What Our Bird-Nesting Custody Plan Taught Us

The week after Billy and I told the children we were divorcing, we both moved out.  Or neither of us did, depending on your perspective.

For the first several months of our separation, Billy and I cared for our sweeties in a custody arrangement called bird-nesting.  From the start, we both committed to putting the children first and coparenting equally, and bird-nesting, an option recommended by our therapist, helped us achieve that goal. When bird-nesting, the children remain in the home and the parents rotate in and out, rather than the more traditional shared custody arrangement where each adult sets up a household and the children rotate between homes.

Billy and I bird-nested as a temporary solution: for six months, rotating every two days.When it was my time with the kids, Billy moved out and stayed with a friend in our neighborhood and when it was Billy’s turn to move in, I camped at my sister’s place. We told the children clearly that this was the first step in our new family arrangement, and in the future we would each have a home with them.

Bird-nesting is not ideal for adults.  You continue to share a physical space with someone from whom you are separating.  The management of that household: bills, groceries, yard work still falls to you as a team at a time when communication on any topic is difficult. Each of you is no longer motivated by making your partner happy, and on the darkest days, looks for ways to stick it to the other person.  Translation? The dishes pile in the sink and no one ever takes out the trash.

It’s hard to move forward when bird-nesting.  How do you start over when the trappings of your old life surround you?  Pictures of our wedding still hung on the walls, old love notes surfaced aggressively in my drawers and half-finished projects, started hopefully in a time long past, still littered my garage. Our life as I’d imagined it surrounded me, even as it fell apart.

After making the decision to separate, Billy and I were eager to start new lives, and bird-nesting made that difficult.  The end of my marriage was made more painful by the fact that I was still sleeping in a bed my ex had occupied the night before.  His toothbrush was still at the sink, his clothes hanging in the closet.  I couldn’t escape him.

That is exactly why bird-nesting worked so well for our children.

Bird-nesting allowed Simon, Caden and Lottie to get used to the idea that Mom and Dad were going to live separately, but each remain fully present in their lives. We would both stay on the family team. Billy and I still worked together (mostly) on the running of our household.  We still shared the calendar hanging on the fridge.  We still pushed leftovers and folded laundry.  No one disappeared.

In science-speak, bird-nesting isolated the variable of our separation.  Mom and Dad were still Mom and Dad, doing boring/annoying/reassuring Mom and Dad things.  We did them separately now, which felt big and scary and painful to all of us, but that was the only big, scary, painful change we faced in those early months.

While Billy and I were eager to move forward after our decision to separate, the children needed time to grieve.  They had not processed or influenced this decision.  Our children had nothing to look forward to in our separation and worried they had everything to lose.  It was the worst time of their lives.

Bird-nesting allowed our children to grieve in the home they’d grown up in. There were no new beds to get used to, no new neighborhoods to learn.  Billy and I could comfort them in familiar surroundings.  We could talk with the children about upcoming changes, and allow them to participate as they wanted in planning for the two separate households in our future.

When it came time for Billy to move into his new home, the children were ready. They’d packed the parts of their rooms destined for Dad’s house.  We’d printed pictures of Mom to put up.  We’d planned a careful mix of old and new furnishings for each home.

I actively participated in that move, showing the children I was part of the team.  I greeted the movers, sorted boxes and, with Billy’s permission, helped set up the children’s rooms in the new house.  The time spent bird-nesting made moving day easier on all of us; we’d had time to move through the rawest part of our grief and were used to operating in our new family dynamic.

Bird-nesting forced Billy and I to prove to the children and ourselves we could put them first.  We could continue to parent as a team, even as we lived in three separate households and somehow still shared a bathroom.  Even as we doubled over in the frozen food section, paralyzed with grief.  Even as we could barely speak, our anger and pain so raw it threatened to boil over without notice. Even if it was hard and uncomfortable, we could figure it out together.

Our bird-nesting experience built our confidence as a coparenting team; more than once I thought to myself “if we can do this, we can do anything.” Most importantly, though, bird-nesting built the children’s confidence that we meant what we said: we could continue to work together, we were both still here, we were all still family.

By | 2017-05-12T08:56:00+00:00 January 17th, 2017|Coparenting, Divorce, Our Story|


  1. Kathy Miller January 17, 2017 at 10:50 am

    My ex-husband and I did the same thing. We were in a position to actually rent a 2 bedroom apartment less than a mile from our family home. He had a bedroom, and I had a bedroom. Our children were a little older at the time of our separation–14, 12, and 9–so we nested for a week at a time. We continued this arrangement for a year, then I moved into the apartment. “His” second bedroom had bunk beds moved in, and my daughter shared a room with me. While not an ideal situation, it worked for the year we were in the apartment.
    Bird-nesting was invaluable–to the kids, to my ex-husband and to me. Letting the children grieve and get used to a new “normal” while not having to travel back and forth made our experience much less painful than it could have been. I know that I was extremely fortunate to have been in a situation where we could afford to set up a small place where my ex and I could grieve by ourselves and start the process of rebuilding our own lives.
    I would recommend to any couple experiencing the pain of divorcing to look into your options for trying bird-nesting when you initially separate. It was definitely physically harder on us as parents–but we were the ones deciding to separate. The kids had no say. We were the ones forgetting a pair of shoes or something we needed for work–not the kids.
    We were the only people I knew who ever tried this–I’m glad to hear that it worked for you as well.

    • Kate Chapman January 17, 2017 at 1:55 pm

      Kathy, I’m so glad you also saw the benefits of bird-nesting. It is pretty rare, and I find I am often explaining it to people who haven’t heard of it. So terrific to have another positive viewpoint. It isn’t easy, or cheap, but the payoff is huge. I totally agree, it made the pain of our separation infinitely more bearable. Thanks for commenting!

  2. thererfour January 18, 2017 at 12:34 pm

    The first time I heard of this was on Jon & Kate plus 8 except if memory serves me, the judge made them rotate in and out of the children’s home.

    • Kate Chapman January 18, 2017 at 2:39 pm

      I didn’t realize Kate and Jon had done that! I loved that show – before things got weird.

  3. Kim March 28, 2017 at 4:22 pm

    We have been birdnesting for almost 2 years now. We have a rented apt that my ex and I use on the weeks we are not with our son in the house. We have decided to continue doing this for as long as it works. We also still do some “family vacations” all together. I am in a new relationship and for now I’ve made it clear that on the weeks I’m at the house with my son – he is my number one priority. The weeks I’m at the apt are the weeks I’m available to spend time with my boyfriend.Sounds crazy but it works for us! 🙂

    • Kate Chapman March 30, 2017 at 6:44 am

      Kim, if it works for your family, then it works! 🙂 Thank you for sharing your story!

  4. jenn6270 April 13, 2017 at 11:25 pm

    My husband and I have been bird nesting for almost 2 years. It has been very hard on us but invaluable for our now 9 year old son. He has been a part of the process of what was a “baby” step if you will in how our family would look going forward. His father and I do have a cold relationship with one another but I have tried to bridge that with asking for (and his agreeing to) ongoing counseling to “divorce nicely”. My son has also been part of he and I looking for a new home and has a say on things like what he wants to bring to our house or leave at his dad’s house, what color paint he wants in his bedroom and so on. I think involving him in the sad but not “bad” fact that our family was changing was so helpful for him. He has become more and more comfortable with his dad caring for him as well (that has been a huge issue for a long time.) Placing my husband in the role of care giver with me there as consultant I hope helped him (even though he would never admit it) to gain more confidence in doing something he was rarely involved with all these years. We will be transitioning to 2 separate homes in July. I am scared because I still “run” the house that our son lives in and really want him to continue to be well-cared for but my husband’s idea of cleanliness and order are far different from mine… I guess I have to let go of that. My next hurdle is not having a “traditional” custody schedule but a flexible co-parenting plan. He is resistant but is coming around with the help of a divorce mediator… always a negotiation. Never does divorce have to look like the majority believes it to be. Creativity and placing your kids first is the number one focus. My son is not a possession so I have no intention of treating him like one…. needing peaceful, patient and courageous vibes right now. Thanks and Peace.

    • Kate Chapman April 14, 2017 at 9:28 am

      Thinking of you, Jenn! One step at a time, and sounds like your focus is right where it needs to be!

Comments are closed.