Although parents who are divorcing can rest in knowing children can recover from their parents’ divorce, it remains a potentially traumatic event for children. Parents know this, and so, of course, they will seek to minimize the effects of the breakdown of their marriage on their children. One of the latest strategies parents are using to manage the difficult transition during a divorce is called nesting.
Nesting is when the children remain in the family home and the parents alternate moving in and out, depending on the custody agreement. Rather than in a traditional arrangement, where the children are required to move between two homes, two bedrooms, and two sets of toys, this practice allows everything material to stay stable and predictable for the kids. Here, it’s the grown-ups who must adapt.
But parents need to be aware of the many hiccups that can occur when trying to nest during and after a divorce. Not only are there serious emotional issues, but there are also serious financial considerations. Especially when you consider the average divorce costs upward of $20,000.
California family-law specialist, Peter Walzer, founding partner of the Los Angeles-based law firm Walzer Melcher, advises parents to think very carefully about all post-separation arrangements and how they can impact both sides financially.
“It’s important to think about the legal consequences of a nesting agreement,” he said. “In some states, the parties may not be deemed to be separated if they are nesting. This could impact the property division and their support orders. Alimony may not be deductible if they are considered to be sharing a home, and there may be tax consequences relating to the sale of the home.”
For most ordinary families, compounding the high cost of obtaining a divorce by maintaining three homes is an unattainable fantasy.
Anne P. Mitchell, a lawyer, author and fathers’-rights activist, found that her experience of nesting evolved from an initial attempt to keep the family together. As her marriage broke down, she asked her husband not to leave but to stay in the house and sleep in different bedrooms.
“This worked very well, we were still able to co-parent very civilly, even supportively, we just weren’t husband and wife anymore,” she said.
Once her husband moved out of state, they started to practice nesting full time. Mitchell’s husband would fly in each weekend and she would move out. Mitchell believes that many parents allow their negative feelings about their ex-partner to affect the decisions they make post-divorce and that nesting can be a way to prioritize the children’s needs first.
“Children need both parents. Many divorcing spouses just want that other person out of their lives,” she said. “But that is not how it works when you have children; the other parent will always be in your life in some fashion, you will have to interact with them one way or another at least until they turn 18.”
It’s that interaction that can cause potential conflict in nesting arrangements, as far as Karina Alomar, a matrimonial lawyer in Ridgewood, N.Y., is concerned. She has found that by sharing a space, former spouses could use the family home as a battleground, and the children are inevitably the victims.
“There are issues of parents invading each other’s personal space, leaving the house in a mess for the other parent, failing to purchase their share of the groceries and/or clothes for the children, and then drawing their children into the conflict by questioning them as to what occurred while they were out of the home or pointing out the other parent’s deficiencies,” she said.
Stacy D. Phillips, celebrity divorce attorney and author, practiced nesting herself during her divorce but does not recommend it as a long-term strategy. “I am a proponent of nesting in the right circumstances,” she said. She believes that nesting can work in the short-term as a bridge between family life pre- and post-separation.
“Nesting helps children adapt to the changes in the family structure and can make this major life transition easier for everyone, but only if the parents trust each other and can communicate amicably,” she said.
Zerline Hughes Spruill, 39, a communications consultant, practiced a version of nesting without even realizing it was a concept. After a cross-state move, the couple separated and divorced. The children’s father returned to New York City, while Hughes Spruill bought a home for her and the kids in D.C.
“He would come to D.C. (for visitations) and stay at my and the kids’ home for one or two nights,” she explained. This arrangement allowed the children and their father to spend more time together and avoided them ever having to travel to him unaccompanied. Meanwhile, Hughes Spruill found this allowed her to exercise her new freedom. “While he was there, I would stay out all night and dance, crash with a friend, and then later, with the guy I was seeing who is now my husband,” she said.
But she did experience a downside to this philosophy. Neither her nor her former husband’s new partners were enthusiastic about the situation, she said. Even though the former spouses were not sharing the home at the same time, there is an intimacy associated with inhabiting the same space and using the same amenities.
Laura England, a psychotherapist based in Ottawa, has some reservations about nesting as a trend. She outlines two key areas parents need to pay attention to during a divorce or separation: attachment and “the grief process.” She believes the consistency that nesting fans are advocating is not necessarily based on the environment the child lives in but instead on the attachment the child has to the parent.
“We are wired for struggle and in those moments reaching out to loved ones who support us and validate us is what creates resilience. Not the physical environment in which we live in,” she said.
Although it is very hard for parents to see their children emotionally impacted by their split, England warns that grief is a natural process and children will need to work through it rather than avoid it.
“I am hesitant about the intention of nesting if it is used as a way to disguise or control the natural normal feelings of grief, such as loss, sadness and anger, that come with a divorce,” she said. She worries that nesting could be an excuse by some to control and micromanage children’s reactions to the end of their parents’ marriage.
England is also concerned that nesting doesn’t allow newly divorced people to leave their past behind. “Nesting may get in the way of the couple’s ability to grieve and move on, which would also be unhealthy for a child to witness,” she said.
Fiona Tapp is a mom and freelance writer based in Ottawa. Find her at fionatapp.com.