When my ex-husband and I were considering divorce, there were many things that paralyzed me with fear. My absolutely most terrifying concern was for my children’s adjustment. Early on I had lunch with a friend who is a family law attorney. She offered some really good advice.
She said, “Everybody is different. Your family is not like any other family, your divorce doesn’t have to be like anybody else’s either nor does your custody arrangement. Get something you can both agree to on paper with the mediator, and then do what works and makes you guys happy. If it doesn’t work long term then you revert to what you agreed to on paper. The paper work can be a ‘just in case you stop agreeing about the children’ plan.”
That lunch opened up a world of possibilities for me. Although my Ex and I didn’t agree on much, we did agree that the children should have as easy a time of it as possible. It wasn’t their fault after all. I told him of my lunch with this friend and what she said. We both agreed to consider alternative custody arrangements. While googling ‘alternative custody arrangements’ I stumbled on Birdnesting Custody. I was interested and found a few articles, but most were negative. After scouring around the internet a few days, I did find a few actual stories from people that had done it successfully.
Birdnesting custody is an arrangement where the family keeps the marital home, both parents paying into a household account to cover basic household expenses (in lieu of child support) and you rotate time in the ‘nest’. The children never leave, the house has custody of the dog even, and the house becomes the children’s home and source of stability.
Why We Chose to “Nest”
Prior to learning about the possibility of Birdnesting my heart would clench inside my chest every time I considered moving the kids or that they would go back and forth from me to their dad’s. We had only recently moved across town into a house that was in the ‘right’ school district. Our children were getting older and it was urgent to be in the right district if we hoped to avoid private schools.
We had moved in the nick of time for our oldest to start middle school. We still had boxes that weren’t unpacked. I hated to think of moving them again. Additionally, at the time, the housing market had just crashed to rock bottom. We had no equity in the short time in this house and would be lucky to get what we paid just months before. Also, we have one child with ADHD. Bringing the appropriate things back and forth from school to home is a daily challenge for her. I had no idea how she would function with another home and bag. My ex-husband agreed to try this arrangement based on these factors.
Our mediator was initially intrigued but became a great cheerleader over the course of our sessions. She had never heard of it by name or the concept of Birdnesting as anything more than a transitional arrangement, but she encouraged us to try. She wisely counseled us to have specific rules and to never forget that the house is the safe place for the children. In my travels on Google I had found some ideas that other people used to keep boundaries clear in the nest.
Our Nest Rules:
- We respect the privacy of the other’s spaces in the nest.
- Leave the nest like you found it. The parent that rotates on shouldn’t have to come in and clean up the other’s mess.
- No overnight guests of the opposite sex in the nest. They may visit but may not stay past bedtime.
- The person on nest duty is responsible for groceries in the house, kid laundry, etc.
My ex-husband and I have 50-50 custody. Financially it works like this: we created a house account that for nest expenses. No cash withdrawals are ever made from that account. Mortgage, utilities, cable, groceries, kid expenses, braces, our life insurance policies, etc., are paid from this account. On paydays, we each pay the nest first. It was determined the percentage that each of us made of our household income (60/40).
We added up the money required to run the nest and he puts in 60% and I put in 40%. Anything that comes up that we haven’t accounted for falls under the 60/40 rule. Running the nest is less expensive than running our household while married because we each pay for our own cars, insurance, credit cards, and basic life expenses etc. out of our own money.
Some couples that Birdnest share an apartment where the off parent goes and they rotate between the apartment and house, but neither of us thought we could manage that. I have family in town that graciously offered me a guest room when I’m off of nest duty. I try to be as unobtrusive as possible. My ex-husband has a studio apartment for his off times.
Initially we were trying to figure out how we could possibly have money enough after paying for the nest to afford nice apartments for the children and then we realized that the beauty of this is that the kids never go there, so both of us do it as cheaply as possible. They’ve been to his apartment for short visits but they’ve never spent the night.
How Others React
I get mixed reactions when I tell people about our custody arrangement. Some cheer me on and commend me for our unique arrangement. I love those people. Equally, some people are very negative and say that it will never work.
Well, it has worked for almost 3 years. Some say that it will never work when we have other partners. So far that hasn’t been a problem either. When we date we just tell them up front about our arrangement. Some are confused until they realize that we are never at the nest at the same time. We cross paths several times a week, but we never stop walking as we pass. I did read about several families that Birdnested for many, many years and in that time both spouses remarried. They simply kept the nest going like before and at bedtime their new spouse went back to their shared home. Their kids grew up and then they sold the family home.
The Downside to “Nesting”
There are downsides, I won’t lie. It is expensive. But until the housing market improves we are unlikely to be able to sell the house without losing money. Also, I get tired of living out of a bag. When I go back on nest duty I take my dirty clothes out of my bag, add them to the laundry room floor and pack again when I leave. It is an inconvenience. But then I remember that I’m not a child and I made my own decisions about my marriage and divorce. None of which my kids got a vote on. I remind myself that every day I pack the bag is a day my children don’t have to do it and feel proud that at this time they are spared that experience.