Co-Parenting After Divorce

Rising to the challenge.

"Bird's Nest" Co-Parenting Arrangements

When Parents Rotate In and Out of the Family Home

A “bird's nest” co-parenting arrangement is one that is uniquely child-centered. Rather than the children having to adapt to the parents’ needs and living in two separate dwellings, they remain in the family home and the parents take turns moving in and out, like birds alighting and departing the “nest.” During the time parents are not at home with the kids, they live in a separate dwelling, which can either be on their own or rotated with the other parent. It is a novel yet sensible arrangement, as children experience much less disruption in their lives and routines than having to shuttle and adapt to completely new living arrangements. It can be either a semi-permanent or temporary arrangement, to allow children a smoother transition to life as a divorced family.

Clearly, bird nesting will work for some but not all parents. A bird's nest arrangement will only work if parents live in close proximity, or are able to be in the family home when it is their turn for parenting the kids. It works best when parents are co-parenting, as opposed to one parent being a full-time caregiver with the other a “visiting” parent. The expense involved is another factor, depending on whether parents arrange for one or two residences away from the family home. If the former, bird-nesting need not be any more expensive than parents living in two separate households. It may even be less expensive than maintaining two homes for the children, as the external residence may be much more modest if the children are not residing there; a one-bedroom apartment or studio is likely to provide more than enough space. In addition, parents do not have to purchase two sets of toys and clothing for the children as they would if children are rotating between two households. If parents opt to maintain two different residences apart from the family home, they have to factor in the additional expense; the cost of maintaining three residences will be prohibitive for many. Finally, bird nesting while sharing one residence in addition to the family home is extremely challenging when new partners appear on the scene. In particular, privacy may become a serious issue of concern for one or both parents, since the other parent’s ongoing presence is obvious and unavoidable.

Bird nesting 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. Both need to be prepared to maintain a certain level of consistency of purpose, discipline, and child-raising techniques to make it work well; this means being able to communicate clearly and peacefully rather than taking each discussion as an opportunity to argue. Household and house maintenance arrangements, and ground rules, must be absolutely clear, and each parent must closely stick to the agreed-upon arrangements; over time, as they settle into the new lifestyle, more flexible arrangements are possible. A clearly drafted co-parenting plan or negotiated schedule at the outset is essential. Ongoing mutual respect is vital; and although it 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 ongoing conflict.

Often, this form of co-parenting will end when the youngest child reaches the age of majority, at which time one parent may either buy the other out of their interest in the family home, or it is sold and the proceeds divided pursuant to the matrimonial property regime or separation agreement.

A bird's nest arrangement is about ensuring that children’s lives are minimally disrupted, while the adults, who are theoretically more able to cope with the disruption, bear the brunt of the changes. Children are reassured to know that even though their parents are divorcing, they will be able keep the routine, continuity, and permanency to which they are accustomed. They remain in the family home, their school and neighborhood friendships can continue uninterrupted, and of course they are able to maintain meaningful relationships with both parents, which is crucial to their ongoing well-being. Parents who opt for this type of living arrangement are to be commended, as they are clearly placing their children’s needs and their responsibilities to those needs above their own interests. And the level of discomfort they are likely to experience may be significant, especially in light of their desire to have complete independence from their former spouse. Yet as more parents recognize that bird nesting is clearly the best arrangement for their children, the number of bird nesters is steadily rising.

As with all co-parenting arrangements, it is vital that social institutions such as the courts and legal system, school systems, and social welfare institutions actively support co-parents in bird nesting arrangements. This is of paramount importance if parents are going to achieve success to the benefit of their children.

 

Edward Kruk, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of British Columbia, specializing in child and family policy.

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