Original Article: thetimes.co.uk
The Canadian first family is said to be trying a very modern arrangement after their split. Beth Behrendt’s family has been doing it for years.
How is my family like the Canadian prime minister’s ? Let me count the ways. Marriage ended after 18 years? Tick. Three kids? Tick. Co-parenting by keeping the children in the family home, while we take turns to move in and out? Tick. The only difference, besides the fact that we are not wealthy or world famous, is that “nesting” (as this method of post-divorce parenting is known) isn’t new to me, my ex-husband and our three sons — we’ve been at it for over nine years.
Justin Trudeau and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau’s co-parenting plans will still sound unconventional to some. After the couple announced their split last week, Canadian media reported that their children (Xavier, 15, Ella-Grace, 14, and Hadrien, 9) are staying put with their father in Rideau Cottage, their Ottawa home, while their mother has moved nearby. Then, when Justin, 51, is away on state business (as he is regularly), Sophie, 48, will move back in to take on primary parenting duties.
Whether nesting is on the rise is difficult to track, but in the UK many legal experts report that it’s becoming an increasingly common practice. Here in the American state of Indiana, I first found a mention of it in a guidebook on divorce, as our marriage moved in that direction, and the concept struck a chord. Not uprooting our young chicks — then 12, 9 and 5 — from the comfort of the family nest while we flew in and out to co-parent them was very appealing. Fortunately Bill was on board with the idea when I presented it, saying, “Why should they be the ones to suffer? They’re not the ones causing the divorce.”
We had both recognized that our marital problems were impacting our ability to parent well, despite repeated attempts at counseling over the years. We might not have been good as married people, but we hoped we could be good, even better, co- parents. The idea was that short-term nesting would offer our kids a comfortable adjustment period as we figured out what divorce would mean for all of us. Little did we know we’d find it so beneficial that we would still be sticking with it after all these years.
“Not uprooting our children from the family ‘nest’, while we flew in and out, was appealing”
The evening we sat the kids down to tell them we’d decided to divorce, I had my first indication that we’d made the right decision to try nesting. The two older boys, who had friends living in the typical back- and-forth-between-two-homes scenario, began to cry as soon as we said the D-word, but stopped as soon as we told them that they weren’t leaving their home. We would be the ones to move in and out to take care of them. “Like when Dad has gone on work trips, or Mum has gone to visit her family,” we explained, and off they went to play happily on the Xbox. Later that evening Bill and I tag-teamed bedtime, just as we had so many nights before.
Since that evening they have continued to enjoy being based in one home instead of two. They’ve slept every night in the same bedrooms, with all their treasured possessions. Their schoolwork and every- thing needed for music, sports and other extracurricular activities can always be found in the usual places. Their friends always know where to find them, and the beloved family dog is there to send them off to school every morning and greet them at the end of every day. In almost every way their lives have remained the same.
While we were glad our kids were doing well, setting up a nesting arrangement had stresses and challenges for Bill and me. One of the attractions of nesting was that it was a less expensive approach to divorce. It was cheaper to rent a small apartment nearby, furnished with a few cast-offs from the home and donations from family, than to set up another family-sized home, fully equipped for three children.
Yes, the finances were complicated, but with the help of our lawyers we agreed that Bill would take over sole ownership of the house and pay for all related expenses; I would cover the rent and bills for the apartment. We split any child-related costs, from groceries and clothes to extra- curricular activities, in percentages based on our incomes.
We agreed to a five-days-on and five- days-off schedule and treated the apart- ment that we “shared” (we were never there at the same time) like an Airbnb; expecting the sheets to be washed, kitchen cleaned and rubbish taken out before the other parent arrived. This was, at times, emotionally charged, especially if there were indications that either of us was dat- ing — two wine glasses by the kitchen sink, or unfamiliar shampoo in the shower.
At the family home Bill kept the master bedroom and bathroom. I moved into the guest suite in our basement. Neither of us had single-parented for extended periods of time before, so it was overwhelming at times and seemingly minor things could quickly turn into a big deal. Bill had never handled all the laundry generated by three kids on his own before. I was mortified to learn that on his mornings they were often pulling dirty school uniforms out of their laundry baskets to wear again. I made many of my own mistakes.
Over the years our arrangement evolved. Bill began traveling extensively for work, so we stopped sharing the apart- ment and it became completely mine, which was a liberating feeling. We ended our strict five-days-on, five-days-off schedule and (much like the Trudeaus) I just come into the family home whenever he needs to travel.
We’ve been fortunate to have supportive friends and family who helped out when they could. Potential dating partners were sometimes more of a challenge. Bill and I agreed, as soon as nesting was on the table, that the kids would not be introduced to adults we were dating, nor would they be allowed in the nest, until it had been cleared with the other parent. In retro- spect this encouraged both of us to be highly selective, which worked out pretty well. Bill remarried about a year ago and I am engaged to be married next year. Our new partners are supportive of our nesting situation and have been wonderful additions to our family.
The Trudeaus’ story gives me hope that many more families will find creative ways to co-parent after divorce. I host a private community of nesting parents on Face- book and have seen its membership more than double in the past year.
Looking back, I don’t think either of us could have predicted how much easier the arrangement would get the longer it lasted. Bill and I found our ability to communicate improved enormously once the strain of our marital issues was behind us. We enjoyed creating new traditions with our children for holidays, birthdays and other family celebrations, and our relationship is better now than it ever was when we were married.
In recent years we’ve seen our oldest off to university and a career in another state. Our middle son is getting ready to leave for university on the other side of the country in the autumn. Our youngest has high school ahead of him yet. Because we’ve done it before, I know that we will figure out together what makes sense for all of us once he flies the nest.
Beth Behrendt is the author of Nesting After Divorce: Co-Parenting in the Family Home (Union Square, £14.99) You can learn more on her website, Familynesting.org