After Divorce, Giving Our Kids Custody of the Home

The Fourth Grade Parents’ Night Out is in full swing. These adults-only gatherings, potluck style with plenty of cocktails, are a tradition at my sons’ school. A new couple introduces themselves and we make small talk over glasses of wine while I wait for the inevitable question.

There it is, from the wife, looking around the room: “Who’s your husband?”

We’re divorced, I explain. He’s with the boys tonight.

We live in a traditional, smallish Midwestern city. Midwesterners are not big on sharing. Getting too personal makes us very nervous. Most often, as soon as I say divorce the conversation is quickly changed to a less embarrassing topic.So… how ‘bout those Colts!

But the wife leans in, curious. “So do the kids live with you? What’s your arrangement?” (She must not be from around here, I muse.)

I roll into my pitch. Not that I’m trying to sell anything. I’ve just found the more succinctly I state it, the easier it is for others to digest (hand gestures help).

“Our living arrangement’s kind of unusual. The boys stay in the house [hands together in front of me, fingertips touching like I’m holding a big snowball] and their dad and I have separate apartments [right hand out to the side; then left hand]. We move in and out every week [right hand in; then move left hand in, while moving right out] to take care of them,” [hands back in front holding the precious snowball].

I stop flopping my hands around and wait for a reaction. The shocked silence and confused expression, I’m used to. Her eyes welling up with tears? That’s new.

What I’m describing is called “bird nesting” or “nesting.” It’s based on the idea of the kids being like baby birds and the mother and father birds flying in and out of the nest to take care of them. This means, in non-ornithological terms, that after a divorce the kids continue to stay in the family home while the parents take turns moving in and out.
In our case, my ex and I each have our own apartments where we live when we’re not in the house with the boys. We switch into the house on Wednesday mornings and Saturday evenings. The boys and all their stuff — clothing, homework, sports gear, musical instruments, and piles of beloved childhood detritus in their rooms — stay put.

I read about the idea in Laura Wasser’s great book, “It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way: How to Divorce Without Destroying Your Family or Bankrupting Yourself.” Nesting struck a chord with the boys’ dad and me. We hoped keeping the routine of daily life as consistent as possible would give continuity as we figured out what divorce would mean for our family. Of course, changes were going to come. We hoped if their day-to-day life didn’t feel that much different, it could temper the fear and uncertainty.

When we sat them down to tell them we were getting a divorce – they were 12, 9, and 5 at the time — the very next thing we said was: But nothing’s changing for you. You will keep living right here.

We presented it with familiar scenarios: It’s like when Dad goes on a business trip for a few days and Mom takes care of you. Or when Mom goes to see her friends and Dad’s in charge.

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