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Nesting: A New Kind of Shared Custody

doll house “A Bird came down the Walk—
He did not know I saw—
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw….”

–Emily Dickinson

Of all the things my ex-husband and I disagreed about, custody was never one of them.  (Our divorce agreement is quite vague on the topic, actually.  We did that on purpose.  We trusted–still trust–each other, at least as far as the kids are concerned.  And though it drives my mother nuts–she was a Legal Aid lawyer for years, and handled many a separation agreement–I still think it’s okay that we don’t have our parenting plan (that’s nouveau-divorce-speak for custody) spelled out in a court-enforceable document.)

But let me tell you what we are presently doing, and what we originally did.

When we first separated, the kids were twelve and five.  Seventh grade and kindergarten.  My ex-husband, who was originally opposed to the separation (I am mincing words, but this is a topic for another time), did not want to move out of the house.  “If you want to get divorced so badly, you fucking move out,” was rather frequently bandied about in those lovely final days. I had been sleeping in the guest room for two months by that point, but we were somehow convinced the kids still hadn’t realized that anything was amiss.  (I now believe we were fools. In our defense, however, we had always had rather flexible sleeping arrangements–kids would often crawl into the bed, and whichever adult got tired of elbows to the face might eventually crawl out.  Sometimes I would have deadlines that required me to stay up very late, so the sight of Daddy alone in the marital bed, to a kid looking to crawl in in the middle of the night, wasn’t entirely unfamiliar.  Sometimes my husband snored, or I couldn’t sleep, and I’d decamp to the guest room for the duration. Sometimes we both slept down there, because it was warmer.  So we told ourselves they wouldn’t notice, really, if we slept in separate rooms, on separate floors, while we tried to figure out the next step. There seemed to be no alternative.

For weeks, I desperately begged my husband to move out, and he stubbornly resisted. I would happily have been the one to pull up stakes, but I couldn’t fathom leaving without the kids, and I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the logistics of taking them along.  It seemed absurd, I told my husband, for him to stay in our enormous house with its enormous yard while we three decamped to an apartment–especially since he was at work all day.  Besides, I reminded him, I had been at home with them since day one.  (Our elder son was born when we were both still in graduate school, and I all but dropped out to take care of him.  My choice.  I was besotted, and delighted to be able to stay home.  Thus a pattern was set that prevailed for the rest of the marriage.)

He wouldn’t budge.

And though I wanted badly to be enlightened, I couldn’t envision changing the rules this late in the game.  I’d always taken care of the kids, and always would.  Look, we don’t want to shatter their entire world, if we can avoid it, I told my husband. Therefore, I should be at home when they got home from school, just like always.  I should be home on sick days and snow days and half days and vacations, just like always.  They should come home, if possible, both to their house and to me in it, just like always.  And you can’t quit your job, and don’t want to, I told him.  It makes the most sense for me to stay in the house.

No, no, no, my husband insisted.  I refuse to be a Weekend Dad.  I’ll stay in the house.  You move out.  But I’m not letting you take the children.

It is, of course, a commonplace that reality often diverges from ideology.  Still, I’d aimed for a more enlightened solution:  I did not want my husband to be a Weekend Dad, either.  But what alternative did we have?  Let’s face it: “My parents split up when I was five, and I still saw my dad as much as possible,”  and “My mother moved out when I was five,” are fundamentally different stories.  The second version, to me, was the epitome of unthinkable.  I could not move out when my children were twelve and five–I was their mother! And just like that, sexism reared its inevitable head.

(Of course, looking back, it occurs to me that my ex-husband was, in a way, always a Weekend Dad.  Though he often worked on weekends.  This is just the way things play out, if one parent has a full time job and the other does not.  But my husband chafed at the suggestion that he was a parent of secondary importance, just as I would have chafed had someone dismissed me as “just a housewife.”)

So we were stuck.  It was the most desperate I’ve ever felt in my life.  Looking back, I’m sure it was the most desperate my ex-husband had ever felt.  He was, he thought, going to be pushed out into some dismal apartment somewhere, while I took his kids, his dog, his house, his life.  He was having none of it.

Until one day, out of the blue, he came straight home from the shrink we were both seeing and said he would.  I still have no idea what she said to make him change his mind.

There’s a name for the scheme I proposed and he agreed to, though neither of us knew it at the time.  It’s called bird-nesting.  Effectively, it awards custody of the house to the children themselves, while their flighty parents come and go.  Ours worked like this:  every other day, after he got home from work, my husband would come to the house and I would leave.  He would put the children to bed and sleep there all night.  Meanwhile, in a small and most un-dismal two bedroom apartment a half mile across town, I would sleep alone.  The next morning I would get up and come home before the kids left for school, and my husband would go to work.  That night he’d sleep in the apartment, and I’d get the kids supper and get them to bed and off to school in the morning.  We’d trade weekends at home for weekends in the apartment.

It wasn’t precisely fair–I saw the kids every day, while he saw them every other day– but it was the best we could do. Of course we couldn’t afford it, but we forbade ourselves to think about that, and dug deeper into our home equity loan.  Eventually we both came to hate the arrangement, for different reasons.  But it split the guilt of leaving evenly down the middle, which was, it turned out, worth everything in the end–it took the sting out of abandonment. Either we both walked out on our marriage, our house and our children, or neither of us did. So we swallowed our misgivings, doubled our living expenses, and muddled along, for a while.

photo: iStockphoto.com/ericsphotography

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