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The New Custody Agreement: The Kids Stay in the Home; the Parents Trek Back and Forth

For all the ways divorce is hell on wheels for adults, even when it’s relatively amicable and necessary and ultimately positive, children often take the hardest hit, at least initially. It’s not just the emotional upheaval of watching parents split — the logistics are terrible, too. Now there’s not only two of everything, but with it comes the fresh burden of keeping track of not just homework and school projects, but whether there are enough jackets, underwear and socks at both houses at any given time. Enter nesting, a creative custody solution where the children remain in the family home, but the parents move in and out on a rotation to care for them. Writing at The New York Times of her family’s arrangement, Beth Behrendt calls it “not easy,” but says it has worked for them going on three years now.

Behrendt writes:

In our case, my ex and I each have our own apartments where we live when we’re not in the house with the boys. We switch into the house on Wednesday mornings and Saturday evenings. The boys and all their stuff — clothing, homework, sports gear, musical instruments, and piles of beloved childhood detritus in their rooms — stay put.

Behrendt notes that nesting appeared on the scene about a decade ago, according to Anita Ventrelli of the American Bar Association, but no one has any idea how popular it is. It’s nothing a family courts judge would dictate that parents do, and is usually considered a temporary solution negotiated off the books of a marital separation agreement. But it’s the sort of thing a divorcing couple might come up with in mediation if the biggest concern they have is the disruption to the child’s life from being shuttled back and forth between two homes.

It’s kind of a brilliant idea because it truly puts the children’s well-being first. Studies on divorce show that most kids (minus a quarter, who don’t fare so well) are as well-adjusted as those with intact families three years after the fact, but the three years are absolutely crucial. Most experts tend to agree that divorce can be a non-horrible thing if two criteria are met: It’s as amicable as possible, with the least disruption possible to the child’s life, routine and well-being.

Nesting nails both these criteria: It’s arguably highly amicable. The stories of divorcing couples who try nesting read like reasonable and sane people whose relationships just didn’t work out. They feel bad, it was hard, but they want most of all for their kids to be okay. These are not the crazy vindictive people whose divorce stories read like terrible Lifetime movie plots, people who need restraining orders just to drop their kids off at school, or legal help just to negotiate shared refrigerator space.

It’s also minimally disruptive to children. Kids keep all the comforts of the family home, from their stuff and nearby friends and routines, to the school zone and favorite restaurants, parks or whatever nearby amenities they associate with their lives. They know their parents have split, but the transition allows them to feel like, as Behrendt explained to her children, dad is just on a work trip or mom is visiting friends. Things remain a lot the same, insomuch as they possibly can, given that every other aspect of the child’s family life will be changing dramatically.

A third benefit is that it’s also hardest logistically for the parents, which is exactly as it should be. It’s telling that Behrendt describes one of the downsides — among how painful it can be to keep “sharing” the family home with the ex — as the hassle of having to keep track of her own stuff between the house and her apartment. But if all divorcing parents, particularly the really contentious ones, were forced to undergo a trial run like this — where the burden of two of everything fell entirely on them, not their child — it would probably radically reshift the focus of divorce.

That said, it’s not going to be for everyone. Some breakups require a lot more distance. Behrendt asks Ventrelli what, if any, considerations a divorcing couple should have in considering the nesting option. Ventrelli offers three questions you should ask yourself:

“Is this something my ex and I can both agree to do? Can we each find somewhere else to live when not in the nest? Can we work together to share and care for the nest?” If you can’t say “yes” to all of these, Ms. Ventrelli cautions, “You may find challenges of nesting make it unsustainable, though it could serve as a short-term solution until the divorce is settled.”

Of course, it’s also not for everyone because we can’t all knock out three rents every month. It’s a complete impossibility if you’re struggling to make ends meet. It’s maybe possible if you’re middle class and both of you can find and are okay with a studio apartment while still holding down that third, likely much bigger, rent or mortgage.

If you’re wealthy and money is no object, it’s probably a dream. Behrendt doesn’t state her income or her husband’s — her bio lists her as a freelance writer working on a book. But it’s likely that this lovely, kind solution is out of reach for most divorcing people. It’s a shame, because it’s progressive and kid-compassionate in almost every other way that matters, if you can afford it.