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Splitting up from a partner is always hard, especially if children are caught up in the process. And with reams of international research suggesting how unsettling divorce can be for young people, some parents are turning to an innovative solution to try and help ease the process.
‘Birdnesting’ or ‘nesting’ is a way of living that enables children to remain in the family home and spend time with each parent there. Each legal guardian stays at the home during their agreed custody time, then elsewhere when they’re ‘off duty’. The concept gets its name from bird parents, who keep their chicks safe in a nest and alternately fly in and out to care for them.
“We wanted to keep stability for the kids, and not just tear up everything all at once,” says 38-year-old Niklas Björling from Stockholm, whose young family nested for eight months after he and his wife separated. “The children could keep their home, school and friends as before,” he explains, plus they’d avoid the stress of shuttling between two properties.
Although still a relatively unknown concept globally, nesting seems to be on the rise in Western countries, largely among middle-class families. Divorce lawyers have reported an increase in birdnesting in places including the US, Australia and The Netherlands. A recent UK study by Coop Legal Services suggested that 11% of divorced or separated parents have tried it. In Sweden, where equally shared child custody has been commonplace for decades, some divorced parents have rotated homes as far back as the 1970s. (Official statistics are hard to come by, since there isn’t a tick box for this kind of living on census or residency surveys.)
Björling stayed in his mum’s spare room during his child-free time, while his ex rented a room in a shared house. Wealthier nesters may choose to buy individual apartments, invest in a shared second property or convert part of the main household into an off-duty annexe, says Dr Ann Buscho, a California-based therapist who has written a book about nesting. For many, it’s a “transitional or temporary arrangement”, but some of her clients have nested for years.
Yet as more families start to embrace the concept, experts are divided on its impact on both children and parents.
What’s behind the birdnesting trend?
Buscho says it’s important to understand the context behind the trend, including the influence of non-traditional celebrity parenting plans on millennial divorcees. Mad Men’s Anne Dudek and Matthew Heller went public about nesting after their divorce in 2016, and actor Gwyneth Paltrow is reported to have stayed frequently at the home she used to share with musician Chris Martin, long after they broke up.
Niklas Björling says he and his ex prioritised stability for the kids when they split up (Credit: Niklas Björling)
“I think Gwyneth Paltrow’s ‘conscious uncoupling’ had a big effect here. They did a sort of modified nesting. And just the notion of divorcing with respect and more kindly, I think that had a big impact on people,” says Bushco.
Recent TV programmes may also have had an impact. US TV show Splitting Up Together depicted a family nesting by using a garage as the parents’ off-duty home, and there’s been a nesting plot in financial drama series Billions. “There's just more awareness around the fact that it is an option available to people,” adds Ben Evans, a senior family law solicitor for Coop Legal Services in south-west England.
Some couples are also drawn to nesting because it can be a more cost-effective solution, for example by cutting court fees or delaying taxes linked to house sales, according to Stephen Williams, a family law partner at another British firm, Ashtons Legal. But he believes the main driver is a more general increase in awareness about children’s mental health, which has led more parents to consider the potential of alternative custody arrangements.
“People have become far more savvy about needing to think about their children's development,” he says. “I think that is a really, really good progression, basically, because often those issues were pushed to the background, and it was the parents’ often problematic separations which came to the fore.”
Is birdnesting actually better for children?
Whatever the reasons ex-couples are getting into birdnesting, judging its effectiveness is tricky. Since it’s a fairly new trend in most places, there is no comparative data on the wellbeing of children in these kinds of families compared to other domestic set-ups.
Buscho has interviewed dozens of nesting families for her research, and did a 15-month stint of it with her ex-husband and three children in the 1990s. She strongly believes it’s healthier for children, by enabling them to retain existing routines and adapt more slowly to changes in the family. “If you ask the kids, they'll always tell you divorce is no fun. They don't know what it's like to divorce without nesting,” she says. “But what they will say is that our parents carried the burden of the divorce and we didn't have to.”
That’s a perspective shared by Linnea Andersdotter, who’s now 36. She lived in a birdnesting set-up in Stockholm for several years, after her parents separated when she was 11. “It felt like a very dramatic thing when they first let me know that they were going to split up, and when I found out I didn’t have to move, that really helped me not freak out about the situation,” she says. “I was kind of kept in a safe little bubble whilst they were sorting out the break-up thing.”
Eline Linde says that as a child she found the birdnesting experience confusing (Credit: Eline Linde)
But critics argue it can create a “halfway house” situation which doesn’t help children process the reality of their parents' separation. Eline Linde, who lived in a nesting household near Oslo when she was a teenager, says she found the experience “strange and confusing”. “I didn’t know if it was mum or dad’s house, or if they were working out if they were getting back together,” recalls the 28-year-old.
“I think we should really be careful about hyping the idea,” agrees Malin Bergström, a child psychologist and scientist at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. “This is a type of protecting children and sheltering them from reality, basically. I think that is a threat to mental health.” By contrast, she says “facing challenges together” with parents, such as moving out of the family home, can give children the tools “to become a resilient adult who can handle things in future”.
Bergström also casts doubt on the assumption that birdnesting is less stressful for children than commuting between two parental homes. She was involved in several large studies by Centre for Health Equity Studies in Stockholm, which suggested there was very little difference in the mental health of children in typical joint custody arrangements, compared with those who lived in a traditional nuclear family with two parents.
What about the impact on parents?
The impact of birdnesting on parents is also disputed. Family-law solicitor Ben Evans believes it works for some couples because it can help “buy them a bit of time and ease the pressure on them”. Both parties can mull over future steps, he argues, and avoid knee-jerk or costly decisions. Buscho says a nesting period also provides “breathing space” to help former partners figure out what they want their long-term co-parenting plan to look like, or could even facilitate a reconciliation.
You're stuck in some kind of bubble or something, you cannot do anything, you cannot go forward – Åse Levin
But Bergström argues that nesting can have a negative psychological impact on divorced parents, by stalling their ability to get over the break-up. “The natural urge after a divorce as a parent is to create your own life, to cope, to move on,” she argues. “And I think that birdnesting works against that urge.”
Åse Levin, a 50-year-old graphic designer from Stockholm, says that happened to her when she tried nesting for six months after she and her partner split. The pair bounced between the same one-bedroom rental when they were away from their two kids. “I know that both of us had real anxiety being in that apartment... you didn’t have your things, so it wasn’t a cosy place to go to,” she recalls. “You're stuck in some kind of bubble or something, you cannot do anything. You cannot go forward.” In the end, her partner stayed in their old apartment and her father helped her buy a small place within walking distance.
While nesting may cut down on changes in children’s lives, it also creates fresh logistical challenges for the adults, from figuring out new routines for household chores to navigating what happens if someone starts dating. “A client came home and found a used condom in the bedroom when she came on duty. That didn't go so well,” says Buscho. “There need to be very spelled-out agreements.”
Bodil Schwinn says birdnesting is working well for her and her former partner (Credit: Bodil Schwinn)
“You need to have a good relationship with your ex,” agrees Bodil Schwinn, from Sollentuna, Sweden, who says she’s enjoyed nesting for two years and is planning to maintain the arrangement for at least another 18 months. She and her former partner split the cost of a cleaner for the family home and restock the fridge on an ad-hoc basis. “We never discuss things like, ‘you bought meat’ or ‘you ate my meat or my cheese’, we just deal with it,” says Schwinn. She did draw the line at her ex’s new girlfriend sleeping in their shared bi-weekly bed, so they agreed to convert their home office into a new bedroom. “A lot of people think this is really weird, but I am fine with it. I'm just happy he's happy, and he found someone.”
The future of nesting
Family lawyer Stephen Williams believes that birdnesting isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, and says newly separated parents shouldn’t feel pressured to jump on the bandwagon. For a start, some couples will lack the financial resources or support networks to find alternative accommodation during ‘off-duty’ time. He also says it won’t be the right option if there’s still a high level of conflict, if one of the parents can’t commit to the arrangement or if it simply doesn’t feel like the right fit. “The way I see it is that birdnesting is just one of a number of positive interventions which might assist parents in caring for their children post-separation,” he says.
But supporters of the nesting trend hope it will become more commonplace. Buscho points out that co-parenting between divorced parents seemed radical in the 1950s but is now widely accepted as a positive option for many families, so observers shouldn’t dismiss birdnesting taking off, even if it currently seems like a niche idea. “My hope is that in the future, as the awareness grows of nesting, that it will become routine, that people will start their separation process with a nesting period of some months or even longer.”
In Stockholm, Niklas Björling is enjoying a new chapter in a small rental apartment a short drive from his ex-partner, which he shares with his children every other week, and with his new girlfriend when they’re not around. Reflecting back on his nesting experience he says, “I don’t regret doing it... But you want to get fully free after a while.”