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Kids staying put while parents take turns in and out of the family home Add to ...

When Bill Ricketts's marriage fell apart three years ago, the kids got the house.

The two boys, then aged 6 and 7, kept sleeping in their own beds and playing in the huge yard of the family home in small-town Ontario.

Meanwhile, the parents stayed with friends and family, and had to lug their belongings back and forth to the house, where they alternated weeks caring for the kids.

For almost a year and a half, the ex-couple shared domestic chores and expenses, along with pet peeves.

"Household and yard duties were the biggest challenges," Mr. Ricketts says in an e-mail. "I seemed to be the only one cutting the grass - and we had a lot of it."

But the setup was bearable, Mr. Ricketts says, because it created a smooth transition for the children as the parents hammered out the details of their legal separation. "I would do anything for my kids."

A skeptic might call it marriage without benefits but lawyers have another term: "bird-nesting."

In this custody arrangement, the children stay put while the parents take turns flying in and out of the home, like birds feeding their young.

The practice has grown with the joint-custody movement, experts say.

And while it remains far from the norm, bird-nesting entered the spotlight earlier this summer when reality-TV stars Jon and Kate Gosselin announced they would live apart but take turns looking after their eight children in the family mansion.

For the Gosselins, however, it didn't take long for the nesting arrangement to ruffle feathers. Earlier this month, police were called after Ms. Gosselin showed up at the family home in Wernersville, Pa., because she disapproved of the comely young babysitter hired by her soon-to-be ex. According to reports, Ms. Gosselin was told to leave the property because the custody agreement dictated it was her husband's week with the kids.

Clearly, spousal distrust had come to roost.

Bird-nesting isn't for the faint of heart, according to JP Boyd, a family lawyer based in Vancouver.

The arrangement can be prohibitively expensive, since it often involves a house for the kids as well as two smaller residences for the adults. Moreover, he says, maintaining a shared home requires a level of maturity that few ex-couples can muster.

"It takes an awfully big person not to be pissed off because 'Bob' left the toilet seat up again."

For people who can make it work, it's an ideal joint-custody arrangement, according to Rob Crane, a physician in Ohio who runs a website on the practice at Kidsstay.org.

He should know. Dr. Crane and his ex-wife maintained the same house for their daughter, Whitney, for 10 years after their divorce. Each parent had a separate bedroom in the original home, as well as a private residence nearby.

They alternated their time with Whitney on weeknights and every other weekend, Dr. Crane says. "This way I actually saw my child every day."

He and his ex-wife had minor disagreements about dishes left in the sink or how to deal with the dog, he recalls, but both refrained from leaving nasty notes. "We tried to maintain some sense of civility."

Dr. Crane says he enjoyed living in the family's suburban house as well as his own smaller home, where he could entertain women friends away from scrutiny.

"I had the best of both worlds," says Dr. Crane, who remarried two years before the agreement with his ex-wife ended and his daughter left for college.

Whitney Crane, now a 24-year-old student at Yale University, says her parents' unusual living arrangement helped her have a "normal" childhood.

"They did a very good job to keep it as similar as possible to that of my friends whose parents were still together," she says, adding, "I think I saw other friends' parents fight more than my parents fought."

Plenty of ex-couples reconfigure their lives so their children won't become collateral damage, according to Cate Cochran, a journalist and author of Reconcilable Differences: Marriage Ends. Families Don't.

During her book research, she says, "I was astonished to see how many - and in what extenuating circumstances - people could come to a peaceful coexistence."

Ms. Cochran is among them. She and her ex-husband live in separate apartments in the same house in Toronto, and their dog and two children have the run of both homes. So far, the setup has lasted six years. "It's had its challenges," Ms. Cochran says, "but it's way ahead of anything else I can imagine."

Lawyers, however, say that bird-nesting and other unconventional living arrangements miss the point.

According to a vast array of social-science research, the most critical factor in a child's long-term well-being after a family break-up is the absence of conflict between parents.

Bird-nesting may force parents in volatile relationships to relive the aggravations that led to separation in the first place, according to Victoria Smith, a Toronto lawyer with a collaborative practice that keeps divorce out of the courts.

"It's really not a sustainable arrangement for parents who are trying to find a physical and a financial separation from each other and an emotional disentanglement," she says.

Bird-nesting can work well as an interim measure, she adds, since it gives children time to adjust while the couple work on their separation agreement.

And it gives parents a taste of what their kids will go through as they pack and repack their duffel bags in their new joint-custody life.

Editor's note: Victoria Smith was incorrectly named in the original version of this article. This version has been corrected.

Follow on Twitter: @AdrianaBarton

 

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