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The Parent's Guide to Birdnesting: A Child-Centered Solution to Co-Parenting During Separation and Divorce

Going through a separation and/or divorce as a family is a challenging time filled with change and uncertainty. Figuring out how to best help children manage this transition is often parents’ primary concern. One idea that can minimize some of the stress on children is to consider “nesting.”

Nesting, or “birdnesting,” as it’s sometimes known, refers to a transitional or temporary arrangement where the children stay in the family home and parents take turns living there and being “on duty” with their children. Like birds who alternately swoop in and out, caring for the babies while the babies remain safe and secure in their soft, protected nest, parents work together to create a home for their children that is safe, stable, and loving. Parents also use this time to consider the future of their marriage and decide to work on reconciliation or move toward separation or divorce.

Imagine that years from now your children will sit with friends and tell the story of their par¬ents’ relationship and divorce. What story do you want them to share? You and your spouse do have some control over how this stage looks and feels to your children. The decisions and actions happening now shape their future narratives. Nesting can offer a better chance for your children to share a healthier and more harmonious narrative of the situation—or, at least, a less adversarial view of separation or divorce.

Nesting looks different for every family, and the most successful nesting arrangements are carefully personalized.

Nesting parents work out clear and written agreements about communication, schedules, parenting, and finances, tailored to their situation. What every nesting arrangement has in common is the goal of reducing conflict and providing a consistent, stable home for the children while the marital status is in flux. In some cases, nesting is used as a transition between marriage and divorce, and in other cases, it is used as a temporary separa¬tion while partners work through marital or personal problems. Some people call themselves “apartners” since they are parenting together but aren’t romantically involved.

A stable schedule is one of the cornerstones of nesting. You and your spouse would alternate being in the home with your children on an agreed-upon schedule that is clear, ideally in writing. It’s crucial to create a predictable schedule for your children that helps them feel secure, although some flexibility in the schedule is also important. When you schedule this on- and off-duty time carefully, you will have time to adjust to being a single parent, and everyone (including your children) knows who is on duty.

When you are the on-duty parent, you will care for your children. That includes getting your children up in the morning, getting them to school, picking them up if they need that, making sure they get to their extracurricular activities or doctor’s appoint¬ments, helping them with their homework, if any, and making sure they have a good dinner and get to bed on time. When parents are nesting, the on-duty parent is also responsible for the house, laundry, and repairs, or if the pantry needs to be restocked.

When the on-duty parent turns over the responsibility of the children to the other parent according to the schedule you have created, he or she goes off duty. The off-duty parent leaves all parenting to the on-duty parent and normally doesn’t come into the home or the child’s life without prior agreement. (For example, you can decide whether the off-duty parent would be welcome at a family event or an extracurricular activity, say a soccer game or school play.)
There are many options for parents’ personal living arrangements when they are not staying in the family home. When they are off duty, parents can live in the following:

  • Separate areas within the home (e.g., an in-law apartment and a bedroom)
  • An off-site residence they share (e.g., the off-duty parent always uses it)
  • Separate apartments or houses
  • Homes of friends or family

Nesting works best for parents who are equally involved in parenting, who see parents as equally important in child-rearing, and who have some understanding of child development and the effect of divorce on children. In addition, nesting ordinarily appeals more to parents who have the financial means to support separate living arrangements. Nesting also works well for parents who are generally able to communicate respectfully with each other and who can commit to leaving the family home in a reasonable condition when turning over the duties to the other parent.

Nesting is not for everyone. You will have to consider whether you and your spouse each feel emotionally able to continue to share a home while taking a break or moving toward a long-term separation. Each couple has their own reasons to try nesting, but here are some common goals:

  •  To offer a solid structure to your family life despite the parents’ separation. When you are considering separation or divorce, you may feel that your world is turning upside down. It is an overwhelming period, as you try to sort through both the emotional side of the situation (your many feelings) and the logistical one (the process of whether or how the family will transition to a new structure).
  •  To provide safety and stability for your children. In all my years of private practice, I have yet to meet parents who did not want to provide security, structure, and predictability for their children during difficult times. You and your spouse may have poor communication patterns, different parenting styles, conflicts, or different goals in life. Perhaps you have difficulties in decision-making or feel you simply no longer love your spouse. Whatever the state of your marriage, and even if you don’t agree on many things, you probably agree that you want your kids to be safe, happy, and thrive.
  •  To end the marital strife. Nesting gives you and your spouse some respite from the tension or conflict in the marriage so that you can think through your decisions. You may be worn out by the difficulties that led to your decision to separate. Nesting might help ease ongoing strain so that you feel more able to make difficult choices and move forward.
  •  Nesting can support the creation or continuation of your children’s positive and secure attachment to each of you.
  •  Nesting will help you adjust to being a single parent. Successful nesting will give you and your co-parent time to be fully involved in your children’s growth and upbringing.
  •  You’ll know what your children will experience in the future if you plan to have them move from one place to another as you co-parent them.
  •  Nesting gives you time and space to deal with your emotions. It’s said that divorce is 95 percent emotional and only 5 percent legal. Unfortunately, many people initiate their legal divorce process at a time when they are in no condition to make big decisions about anything. Take the time to deal with the emotional part first.
  •  Successful nesting will ease your children’s stress in the short term. For some children, it is a great relief when the arguments stop. Minimizing parental conflict during and after the divorce is the single most important thing you can do to support the well-being and success of your children in the long term.

While you and your partner work through the future of your relationship, nesting can provide structure and stability for your children as you co-parent. Understanding the goals and benefits of nesting for yourself and for your children will help you make an informed choice about whether it’s right for your family.