Birdnesting: An Innovative Approach to Separation, Divorce and Co-parenting

About Amy Marquis |

By Amy Marquis, BA Updated Jan 26, 2024


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“Your divorce won't be the entire story of your life. You still get to write a happy ending.” – Unknown

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If you’ve been through a divorce or are considering one, you already know that separation can begin long before it’s brought up.

Emotional distance can unfold over months or years. That’s what happened to me. My ex and I have always been good at being friends and logistical life partners because we share the same values and goals and respect each other, even now.

But for me, a deep emotional connection was lacking before either of us said a word about the need to separate.

The idea of choosing divorce when our children were so young and needed both of us so frequently and deeply made the idea a nonstarter. There was no way I was willing to give up daily connection with them. And so I stayed. The price I paid was a heavy one: I sacrificed myself.

But being there to be a part of my children’s day-to-day lives, to watch them grow and change, was non-negotiable. I couldn’t bear the thought of being a willful cause of trauma to them. Finding a way for these conflicting priorities to coexist felt impossible.

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When I first heard about birdnesting and divorce, the concept was interesting. It seemed like the ideal way to promote family stability post-divorce, but I wasn’t clear on how to move forward with the idea.

Over time, I began to realize that the children were maturing, gaining in resiliency, and suddenly the birdnesting felt like it could work. I had always been a child-led parent, so this model felt tailor-made for my family. It addressed my worst fears about losing touch with my children.

The wild card was whether my then-husband would agree to it in the face of my asking for divorce.

What is Birdnesting?

Birdnesting is essentially child-focused co-parenting: the children continue to live in the family home after the parents have separated or divorced while the parents rotate in and out. This principle is gaining traction as an alternative way for families to weather the trials and pressures of separation and divorce when there are children involved.

What the Research Says

Unsurprisingly, research shows that children do better when parents can minimize conflict and cooperate on behalf of the kids.

Digging a little deeper, a small 2019 study on birdnesting showed that children tend to thrive when they continue living in the family home post-divorce, ensuring the preservation of stability, safety and ongoing contact with both parents.

The researchers found what you would expect – a need for alternative, child-friendly living arrangements. This study underscores the need to reexamine what constitutes optimal post-divorce environments for children, which is at the heart of why birdnesting is such an important concept to explore.

How Does Birdnesting Work?

Birdnesting. It sounds like a fun little game, but in reality, it’s a practical roadmap for building a new family structure that supports and nurtures everyone involved. The model can look different from family to family. Families can agree to a long-term arrangement or opt for short-term birdnesting.

There can be a main home and a second apartment that the adults share; there might be a main home and two separate apartments, one for each adult; or – as in my case – one multi-family home.

The children live in the main, upstairs unit, and their dad and I take turns – three or four days at a time, with our children and on our own – in the secondary, downstairs unit.

medium shot family home

When I think back to the conversation where I introduced the idea, I am filled with gratitude. My partner listened openly and fully, and it didn’t take him long to agree that birdnesting was an innovative option that could work for us.

We considered different ways birdnesting might work for our family. We talked about the length of time our arrangement would last and agreed that we would both commit to birdnesting until our youngest graduated high school. We ran the numbers on renting a second apartment.

That was a prohibitively expensive option. We even considered renovating our home to carve out a small efficiency apartment, but the house just wasn’t laid out to accommodate that idea. That’s when my partner brought up the idea of buying a two-unit home.

I’ll pause here to say that if buying a new home with someone who’s going to become your ex-spouse sounds odd to you, you’re not alone - I agree! Purchasing property with another person requires a level of trust not typically found in divorce.

Fortunately, trust is one of the qualities we’ve never lost in our relationship, and so this option felt like a goal we could reach and sustain.

But before we started searching for new property, we sat down with a mediator to map out all the details. We covered everything from parenting time to finances to emergency hurricane evacuation. Our mediator was instrumental in helping us think through all the nuances of separating and the details around successful birdnesting.

Once the details were settled, we moved forward with purchasing a two-unit home together, and it turned out to be an excellent solution for our family. It’s been a year since our initial discussion and six months since we moved into our multi-family home.

We’re still a family, we just look different. Everyone has adjusted well. Our children have felt minimal impact because we both see them every day. We have family dinners together most nights and go on family vacations together. Yes, privacy and boundaries are an ongoing process of evaluation and negotiation.

Dating is a little tricky, but it turns out that has less to do with how the adults feel and more to do with navigating the children’s feelings. We’re still figuring it out, but I know we’ll find our way because we’ve both committed to this new iteration of family life.

When we encounter a stumbling block, we both center ourselves on the tenet of what’s best for the children and go from there, which is an excellent way to level set. Birdnesting has given us the best path forward, allowing us to continue the good things we’ve built as a family while my ex and I open new pathways for our personal journeys.

It’s a solution that I know will continue to serve all of us going forward.

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