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.