At worst, child custody following divorce tends to be a minefield of awkward or outright hostile encounters with your ex. Even under the best circumstances, there’s often lingering bitterness, resentment, and hurt feelings.
Seeing your former spouse can feel like rubbing salt in a fresh wound. But when kids and shared custody factor in, swapping them back and forth, shuttling them from house to house, it’s an unavoidable fact of life. A post-divorce co-parenting strategy called birdnesting, however, is changing this by degrees.
Birdnesting aims to provide a sense of permanence for kids in the wake of a parental split. It’s a way to break apart a marriage without necessarily breaking apart the family home.
What is Birdnesting?
The way it works is that instead of the children bouncing back and forth between mom’s house and dad’s house depending on the day of the week or the custody arrangement, they stay put and the parent’s trade places.
After a divorce, the kids remain in the marital home, while the parents are the ones who rotate in and out.
The idea behind birdnesting increases stability for children in a notoriously unstable time. They don’t have to memorize complicated, ever-changing schedules. In this scenario, they don’t have to worry about leaving their home, and they know where they’re going to sleep each night.
That sounds like a positive solution that puts the children first rather than focusing on the parents. Maybe it’s not one that will work for every divorced couple—or most—but it’s an interesting, inventive approach.
The most well-known example is the divorce between Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin. The Academy Award-winning actress and Coldplay frontman divorced in 2015. But as recently as this year, Paltrow told Glamour that the two maintain a close relationship.
They even crash at each other’s houses regularly for the sake of the kids and go on family vacations together. Certainly, this represents an extreme, unique situation, but it does show what’s possible.
That said, there are many considerations to take into account to see if it’s right for you.
1. How Amicable Are You And Your Ex?
Perhaps the biggest factor in whether or not birdnesting will work for you is how well you get along with your ex. In order to function, it requires a great deal of cooperation and an almost uncanny ability to get along. According to Dr. Edward Kruk wrote in Psychology Today:
“[Birdnesting] works best when parents are able to separate their co-parenting responsibilities from their previous marital conflicts, and remain amicable and cooperative as they confer about continuing household arrangements and the children’s needs.”
2. How Close Do You Live to Each Other?
It requires a certain level of proximity. If you and your ex continue to live in the same city, you can probably pull it off, at least mechanically. But if one parent relocates, this presents substantial logistical problems.
According to Kruk, this scenario works best when both parents remain an equal part of the children’s lives, rather than one taking the primary caregiver role while the other only has short stints of visitation.
And if the custodial parent moves away, that defeats a significant part of the purpose. After all, one of the benefits of birdnesting is to allow children to stay in their home and not disrupt that facet of their lives.
3. Where To Live?
Looking at it from another angle, the parents bear the weight of these changes and disruptions. One big example is deciding where the parents live when they’re not with the kids. There are a couple of ways to approach this.
First, each parent has their own separate residence outside of the shared family home. This way, each has their own individual space. One big issue here is the cost of maintaining three dwellings. Much of this depends on financial circumstances, but it proves prohibitive for many couples.
Another option is that the parents share a single residence. In theory, they’ll never be home at the same time—one will always be with the kids. This certainly provides a more cost-effective approach.
The parents can share a smaller place that doesn’t require space for the kids and two sets of everything, one for each home. But it’s also easy to imagine this causing strain. Just think about how awkward things could get when one or both of you start dating again.
Depending on the setup, it’s also possible to make other arrangements. Some parents opt to spend their time away from the children crashing with friends. If you have family in the area, that may also be an option. Again, a great deal of the details depends on your specific situation.
4. How Sustainable Is It?
One question to consider is whether or not it’s a long-term or short-term solution. Is this something designed to smooth things over in the immediate aftermath of divorce? It can provide a transition period and a bit of stability for the kids while everything else is in upheaval. But it may just be a temporary fix.
When the kids become used to the parents not being together or are old enough to accept that fact, birdnesting may no longer be necessary. Perhaps eventually you can transition to a more traditional custody arrangement, one with a primary guardian, visitation, and the like.
There’s also potential friction between parents to consider. It may be great for the kids, but how long can you keep this up? There’s bound to be conflict or tension when dissolving your marriage. After all, if everything was fantastic and perfect in your marriage, you probably wouldn’t be divorced. It can put a great deal of strain on you and your ex in both the long and short-term.
Ways To Enable Birdnesting
Every scenario has unique variables and there’s no simple roadmap. Finding what works for you and your family will likely be a process of trial and error. You can, however, employ strategies that may help smooth things out and make things easier.
Cooperation: Whatever conflicts led to your divorce, you both need to be able to put those aside and focus on your kids. If you go this route, odds are you think you’re capable of this, or you’re willing to work at it. Though it may prove easier said than done, cooperation and clear, shared goals are key.
Clear Schedule: Like every parenting plan, knowing who needs to be where, and when is vital. It’s also important to stick to this schedule as much as possible and know who is responsible for what. This makes everything easier for both parents and children.
Consistency: Across the board, consistency is important. In all shared custody situations, it’s essential to maintain a regular, unwavering approach to discipline and parenting style. Layout the ground rules and boundaries in precise terms, and stick to them. This applies to both your relationship with your kids as well as your ex—especially if you share a residence. This way, everyone always knows what’s expected of them at all times.
Communication: As Kruk writes, “[I]t is reasonable to assume that there will be arguments or disagreements about various aspects of the arrangement, it is critical that children are shielded from the ongoing conflict.” In all but the absolute best circumstances, friction will likely arise. It’s important to maintain open channels of communication in order to prevent this, as well as deal with it when it does come up.
Will it Work For You?
It isn’t for everyone. In fact, it probably isn’t remotely feasible in most cases. It’s an admirable but tough decision, one that puts the needs of the children above those of the parents.
Though it’s difficult, it can prove beneficial. It provides stability and an avenue for both parents to maintain a meaningful presence in the lives of their kids.
You can find numerous ways to approach birdnesting, but the practice varies wildly from case to case. So, if you do travel this path, you’ll have to figure out what works best for your situation.
One downside for the kids, they’ll never be able to use the “I left my homework at mom’s” excuse again.