Separated but living under one roof — for now
Jennifer Worden, 34, lives with her husband and son in Arlington. By all appearances, they're a typical family: Mom and dad take turns shuttling their 5-year-old to school, they alternate bedtime routines, and each tries to give the other free nights to socialize with friends. They're both frustrated by the housing market, and they'd love to find a bigger place. Just one detail: They're separated.
Worden and her husband have grown apart, but they didn't want to disrupt their young son's life. So they opted to rent a three-bedroom home where husband, wife, and child each have their own room.
"We didn't want to ruin his perfect little suburban childhood right before he started kindergarten," says Worden. "Plus, it makes sense in the current economy."
Their living situation has grown common enough that it has got a name, "nesting." And Worden crystallizes two of its major draws: consistency for the children and a measure of economic stability for grown-ups.
The arrangement has various permutations, but essentially a separating couple retains their primary home for the benefit of kids, who can maintain familiarities like bedrooms, neighborhoods, and schools. Spouses either continue to live in the home, in separate spaces, or they alternate living in another shared space during off time. This way, instead of establishing two new homes, they're only investing in one. For some modern couples, nesting offers the perks of separation without major financial duress and transition.
Dr. Karen Ruskin, a South Shore marriage and family therapist and author of "9 Key Techniques for Raising Respectful Children Who Make Responsible Choices," says that nesting has come to prominence in the past two or three years.
"Our culture has played a role in the rise of the nesting trend," Ruskin says. "We're hearing the spoken or unspoken voices of our children, and ultimately their preference would be to stay in their home and not be dragged from house to house based on their parents' choice to divorce."
Dr. Susan Brown, co-director of the National Center for Family & Marriage Research based at Ohio's Bowling Green State University, says the trend aligns with broader shifts in the divorce process and parenting.
"We've moved away from mothers receiving primary care following divorce; now joint custody is common," Brown says. "This is one of the ways couples have been able to successfully minimize disruption to children."
The arrangement hinges on an important point, says Brookline therapist Elliott Kronenfeld, who sees nesters in his practice. "The core concept is that parents might break up, but families do not separate," he says. "The focus is on the family and stability for the children."
It's not for everyone. Warring spouses who can't stand the sight of each other or who are entangled in affairs aren't likely candidates. But for amicable couples who maintain mutual respect, nesting can be a child-focused way to ease the myriad challenges of divorce.
Some people are nesters by default, victims of the economy. Jill Hudson Neal, 44, a Tufts graduate who's now a writer and journalist near Washington, D.C., moved in with her estranged spouse after both were laid off within weeks of each other. While halving housing expenses, there's another benefit: Each shares greater co-parenting responsibilities for their two children.
"I moved into [my ex's] rented townhouse so that the kids could continue being in one place, stay in the same school, etc.," she says. "We really did come to this conclusion because of the children."
Experts say nesting can be appealing to spouses loath to cede parenting to byzantine custody arrangements. As fathers especially become more invested in hands-on childcare, the arrangement takes on greater allure.
"It usually works if couples have 50-50 custody," says Kronenfeld, who sees male clients who are also primary caregivers.
Nesting can minimize transitions for kids who might otherwise be subject to mom's parenting on weekdays and dad's on weekends — losing homework, clothes, and maybe a sense of identity in the shuffle.
"Being able to cohabitate, I get to see my kids a lot more than I would otherwise," Neal says.
Tom Denton, director of guidance at the Needham Public Schools, thinks that is nesting's biggest benefit.
"The best thing [divorcing parents] can do for their child is to minimize the disruption to their life," he says. Which, he admits, can be easier said than done. "It requires a tremendous amount of cooperation and collaboration between two people who have not been able to work out certain differences, which is why they're getting divorced."
Ground rules are crucial, nesters say. Parenting styles aside, potential pitfalls — clandestine trysts with new paramours, arguments over bills — can be avoided with clear parameters.
Neal likens it to a business arrangement that benefits the kids, with calendars and texting as crucial allies. "Think of it as a business partner and a business arrangement. Be honest with scheduling," Neal says.
She and her ex rely on texting to coordinate childcare hand-offs. Both freely share their calendars, give the other parent space when need be, and neither is allowed to bring dates to the shared home if kids are there. The result can be liberating.
"These days, I check in as a partner," she says. "But I'm not looking for approval."
Worden and her ex do their own laundry and alternate grocery runs. "It's almost like a house share," she says. Both couples leave leftovers for one another and sometimes eat together if their schedules coincide. And they occasionally pass in the hallway, like roommates who once shared something special.
To this end, nesting is easier when there's no hope of reuniting — and when that's clear to family and friends who might hold out false hope.
"I get the impression that people think we won't really separate," Worden says. "Some older members of my family will say, 'Any changes at home?' " The answer, she says, is always no.
Still, at its best, nesting is a short-term fix. Eventually, a new relationship might evolve, making such a set-up rather awkward. And the longer such an arrangement lasts, the easier it could be to resume bad marriage patterns. (Both Neal and Worden plan to make changes in the near term.)
Brookline resident Delia Hom, 35, and her ex-husband nested for a few months while he looked for new housing. She knew it was short-term from the start. "My advice is to know what you really want. This isn't the time to be conciliatory. You need to know what you think is the best thing for you and your children," she says. "Emotionally, you need to be done."
Barbara Kellman, a Boston-area mediator, underscores the point. No matter the arrangement, "What matters most is if parents can get along well enough to co-parent," she says. "If nesting can make that happen for your particular family, then go for it." But ask yourself: "How will you continue to feel when it's your ex who's leaving socks on the floor?"