One of the biggest concerns parents have when a marriage ends is the impact it will have on their kids—and for good reason. Research shows that during the first year or two after divorce, children are more likely to experience distress, anger, and anxiety.
How parents approach and manage custody and visitation has an important role in a child's wellbeing. Unfortunately, sometimes these plans are a major source of disagreement and conflict among divorcing parents.
For some families, the negative effects of divorce on children might be reduced when both parents agree to a unique co-parenting strategy called "birdnesting."
Birdnesting is a child custody arrangement that allows the children to remain in the family home during and after a divorce, while the parents alternately move in and out. One parent remains in the home with the kids for a set amount of time, while the other parent stays either in a separate home or with a friend or relative. Then, at an agreed-on day outlined in a parenting agreement, the parents switch and the other parent moves back into the home to stay with the kids.
The practice is also sometimes called "nesting divorce" or "bird's nest custody"—a nod to how bird parents care for their young by taking turns flying in and out of the nest.
"For the right family, this is the kindest, gentlest, most loving arrangement divorcing adults can do for their children because it puts the children right smack in the center of everything," says Mimi Lee, PhD, a professional mediator and author of Building a Parenting Agreement that Works: Child Custody Agreements Step by Step.
Birdnesting is especially beneficial for families with infants or very young children, or for older children with emotional or physical disabilities who have more difficulty moving back and forth between two homes. Bird's nest custody is also an option for unmarried couples who share a family home with their children and are ending their relationship.
Birdnesting isn't a new co-parenting concept, but it's somewhat of an uncommon one. It takes a lot of coordination and cooperation on both parents' part—not just to move in and out of the family home every few days or weeks, but also to remain conscientious and courteous to your ex-spouse as you share the home separately.
A nesting divorce can lessen the disruption a split can have on the children. On the other hand, it can be more of a burden on parents than traditional custody plans.
"This arrangement is obviously far more destabilizing for the adults than the kids. The wear and tear on them, as you can imagine, is hard," Dr. Lee says. "So, the parents have to be very resilient and they have to be on even more levels of agreement with each other about what can happen in the household."
If you're considering a nesting divorce, it's a good idea to think carefully about the ins and outs before making a decision. Here's a list of birdnesting pros and cons to help you make up your mind.
When it is used, birdnesting is often a short-term solution, according to a critical review on the practice in the SMU Law Review. For example, divorced couples might use this arrangement only until one parent can find a permanent home or until the children finish out the school year. And, according to the review, parents often find the disadvantages of the practice outweigh the advantages.
However, a 2019 study published in the Neurology Handbook found otherwise, noting that children fare better when they stay in the family home and the "stability, safety, and contact with both parents is preserved." Researchers concluded that "there is a need for alternative, child-friendly post-divorce living arrangements in society."
What experts can agree on is that there are some circumstances where birdnesting probably isn't a good option, such as:
Parents who choose a nesting divorce will need to establish and abide by a set of rules to maintain a peaceful home environment for the children.
"You can't rearrange the furniture all the time or leave the refrigerator unstocked," Dr. Lee says. Instead, parents will need to establish which adult can make decisions about the layout, furnishings, and routines of the household, and respect those decisions when they are made.
The key to making birdnesting work is to focus on minimizing conflict so that the family home remains a place of emotional and physical stability. If peace can't be maintained, it's best to dissolve the agreement and move to a different custody strategy.
The reality is that birdnesting is a tricky arrangement for divorcing couples to navigate. But, Dr. Lee adds, "When it works, it's gorgeous."