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Dismantling the Marriage But Not the House

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On my first date with the man I've been seeing for more than a year now, we did the usual swapping of information about ourselves, our kids, our work, our homes. Then something happened to give me pause. When the topic of his piano came up, Bob referred to the instrument as "our" piano, which is surrounded by bookshelves "we" modified to fit the piano after "we" bought "our" house.

His description of some ad hoc remodeling left me flummoxed. Who was this "we"? Had I missed a crucial piece of data during the "I have a friend you'll like" setup call? Was I out on a date with a man who was happily partnered up?

Sensing my confusion, Bob explained that he and his ex-wife do something called "bird nesting," an aptly named arrangement where the kids stay in the house and the parents rotate in and out. The goal is to create stability for the kids.

I had never heard of bird nesting, and although Bob's explanation was clear enough, I had trouble getting my mind around it at first. Did that mean they both lived there? If I ever came over and spent the night, would I walk into the kitchen the next morning to find his ex-wife padding around the kitchen in pink bunny slippers, offering me coffee?

Actually, they do both live there. They just don't live there at the same time. And the fact that I hadn't heard of bird nesting before isn't surprising. It's a rare arrangement, because it's very hard to pull off.

When Bob describes the ingredients for successful bird nesting to others, he says it requires three conditions. First, and most important, there must to be a supernatural degree of civility and cooperation between the two ex-spouses. Next, the parents have to be able to swing it financially, as they're now carrying three domiciles: his, hers, and ours. And finally, there has to be a clear end in sight. When Bob and his ex split up three years ago, their kids were edging closer to college, which made it seem doable.

Compare that to Sam, another bird nester I know whose four kids have yet to enter middle school. Sam told me he was willing to try nesting until the kids are out of high school, but his ex-wife agreed to just a year. So far, they've been at it for three months.

When Sam tells friends about his domestic arrangement, at first they say it sounds weird, but once he explains his reasons for doing it, they get it - or maybe out of politeness to Sam, they claim to get it and still think it's weird.

"Since divorce is a relatively selfish act on the part of the adults, I see this as a gift you can give to your kids," Sam told me. "The idea was to have us sacrifice instead of them."

He has a point. The grownups are the ones who mess up on the marriage thing, and they should be the ones to deal with the consequences of forgetting their phone charger.

"My kids have trouble finding their shoes in the morning," Sam said. "Imagine what it would be like if they were shuttling back and forth."

If the kids are more stable, the parents are definitely less so. Sam said the one-bedroom apartment he rents isn't really much of a home. And no matter how well you get along with your ex, that person you might once have loved and now, well, don't, is definitely more present. Sam said that when he is in the house, tangible reminders of the unhappiness that led to the split are everywhere.

It's definitely harder to establish boundaries. Unlike most divorced parents, whose interactions are confined to the topic of the kids, people still sharing a house have to talk about clogged sinks and moth infestations.

In Bob's case, his/her/their house exists in a state of suspended animation. Bob tells me it looks like the house they lived in when they were still married. The only difference is that now everybody has a separate bedroom, and he and his ex are never there on the same nights.

Michael Flannery, a professor of law at the University of Arkansas who has studied bird nesting, is skeptical. Flannery has yet to see it succeed for an extended period because of the old rancor it tends to stir. Also, he said, nesting can be confusing for kids, particularly younger children who might hold onto a false sense of hope for reunification.

I've met Bob's ex a few times, and I like her. I like her taste in books, and I like her Tupperware drawer, which looks a lot like mine. Still, as the newest addition to the scene, I'll confess to being uncomfortable when I'm over at the house, especially when I see the pre-divorce, happy-family photos scattered around. This isn't the house he once shared with his ex. It's the house he still shares with her. And that's not a place I particularly want to be.

But it's also the place where both his kids have lived since they were born, and Bob and his ex were determined to give them some continuity. That's impressive.

One of Bob's sons is already away at college, and the other, a sensitive 17-year-old, will be off to college next year. Staying put in the place he has always known has clearly been a good thing for him. The only one who seems perennially stressed out is the dog. Never sure who will be walking in the door next, he just barks at everyone.

So routinely does their shared household seem to hum along that last year it caused one whopper of an awkward moment. One morning, Bob and I were in his bedroom, door closed, when we heard someone turn a key in the front door. "Uh," he murmured, "I don't think the cleaning woman knows I'm divorced." Maria, who had been cleaning the house for a decade, had no way of knowing the happy couple in the pictures she dusted were no longer a couple. Leaving me in the bedroom feeling sheepish, Bob went out to explain to her in his minimal Spanish that he and his ex were divorced but sharing the house. She looked confused, then smiled sweetly and resumed her cleaning. Now she'd seen it all.

This is the start of a regular column in this spot. I hope you'll share your own stories, questions-- and of course, your viewpoint -- via comments or email (katieh@gmail.com).