In any separation, parents face countless decisions. For many, the ‘big ticket’ decisions will be around their children. Where will my children live, how much time will they spend with me and my ex-partner? In circumstances where there are highly co-operative parents some ‘out of the box’ parenting arrangements can work.
‘Bird-nesting’ is where separating parents agree to leave their children resident in the family home or ‘nest’, and that they will be the ones to move in and out of that nest, living in a separate residence whenever the children are being cared for by the other parent.
Bird-nesting has been seen in all sorts of parenting outcomes, including ‘shared care’, where children have equal time with their parents, and in other arrangements, such as weekdays with mum and weekends with dad.
A ‘changeover’ occurs on an agreed day, when one parent ‘moves in’, and the other ships out. Some bird-nesters even share a family meal on changeover day, demonstrating to their children that they can still get along.
The benefits of this new kind of thinking is that the family home, which has been the children’s ‘home base’, will remain a stable environment which is known to them, securing their emotional well-being.
So how can you make bird-nesting work for you?
- Commitment from both parents
First and foremost, it takes the agreement of you and your ex-partner to financially maintain the main residence. If it was the former family home, you may need to maintain joint ownership of it, or continue to rent it, until the children are older. And there will be the usual expenses that go with any household – rates, electricity and other outgoings. It is important to remember the bird-nest keeps you and your ex-partner in a financial ‘relationship’ for longer, and can potentially adversely impact on your ability to ‘move on’ financially.
- Be clear about the terms
To make the bird-nesting arrangement work, you need to be clear about its terms. The parenting arrangement will ideally be embodied in a parenting Order, or Parenting Plan.
Likewise the arrangements about co-ownership and funding of the bird-nest will also need to be specified – how long the bird-nesting will go on; how and in what proportions the day to day expenses of the bird-nest will be paid; what impact the arrangement will have on child support obligations (e.g. is payment of expenses a credit towards child support obligations); and what will occur with the property when the arrangement is at end (e.g. will the property be sold).
- Set some ‘house rules’
Agreed ‘house rules’ will be needed to establish boundaries. Who will ensure there is milk in the fridge, do the cleaning, the laundry, the lawn-mowing, the maintenance tasks, collect the post and pay the bills? These things can quickly become a source of irritation, and at worst, conflict, if there is no clarity around ‘who is doing what’.
- Aim for separate lodgings
The bird-nesting arrangements with the best chance of success are those where each of you have your own separate residence – a place to retreat to, and call your ‘own’ when not caring for the children (as opposed to arrangements where parents live in the same studio apartment or investment property in those ‘off’ periods). This is really important if you are seeing other people. These are, however, the most expensive arrangements to maintain, and will not be possible in all cases.
- Have an exit plan
To be a long-term solution you need to recognise that there may come a time when one of you is of the view that all or part of the bird-nest arrangement is not working, and have a plan to address that. Often that is in the form of attendance with a family therapist to work through the problem. Ultimately, ‘deal breakers’ may need to be specified in any orders or agreements, as a trigger to bring the bird-nest to an end if problems cannot be solved.
These logistics mean that bird-nesting will not be a viable option in every separation. It is an outcome on which parents will need to agree, and is not likely to be something imposed on parents by orders made in the Family Courts. To make it work, you will need to be able to talk to your partner, and to consciously avoid conflict. You must also be prepared to remain in a financial ‘holding pattern’ for some time. Mutual respect, co-operation and an open mind to problem solving are essential components.
This article first appeared in Gold Coast Families Magazine