One of the most unsettling aspects of divorce for children is that their home environment is disrupted. The new living arrangements often mean they shuttle between two homes – mum’s and dad’s.
Even if one parent – often the mother – remains at the marital property, the children will probably spend at least every other weekend at their father’s new place, and thus the continuity they previously enjoyed is lost.
Cases where the marital home has to be sold as part of the divorce settlement and both parents need to find new abodes can be particularly distressing for children, as they may feel there is nowhere truly to call ‘home’.
Now the Americans have come up with a novel idea to minimise the upheaval for children: give the kids the house! This ‘bird’s nest’ custody arrangement – which is starting to be adopted in the UK – involves the children staying in the family home and the parents taking it in turns to live there to look after them.
Not only is this likely to be greatly beneficial to the children’s emotional wellbeing, it can also be financially beneficial for their parents, for it means some couples won’t need to sell the marital property because they will only require a pied-à-terre for when they are not living in the family home rather than having to pay for and maintain another child-friendly residence.
‘Rather than making your children recreate their lives in two places, it’s the parents who take the logistical hit so the whole family doesn’t bleed out financially,’ says US mother-of-two Tara Averill, quoted in The Times. She and her ex-husband decided on this approach when they split up, taking turns to live in a furnished studio apartment so that their young children didn’t have to leave the family’s Brooklyn townhouse. ‘Each of us would keep enough clothes in the nesting apartment for a couple of days and we’d have a cleaning person come in and tidy up before the other one took over. It became a pied-à-terre. We stayed out of each other’s lives. It was “don’t ask, don’t tell”,’ she explains.
Of course, such an arrangement isn’t always workable: for example, if one parent moves away from the area or intends to live with a new partner, or if there is a great deal of animosity between the couple.
If, however, as we constantly stress to our clients, children should always be the primary consideration in divorce settlements, this New York-style custody solution could help greatly to reduce their dislocation.