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Avoiding the Custody Shuffle

My parents split up when I was a toddler, and I’ve always felt lucky that I was too young to feel the full sting of my “normal” being torn in two.

While divorce alleviates the intolerable tensions of a sour marriage, the children of divorcing couples rarely feel the same relief. Mom and dad’s breakup rocks their notion of “family,” and ping-ponging between dual residences upends their sense of “home.”

That’s why more and more divorcing couples are opting to let their kids remain in the family home while the parents rotate in and out instead. Dubbed “bird-nesting” (in some species of birds, both parents share in the feeding and protection of their young), the practice tends to be tricky for mom and dad, but easier on kids.

Santa Barbara dad Maddox Rees and his wife have been bird-nesting from their family home since they separated two years ago. When one is at home with their sons — ages 10, 9, and 4 — the other stays at a one-bedroom apartment that they also share.

Weird? A little. But it made the most sense for them at the time.

“People get trapped by the idea of what (a separation) is ‘supposed’ to be,” Rees says, “rather than saying, ‘Wait a second, this is our life; we can do what works for us. So … what does work for us?'”

Splitting time with both parents at home meant less upheaval for the kids.

“They’ve got all their friends around them, and their stuff,” says Rees, who insists it wasn’t all that different for the kids than before Mom and Dad split up. And the adults were the ones who had to haul their own toothbrushes and laundry from place to place.

“Yes, it’s a pain to schlep your stuff in and out of there, but god, trying to remember all the kids’ stuff would be worse,” Rees says. “If you forget blankie or a homework assignment, it’s a major deal.”

The scenario demands true teamwork on the parents’ part — which is ironic for couples who’ve just decided they can no longer be a team.

“It requires that you communicate and get along in ways that, if you’d learned how to do when you were married, might have allowed you to stay married,” Rees says, with a chuckle. “I know a number of people who’ve done it who’ve actually gotten back together.”

Psychologist John Duffy has recommended bird-nesting to several separated couples in his practice. “Kids tend to be happier, less agitated and argumentative, and more accepting regarding the divorce/separation situation,” says Duffy, author of The Available Parent: Radical Optimism for Raising Teens and Tweens.

There are drawbacks, though. Boston mother-of-four Jennifer Graham tried bird-nesting with her ex. “It was a disaster,” she says. “I stayed at hotels and the expense got to be crippling.”

She grew increasingly uncomfortable with her former spouse “poking around the house, commenting on my purchases, etc. I think this actually made our relationship worse. After a while, I said I couldn’t do it anymore,” she says. “It was best for the kids’ sake, probably — but you can only do what you can do, you know?”

Rees admits that the arrangement can be emotionally draining. “It requires an insane amount of maturity,” he says. For example, he and his estranged wife allow each other to bring dates to their apartment, but never to the family home — and they take their own sheets with them from house to house. “You just take your bedding and you don’t think about it too closely,” Rees says. “You just keep going, ‘It’s all about what’s best for the kids.'”

Published inColumnsParenting

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