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Nesting - The Best Way To Share Childcare After Separation

By Sarah Hughes

There can be no easy way to separate after a long relationship can there? After years, perhaps decades together, your lives are inextricably linked. Finances, families, friendships, they’re all so intertwined. Throw children into the mix and the separation becomes roughly a thousand times more complex.

Having grown up as the child of two divorces, when my own 15 year marriage came to an end in May of this year, I desperately didn’t want my children to go through any of the heartache I remembered so clearly from my own childhood. Packing overnight bags, always inevitably realising you’ve left your PE kit or homework at the wrong house. Waking in the night at your Dad’s feeling poorly and desperately wishing you were with your Mum.

That’s why the idea of ‘birdnesting’ was so appealing to me. It was a concept I wasn’t familiar with but which has apparently been the norm in Scandinavian countries for decades. Termed birdnesting because birds take it in turns leaving their nest to go and find food while the other stays in the nest with the eggs or the baby birds, it’s a practice that is now becoming more popular in the US and the UK. The basic gist is that the children stay in the family home and each parent takes turns moving out for a few days at a time. It’s fair to say it’s an idea that favours the middle classes, who are more likely to be able to afford to rent or even buy a second property for both parents to use. However, I have heard of nesters who go back to their parents or ‘sofa surf’ on their nights out of the family home. A recent study in the UK suggested that 11% of divorced/separated parents have tried it.

I first hit on the idea after watching a UK TV drama named ‘Our House’. I didn’t plan to follow the plotline to the letter (since it involved a pretty gruesome murder), but I did immediately think how fantastic an idea it would be for my three children who are aged five, nine and eleven.

At the time I was consumed with masses and masses of guilt around how this separation was going to affect my kids. The break-up was largely my decision and so the burden of responsibility felt heavy on my shoulders in terms of making the transition as smooth as possible for them. I was terrified that they’d blame me for all the upheaval in their little lives. Birdnesting seemed the perfect solution. It would mean their lives were disrupted as little as possible, they would keep their same bedrooms, same routines and have the comfort and security of the family home. Sure, the idea of packing a bag for ourselves every few days didn’t sound like fun; but this couldn’t be about us. It had to be about the kids.

So what is birdnesting like in reality? Well, I think my ex-husband would agree with me that it isn’t as rosy as we were hoping. We rented a room in a good friends’ flat and decided we would ‘nest’ for a year. By that point, we assumed the kids would be used to us being separated and that the transition of selling the family home and moving to two new ones would be smoother.

The first stumbling block was that inevitably, our dear friend got caught in the middle of every disagreement (which is a polite way of describing our communications in the first few weeks) we had. Psychologist Malin Bergstrom who has published research papers on shared parenting, advises that nesting is really only feasible if you’re truly amicable. Even then, she warns that nesting long-term can prevent partners from moving on and stunt the process of grieving for the relationship they’ve lost.

Whilst I hope one day we will be amicable, in these early days there is too much hurt and recrimination flying around. Sleeping in a bed where you suspect your husband slept with someone else the night before is up there with one of the strangest experiences you can have, believe me.

There is also the fact that if you don’t split your nesting timetable 50/50 (My ex and I agreed that it was best for the kids for the majority of their time to be spent with me since I had always been the main carer while he worked very long hours), the rental place will always feel more like one partner's space than the others. Plus things can get pretty petty; I’ve heard stories of ex-partners having arguments over the contents of the shared fridge, heading back to university territory when you had to label your cheese.

I lasted just a few nights before I decided us sharing this room was doing my mental health more harm than good. From that point on, each time I’ve packed my overnight bag, I’ve headed off (like the littlest hobo) to my Mums or brothers house instead. It’s not lost on me how lucky I’ve been to have that available to me. They have nurtured me, loved me and made sure I never felt I was getting in the way. Those overnight stays have been the setting for many long talks into the night which have undoubtedly been part of my healing process.

When my soon-to-be ex-husband and I made the final decision to end our marriage we both dealt with things very differently. There were many disagreements! The one thing we did agree on was that nesting would be a great bridge to our new life, but we were never under the impression it would be a long-term solution. I knew my ex would likely find a new partner very quickly and there aren’t many people who would be happy to mold their whole life around their boyfriend’s nesting timetable. So we entered the arrangement knowing it was short-term, and for me, it definitely reduced some of the tidal waves of anxiety.

In terms of our family unit, the major benefit of nesting has been its effect on the kids. I’m proud to say after a few little bumps in the road during the first few weeks, we’ve managed to keep any tensions away from them. The living arrangement, them being able to stay in the family home, has eased the kids into their new reality. It has been a far less dramatic transition than it would’ve been had their Dad just packed his bags and officially moved out straight after we’d announced the split. Although our split is final, nesting somehow makes it feel less so. It’s a more gentle way to part company, even when things are tricky.

We’ve lasted just four months with our nesting arrangement, and now the time feels right to find a more permanent solution for all five of us. My ex has taken on a long-term rental a few miles up the road, and I plan to find a new, smaller house for myself and the kids. It feels like a bit of a failure that we couldn’t make it last for the year as we’d planned, but things have worked out OK in the grand scheme of things. Our kids are more than happy to go and spend weekends at their Dad’s flat and I think that’s largely because it’s been a slower process. They haven’t felt ambushed by our decision to separate.

Divorcing with kids involved throws up so many opportunities to beat yourself up, to punish yourself for what you perceive you are ‘doing to them’. As our nesting arrangement comes to an end, I’m promising to speak kindly to myself, to congratulate myself, and my ex, for giving nesting a go. I think it’s been a great tool in our quest to prioritise our kids’ needs and emotions.

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