The Je Ne Sais Quoi of Bird Nesting

Over the last two decades bird-nesting has been floated as a high-minded concept for co-parenting timeshares designed to minimize the tumult to children.
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Over the last two decades bird-nesting has been floated as a high-minded concept for co-parenting timeshares designed to minimize the tumult to children. The idea is for parents to move out of the family home except for their in-residence time during periods of custodial responsibility. That the kids get the house conveys a certain je ne sais quoi, an intangible yet attractive quality, but usually only at first glance. There are many good reasons why this arrangement hasn't caught on. It seems so preposterous that even a Hollywood rom-com wouldn't go there -- at least not yet.

While very few among the separating set seriously consider bird nesting, it's a fleeting yet frequent topic of discussion among parents and divorce professionals. Though it's usually quashed as a practical possibility in custody discussions, it can work in certain situations. As tight money is increasingly an issue during these tough economic times, the best option is generally to live with grandparents or friends during off-custody times. It takes about two-thirds more income to keep the standard of living to run two homes as it does one. Renting a room or apartment, even one that you share with your co-parent, may be more economical than each having your own, but is nevertheless outlandish. Such living arrangements as sharing a guest house on the property or living across the street or around the corner from one another are also options.

Trying to live under the same roof in separate rooms is something I've heard floated, but it rarely works for very long. For the co-parent who didn't initiate calling it quits, any variation on the theme of bird nesting can be a living hell. Additionally, it's a recipe for outrage when one parent is in the master bedroom and the other in the den -- or, worse, on the living room couch. This is true, even if that kind of arrangement has been in place for some time as the realization the relationship was in trouble loomed. Think of the message it sends the children...

In any case, these stop-gap measures are temporary, usually lasting just a few months but never more than a year or two. Where it does make sense is in cases when one or more of the children can't manage the movement between homes due to special needs. Or if the idea is to wait until the housing market turns around to fetch a better sale price, if ultimately the property is to be sold or one parent will be buying it from the other to equalize another asset.

Though I don't have extensive follow-up with the separating and divorcing couples I've worked with in L.A., the city that invented no-fault divorce, I can recall only two out of a thousand in which bird-nesting arrangements were successful and rather long-term. For one couple, staying with the maternal and paternal grandparents helped them as sandwich-generation parents to deal more effectively with their aging parents. In addition, the oldest of their three children, had been diagnosed with high functioning autism. She was intractable and made it very clear she wasn't moving regardless of what the rest of the family did. Many years of hard work to mainstream her in high school and hopefully have her headed off to community or state college was at risk of being de-railed.

The other couple had the luxury of a rather posh guesthouse on the family home's property where Dad was willing to live. The parents had their only child, a son, later in life and neither expected to have more. Mom lived in the big house and they made it work. Dad, who willingly agreed for the most part to see his new paramours 'off campus,' was even able to tolerate mom's new partner when he came on board and moved in. What is so evolved to some might seem down right bizarre to others. C'est la vie, to each his own.

So then, what's the value, if any, when the mention of bird nesting arises in parent plan mediation sessions? In the brainstorming stage, sometimes any viable option needs airing and is up for discussion. Raising the sparks on an otherwise dead discussion can remind you of how far off you have veered from what is possible. By doing so, a light shines on intractable problems needing a nudge, a push towards some initial movement if you're going to get anywhere. Agreements sometimes appear seemingly from nowhere. It's a little like having a tooth extracted -- wiggle this way and that and eventually you get there.

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