Until Gwneyth Paltrow introduced the idea of conscious uncoupling , a term she did not invent but co-opted from Katherine Woodward Thomas , few of us would have thought that there was more than one way to divorce — a couple splits and either someone stays in the family house (often the wife), or they each find a new place and get on with their lives.
So when the New York Post recently ran an article on bird nesting, when children stay in one house and the parents move in an out for a few days at a time — which then got some uncomfortable TV attention on Live with Kelly and Michael — lots of people began asking, is this the craziest idea or what?
It isn't a new concept; while the name may have c aught on about a decade ago , the idea that children should remain in the family home dates back to the late 1970s . Although it wasn't necessarily embraced in the past, more couples today seem to be willing to divorce in a kinder, more child-centered way, which means the arrangement might be an attractive alternative for struggling couples.
It was for me. When my former husband and I were in therapy, deciding if we could salvage our 14-year marriage, we agreed that rather than upend our boys, then 9 and 12, by having separate places, we would alternate being in the house with them. We couldn't afford to maintain three separate places — his, mine and ours — but we were lucky to have friends who let us stay in their tiny vacant studio for a few months for free; I was with the boys in the family home during the week and moved to the studio on the weekends, their dad stayed in the studio during the week and moved into our home on weekends.
In many ways, the arrangement makes sense — for the kids. Research has shown that it isn't divorce per se that is bad for children ; it's more a matter of stability, consistency, conflict, access to both parents, quality of parenting and financial ability. There are a few ways bird nesting solves some of problems while potentially creating new ones or just continuing old ones.
University of Arkansas law professor Michael T. Flannery, isn't convinced. Flannery, who has studied the concept, says if parents are able to get along well enough to bird nest then joint physical custody in two separate residences should be sufficient. The short-lived arrangement, he argues, is unnecessary, despite whatever benefits it offers. His study, " Is Bird Nesting in the Best Interest of Children ," however, was published in 2004, and much has changed since then, including the Great Recession, from which some couples may still be recovering, as well as the lack of affordable housing in certain areas.
From my experience, and from the findings of others, here are some pros and cons of bird nesting:
- It may be less expensive than maintaining two residences and having to have two sets of everything, which means there's more money available to care for the children as well as the parents.
- It's easier on kids, especially for those who struggle with transitions. When I was shuffling back and forth, I always forgot something; I had my hiking boots, but no socks, my reading glasses but not my sunglasses, etc. With all that children have to keep track of for school, sports and other extracurricular activities, having one home alleviates much of the stress of packing and unpacking every few days. Also, in high cost-of-living areas, one parent often has to move far away, which negatively impacts a child's social and school life.
- It allows children to have access to both parents on a regular, consistent basis. Studies have shown that, unless in abusive situations, this is beneficial for everyone .
- Because bird nesting requires a lot of planning, consensus and flexibility to work, it may clarify expectations and co-parenting roles, as well as create more opportunities to communicate better as well as provide more equitable child-caring.
- The arrangement lessens the shock and drama of the sudden departure of a parent, and allows a slower transition into the new family reality.
- Unless the parents can afford a decent place of their own, some may have to live small, with friends or family, which may impact their freedom, privacy and quality of life.
- The arrangement may mean some parents may not move on in their own lives, especially if they didn't want the divorce. It also may hinder people from forming new relationships.
- If there was conflict in the marriage, sharing a space may continue, or even exacerbate, conflict, especially if parents aren't clear or in full agreement on who's responsible for what — cleaning, yard work, bills, etc.
- It may give children, seeing their parents get along, a false hope for reconciliation (but that typically occurs anyway ).
Is bird nesting right for you? Maybe, says Rob Crane, co-founder of Kids Stay , a nonprofit offering tips and resources for couples considering bird nesting, and who did it for 10 years. "This arrangement isn't right for everyone. Probably it isn't right for most divorcing couples," he writes on his website.
But, he adds, there were some definite benefits: "Sharing of space kept us feeling like more of a family and less of a failure. … Our families and friends took notice. There was even a small sense of pride in having pulled this off."
Vicki Larson is a divorced mom of two young men. She is a longtime journalist, author, writer, editor and freelancer, who's work can be found in numerous places — websites, magazines, books, newspapers and here. Vicki is the co-author of " The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels ." You can learn more about Vicki at http://omgchronicles.vickilarson.com .