Bird Nesting: Advantages and Disadvantages of this Custody Option

Bird nest with two eggsParents often ask me to describe what options they have for their post-divorce living arrangements. In addition to the many ways it is possible for children go back and forth between two residences, there is also the possibility of having children stay in the home they are currently living in while the parents move in and out. This is sometimes described as “the children get the house,” “bird nesting,” or just “nesting.”

The Advantages

  • Said to be child-centric: it focuses on the needs of the children.
  • Children are able to continue to live in their home for a greater sense of stability.
  •  Minimizes the difficulty for children of living in two places, like forgetting homework, toys, clothing, or other belongings at the other parent’s home.
  • Parents might be better able to handle the experience of moving back and forth between their residences than the children might be.

How It Works
The parents move in and out of the home according to the parenting plan they have established. This might include a situation where one parent spends the night with the children. The other parent comes to the house when the first parent goes to work and is at the home until the working parent comes home, often after dinner. The daytime parent then goes to their “other” residence. This arrangement could change depending on which parent is spending the night with the children.

Alternately, one parent can live in the home with the children for one week, then the other lives with them the following week. This is what as known as a week on/week off arrangement.

In a 2003 case in Ontario, Canada (Greenough v Greenough), the judge court-ordered parents to implement a bird nesting arrangement—which they had not requested—until the hearings on the case could continue.

In the case record, Justice Quinn wrote:

“The court made a bird’s nest custody arrangement in which the children (aged 3 and 5 years) remained in the home, with the mother staying in the home during the week and the father on the weekend. I think that the benefits of a bird’s nest order are best achieved where the children are able to stay in the matrimonial home, particularly if it has been the only residence that they have known…

“Time and time again I have seen cases (and this is one) where the children are being treated as Frisbees. In general, parents do not seem to appreciate the gross disruption to which children are subjected where one of the parents has frequent access. In this regard, I do not believe there must be evidence that the children are suffering before the court is free to act. To me, it is a matter of common sense. At the risk of falling prey to simplistic generalities, I am of the view that, given a choice, I do not see why anyone would select a living arrangement which involved so much movement from house to house.”

Justice Quinn clearly saw the advantages to the children of living in the home they were most familiar with and of having little change in their day-to-day lives, and saw the role of the court as instrumental in advancing this option on behalf of the children.

The Disadvantages

  • It is expensive. Unless the parents are able to share the residence in which the children do not live, they are looking at having three residences, one for the children and one for each parent when they are not living with the children.
  • It requires a large degree of civility between the parents and the ability to get along and make decisions together. In general, the absence of conflict is the best indicator of resiliency for children, both in a marriage and post-divorce. A bird nesting situation, especially, cannot work if there is conflict. Co-parents who choose this model might consider working with a mediator or other professional who can assist in discussing the fine-tuning necessary to make the arrangement workable.
  • It does not take into consideration what would happen when one or both parents enter a new relationship. Even before this aspect of “moving on” occurs post-divorce, both parents often need to individuate from each other and establish separate lives in order to disentangle from the marriage relationship they had with each other. Bird nesting does not adequately foster this aspect of divorcing.
  • House rules: in order for parents’ movements to occur in a non-disruptive manner, both parents would need to have similar rules and house cleaning sensibilities. “House rules” need to be established to avoid creating a situation where children need to remember which rules are in place on which days, or at which times, depending on which parent is “on.”

These lists are not exhaustive. Clearly, bird nesting is not for everyone. The question remains whether it is for even doable for a small percentage of divorcing families. We do know that when parents live in close proximity to each other, when the children have easy access between homes, and are not subject to ongoing conflict, children of divorced families are quite resilient and do as well as children from families where there is no divorce. This might be a solution that is just shy of bird nesting: good neighbors.

© Copyright 2010 by Shendl Tuchman, PsyD, therapist in San Ramon, California. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • LaRrY

    LaRrY

    September 3rd, 2010 at 11:43 PM

    Bird-nesting sounds like something that can really work!I had never heard of bird-nesting before but it sure sounds like a great method for couples with very young children at least.

  • Sandy

    Sandy

    September 4th, 2010 at 6:23 AM

    Wow that just seems like a nightmre to me, not to mention the expense of having to maintain three residences. You get divorced for a reason- so that you do have a safe have and do not have to share a space with that partner anymore. No this sounds just awful to me. I would love to read some narratives from couples who tried that method to see how it worked.

  • Michael

    Michael

    October 2nd, 2010 at 4:15 PM

    We have been doing bird nesting for a year now. It was a decision we made 3 years after divorce. We had talked about it initially but I don’t think it could have worked right away. Three years later though things had calmed down considerably.

    I disagree that it’s more expensive. Through my spreadsheet calculations I determined that the normal back-and-forth for kids is more expensive because you have 2 households that are only partially occupied. With nesting, if each ex has a new partner, then they share living expenses with that new partner and it ends up being cheaper overall. Plus kids have a lot more “stuff” than grown ups, at least in our case. With bird nesting you don’t have to duplicate the expenses for so much stuff.

    I grew up with divorced parents and hated going back and forth. At some point I refused to continue doing it. I didn’t want to see that happen with my kids. The up side is I got used to living this way and so continuing it as an adult is simple.

    I also like that my new partner and my ex’s partner don’t have to get involved with the role of step parent.

    I’m thinking of starting an online forum for bird nesters and those considering that option to discuss their experiences.

    Is there a need for an online discussion group dedicated to bird nesting?

    -Michael

  • Beckett

    Beckett

    April 7th, 2011 at 7:33 PM

    Michael – I totally think a online forum needs to be setup for discussion on nesting. I read a preponderance of negative commentary on the idea. I have been nesting for close to two years and do not see any end in sight. We share the primary residence and a two bedroom apartment. Rules are simple – leave both places as you found them, house rules in force 100% of the time (meaning nesting house rules are consistent and apartment rules are consistent regardless of who is there). So the primary residence is my ex-wife’s rules and the apartment are my rules. The kids love it – they tell their friends and us how happy that we chose this. Grades are up, kids behaviors could not be better. Yeah – it is hard on my ex and I to constantly packing a bag – but guess what – we screwed this up – not the kids. So if that is my penance for the next 10 years and in return I have a chance to not destroy my kids self-esteem, confidence, comfort – sign me up!

  • Deborah E. W.

    Deborah E. W.

    April 3rd, 2018 at 9:12 PM

    I would say that if you can make this work, then you could have made the marriage work, for the sake of the kids. in my situation, it would have facilitated my ex’s stalking and abuse of me.

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