit between different homes each week, or between weekdays and weekends, they remain in one place, and the only factor that changes is which parent stays in the home with them at any given time.

The divorcing couple will then rent (or buy, depending on funds) another home or space for them to go back to when they’re not staying in the main home. They could have a space each, if they can afford to do so, or simply alternate staying at the same place.

It requires some serious logistics – as Equitable Mediation explains, parents will need to determine who is in the main home on which days, including weekends and holidays; who pays for what; and also keep on top of day-to-day admin tasks such as cleaning arrangements, food shopping and sorting repairs.

Benefits of magpie parenting

  • It can give children more stability as they stay in one place and won’t have to move schools, change childcare arrangements (such as after school clubs or nurseries) and move away from family and friends.
  • It eliminates the need to make major property decisions (ie. selling the family home) straight away – particularly important to bear in mind if the housing market is turbulent.
  • Both parents get to remain heavily involved in their children’s lives while you figure out a new normal.
  • If you’re not emotionally ready to leave your home, you can hold onto it for a bit longer while you adjust to a life that doesn’t involve being romantically attached to your spouse.

Downsides of magpie parenting

  • Young children might be confused about why their parents are living in the house at different times.
  • You’ll be sharing mortgage payments, bills, etc, which can sometimes fuel disagreements – especially given the cost of living crisis. If one person uses the heating more, or works from home and uses more energy, you’ll need to hash out who pays what.
  • It’s expensive. You’ll need to pay for your existing rent/mortgage and bills, plus the rent/mortgage and bills on an extra one or two properties – depending on what you agree on.
  • You’ll need to set clear boundaries around things like who buys the food in (and when), who takes the bins out, who does the cleaning and when, and whether new potential partners will be allowed to visit. Otherwise, again, you can veer into argument territory.
  • It can be hard to detach from the other person if you’re still sharing a space. Will you have different bedrooms? How do you decide who gets to stay in which bedroom when you’re there? What happens if they start a new relationship and leave something lying around which belongs to the new partner?

Will it work for us?

The only way to find out is to try it. Sarah Bell, a partner at Stephens Scown who specialises in children’s living arrangements, suggests it works well for some – but not for others.

“Every case is different and we always suggest that independent advice is sought before entering into such [an] agreement to find out if it is likely to work for you and more importantly, benefit your children,” she says.

One thing that can help, she suggests, is to write the agreed terms in a document before you start bird nesting, so everyone is singing off the same hymn sheet when it comes to what can and can’t be done in either property.