Written Exclusively for It's Over Easy by Ann Gold Buscho, Ph.D.
When COVID-19 began and we all were in quarantine the first time around, most people expected that this disruption would be over in a few weeks.
Many of my clients had been contemplating a separation or divorce. Janet and Jared (not their real names) had been searching for a second apartment, and the timing of the pandemic could not have been worse for them.
Suddenly they were caught in a “shelter in place” mandate, discovering that the courts were closed and that pursuing a traditional divorce was not an option, at least not for a while.
Janet and Jared, like many others, were already in a distressed marriage, and all the “togetherness” of the quarantine was the final straw. But they had to figure out a way to continue to share their home.
I also divorced 25 years ago and experienced the emotional upheaval of divorce. At that time our couples therapist suggested that we “nest” which allowed our three kids to stay in the home, while my ex and I rotated in and out of our home, on- and off-duty.
We found that we had to figure out how to nest at a time when we could barely communicate, and, making many mistakes, we learned some hard lessons about how to nest successfully.
Since there is no guidebook to nesting, I wrote The Parent’s Guide to Birdnesting: A Child-Centered Solution to Co-Parenting During Separation and Divorce.
I am a psychologist and divorce coach in California. As a result of the damage caused to children by high-conflict or litigated divorces, I only work with families that are committed to either an online divorce, or the private divorce process, and who agree not to pursue litigation or court.
While I have been an advocate for nesting for the past 25 years, COVID-19 has presented new challenges as some families are forced to nest.
The silver lining is that nesting has many benefits that can be cultivated, even in a forced nesting period such as the pandemic. For the past six months that has been the focus of my work.
Most people have not heard of nesting. My life’s goal is to make nesting the “norm” when parents decide to separate. So what is nesting? Nesting is a usually temporary, structured arrangement to keep the family as stable as possible during a time of life crisis.
With an agreed-upon schedule, one parent is always on-duty, and the other is off-duty. The on-duty parent has full responsibility for the children and the home.
The off-duty parent steps back and turns over all care to the other parent. Successful nesting depends on clear, written agreements at a time when there may be very little trust in the relationship.
These agreements include expectations around parenting, privacy, caring for the home, budgets, sharing time with the children, communication, decision-making, boundaries, how nesting will end, and many other issues. Keeping agreements helps to rebuild the trust and respect so critical to healthy co-parenting.
One of the first issues to address is where the off-duty parent will go. During the pandemic, my clients are sectioning off a room for each of them.
Later they will decide whether to rent another apartment, a room in a shared rental, or stay with a friend or family member when off-duty. In the past, some of my clients remodeled attics, went to the office and slept on a fold-out sofa, or rented from Airbnb.
The next issue parents need to address is their schedule, tailoring it to their work schedules, their children’s ages, and needs, and allowing for both predictability and flexibility.
A predictable schedule is stabilizing for the family, and some flexibility is often necessary for unusual circumstances such as work travel.
Then parents, who now as co-parents may call themselves “apartners,” need to consider the issue of finances, how bills will be paid, and what is affordable. Will they establish a joint “nesting fund” to support the expenses of the home and the children? They will likely need to make a budget to see what is realistic for them.
Why am I so supportive of nesting? First, it keeps the children’s routines stable. They stay in the family home and adjust to having one parent at a time.
With minimal disruption to their lives, they feel safe and well-loved. They may also feel relief when their parents’ conflict ends.
Research has shown that minimizing parental conflict is the best predictor of your children’s future health and well-being, their success in school, relationships, and self-esteem.
With the reduced stress and the security of their parents’ cooperative parenting, they can maintain or strengthen a secure attachment to both parents.
Nesting also gives parents a break from the tension or conflict between them. This respite gives parents time to think through the options of separating, divorcing, or reconciling.
Parents may decide to work in couples therapy to decide their next steps. Nesting gives parents time to process the intense and inevitable emotions, such as fear, guilt, anger, and grief that are often present in any divorce even an uncontested divorce in which both parties agree to the terms of the settlement.
When people address their emotions first, often with help from their family, friends, or therapists, the divorce process will go much more smoothly. Nesting also helps parents transition into their new roles as single co-parents, an adjustment that takes many months.
Nesting also helps parents create a new, respectful relationship as co-parents, as “apartners.” Finally, nesting will help you understand your children’s experience of moving back and forth, should you move to two homes in the future.
Who should nest?
I have never met parents who did not agree that they wanted their children safe, secure, and happy, even if they don’t agree on many other things.
When parents can reduce their conflict and set aside their own emotions and prioritize their children, nesting can be very successful.
A self-assessment is included in the book to help parents decide if nesting is a good option for their family. Nesting is a good option when both parents have been involved in parenting, and if there is no history of intimate partner violence or coercion, and no untreated addiction or mental illness that impairs the ability to parent.
Nesting is not for everyone, and if you feel you cannot keep agreements or trust your co-parent to keep theirs, nesting might not work for you.
My clients, the reluctant nesting families caught by COVID, have appreciated the opportunity to nest. It has allowed them the respite and separation they need by establishing a schedule, separate rooms, and a clear understanding of expectations.
We used the Nesting Agreement Worksheet in my book to structure their discussions and decisions. The emotions of the initial period have calmed and they are preparing to make the decision about how they will move forward.
Most people nest until some milestone is reached, such as a decision to reconcile, finalizing the divorce, the need to sell the family home, the children’s graduations, or when one has a new committed long-term relationship.
Although nesting is usually temporary during a difficult transition in the family, some families nest for many months or years. I interviewed a family of five that nested for 6.5 years.
The now-adult children told me of their gratitude that their parents carried the entire burden of the divorce and allowed them to continue to be kids.
My ex and I nested for 15 months until our divorce was final and we knew where we each stood financially. By that time we were experienced solo parents, our children were thriving, and our family was then restructured under two roofs.
Imagine that years from now your children are talking to their friends about their parents’ divorce.
What is the story that you hope they will tell? That they felt safe, secure, and loved by both parents? That their parents were able to work together respectfully, that they could both participate in important events in their lives such as graduations and weddings?
That story is being created now, and you, as parents, have a lot of influence over how that narrative is shaped. The story you want your kids to carry should guide all of your decisions as you move through this difficult time in your life.
Nesting is one way to begin to shape a story of the divorce that is healthy, nurturing, and supportive.
One of the most important decisions you will make is how you will divorce. Mediation, Collaborative Divorce, and uncontested divorce are processes that keep you out of court and that will keep your divorce private and respectful.
In California, the default process is litigation (court-involved), but it does not have to be that way. As online divorce, mediation and Collaborative Divorce are becoming more mainstream, I hope that these, like nesting, will become the norm.
About the Author
Ann Gold Buscho, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in family issues and issues related to divorce, parenting, parenting planning, and coparenting counseling. She has professional and personal experience in nesting, coparenting, step-parenting, and single-parenting issues. She works closely with family law professionals to help clients resolve their divorce privately and respectfully. She presents widely at state and national conferences for lawyers, mental health and financial experts on Collaborative Divorce, forgiveness practices, nesting during divorce, and consensual dispute resolution. She co-founded a treatment program for emergency responders where she volunteers regularly. Her husband is a retired police office and psychologist. When not at work, she enjoys her children, grandchildren, hiking, and writing her next book. The Parent’s Guide to Birdnesting is Dr. Buscho’s first book.
© Ann Buscho, Ph.D. 2020