When I was divorcing with two daughters then aged six and three, I was terrified that I’d lose my place in their lives. I wanted to be involved, to share in their upbringing, in the highs and lows and to contribute more than just the odd fun weekend as the estranged dad.
I was lucky then that the girls’ mother felt the same way, and in 2007 we began co-parenting them on a 50-50 basis. They would go on to live with each of us 50% of the time, switching between homes each Monday evening.
This arrangement had its benefits and drawbacks. It enabled continuity in their schooling and ensured that we could both contribute equally to their parenting. It also afforded each of us the free time and space to recover and rebuild our lives.
For the kids, we hoped to give them as much consistency and stability in their lives as possible, without causing any confusion or resentment. While I’m biased as their father, they’ve both of gone on to be happy, academically accomplished, socially well-adjusted and positive, optimistic and polite which is all I could hope for.
After about 10 years of co-parenting, we decided to take the arrangement a step further.
Their main dissatisfaction was in having to pack up their stuff on a weekly basis as they shipped between homes with a growing array of clothes, gadgetry and cosmetics that any teenage girl relies upon.
For us parents, it was also financially demanding to to provide two homes, both of which sat empty for half the time. We’d both long-since remarried and had new marital homes around an hour away from where we lived with our daughters. In spite of this, we both remained committed to them completing their education in the town they’d always lived, and to raising them co-operatively and jointly.
The time seemed right then, to consider a new way of raising them separately, together.
For the last 14 months we’ve adopted an arrangement known as bird-nesting or birds-nest co-parenting.
I like to think of it as extreme co-parenting.
My ex-wife and I now rent a single apartment, splitting the costs between us.
The girls live there permanently and a third bedroom is equipped like a hotel-room into which their mum and I alternate, one week at a time. On a Monday morning she packs away her possessions, strips the bed and moves out. I arrive on a Monday evening and move in for the week, as live in custodial parent for the next seven nights.
It’s unconventional, and many would question the comfort for either of us of living in such close proximity as our ex-wife or husband, or how the kids (or our new partners) would feel about it.
The success of the arrangement relies upon the apartment being viewed first and foremost as the kids’ home. Treating it as such, makes it much easier for us as parents to come and go without feeling like we’re living with our ex-wife or husband.
I’d imagine that distinction also helps for our new spouses too, who have adapted to and accept the situation.
The arrangement offers obvious financial savings in halving housing costs. This, in turn helps to reduce the frequency of financial discussions that blight many divorced relationships.
When I’m parent of the week, the kids eat food I provide and I’m on the hook for other things they might need. We both contribute to stocks of household items, cleaning products and such, and we both use them to clean the apartment at the end of our week.
This may sound trivial, but it emphasises the need to treat the arrangement as mutually sustaining the kids, and meeting the associated costs and efforts of doing so.
I don’t chalk up a list of things I’ve paid for, check the levels of washing up liquid in the bottle, or take inventory of how many tea bags are left in the box before | leave. I pay my way, respect the boundaries and trust that she does the same.
The ultimate beneficiary of all of this is the kids.
They get to stay in one place all the time, there is continuity and predictability about their lives and where they will wake up. They accept their unconventional separated family structure, and understand that nesting is just another iteration of that.
There are challenges; we are a divorced couple, after all. Whilst we seldom see each other in person, the nesting arrangement forces greater visibility into each other’s lives and of each other’s habits than might ordinarily be the case. In the context of enabling the best childhood possible for our kids though, such annoyances cease to matter (much).
Their mum and I have always been unified in expectations of the kids’ behaviour, values and standards of school work; the stuff that’s really important. In our home lives however, there have always been differences in our ways of living. In her home things were undoubtedly more relaxed and laissez-faire than in mine. When we were co-parenting in separate homes I felt that the kids could adapt easily between the two world-orders through moving from home to home. I imagine now that it’s much harder for them to do this in one place.
Nesting generally demands greater compromise, and ultimately this demands much greater patience and flexibility from all involved.
To see our youngest through to the end of school will require another four years of nesting. The eldest will fly the nest when she leaves for university this year. Change is a continuous feature of parenting, both in traditional and separated families.
I’m confident we’ll maintain this arrangement for as long as necessary, and I’m proud that we’ve been able to make it work, just as I’m proud that as divorced parents we’ve remained committed to doing the best we could for our kids, in spite of our split.
One size most definitely does not fit all and I know that nesting wouldn’t work, or even appeal to many separated families. Co-operation and a degree of flexibility are essential to success.
When you’re focused on the needs of the kids first and foremost, it’s surprising what arrangements can evolve.