The secret to a happy divorce is three homes

The secret to a happy divorce? THREE homes: Forget shuttling the children between Mum and Dad. The new uncoupling trend is to give the kids their own house, while you and your ex take it in turns to be the live-in parent

  • The new trend sees one central family home (the nest) where the children stay
  • Parents then live in their other, separate homes when it is is not their turn 
  • It proved successful for Toby Hazlewood and Kate Jury who separated in 2005

Divorce is generally considered the death knell for happy family life. A ‘broken home’ often proves the most accurate description, with parents decamping to separate households and children left to shuttle between them.

But with divorce now the likely fate of 42 per cent of couples, almost half of whom have children under 16, times may be changing. For those who manage to emerge amicably from their split are turning to ‘bird’s nest’ parenting.

Here, rather than shifting the children between homes — with the inconsistency that brings — there remains one central family home (the nest) where the children stay, which parents take turns to move into. Parents live in their other, separate homes when it’s not their turn.

It’s an expensive approach, and can only work when both parents can commit to full-time parenting for half the time.

Toby Hazlewood, 43, and Kate Jury, 45, who separated in 2005 and divorced in 2007, have said bird-nesting has worked for them and their daughters Lowry, 19, and Erica, 15 (pictured together)

New partners, work and socialising automatically come second. But when bird-nesting works, anecdotal evidence suggests children grow up happier and with a much stronger relationship with both parents.

When my first husband and I split, back in 1995, our son was two. We cobbled together a reasonable access arrangement amid the wreckage, and stuck to it over the years. 

But for our son it involved a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing, two bedrooms, left-behind schoolwork, a second Christmas Day on Boxing Day, and plenty of time stuck in the car on gridlocked motorways.

If we’d had the maturity — or the money — to try bird-nesting, I can’t help but think it would have offered some vital stability. Unlike most post-divorce scenarios, this novel approach is entirely focused on the children’s needs.

It has certainly proved a success for Toby Hazlewood, 43, and Kate Jury, 45, who separated in 2005 and divorced in 2007. 

Their two daughters, Lowry, 19, and Erica, 15, live in a smart, three-bedroom apartment in South Manchester that their parents rent for around £1,000 a month. Every Monday, Toby and Kate take it in turns to arrive and parent for a week.

It would be easy to assume both are single, with few other commitments, but in fact they have both remarried.

On her ‘off’ weeks Kate lives 75 miles away in Cumbria with husband John, while Toby has a home 32 miles in the other direction, in Staffordshire, with second wife Sally and her children from a previous marriage, Jacob, 14, and Ruby, 11.

Kate, a healthcare governance consultant, works full-time — albeit with a lot of flexibility — and Toby works mainly from home as a cyber-security project manager. How on earth can bird-nesting function with this many conflicting demands?

Not easily, they admit, sitting at the kitchen table with Lowry and Erica. But, somehow, it does.

‘When we broke up, we were 29 and 31, so still quite young,’ explains Toby. ‘There was no catastrophic event, our marriage just came to a natural conclusion. We were resolved that we both wanted to be actively involved in the girls’ childhoods.’

At first, the split was more conventional. Toby took a job in London, and visited at weekends. The girls were only five and two.

‘It was a lot of motorway driving,’ he says. ‘After about a year, Kate proposed the idea of equal co-parenting. I was fed up with living so far away, and we’d both gone through the inevitable healing you have to do after a divorce.’

Back then, they maintained separate houses in Sale, a leafy satellite town near Manchester, close to the girls’ school.

 With 42 per cent of couples likely to divorce, those who can financially afford it are turning to to ‘bird’s nest’ parenting. (File photo) 

‘I know a lot of couples do co-parent, but they do it on a slightly more flexible basis,’ says Kate. ‘It’s three days here, four days there, every other weekend… but I hated that idea because I believe children need predictability.

‘So we divided it into one week on, one week off, at each home. Monday was always our handover day and the girls have had complete consistency ever since.’

But three years ago, long after both had remarried, Kate realised life would be much easier with a central hub, or nest, because as the girls got older, their school and social commitments made it harder to switch houses.

‘We’d been doing 50-50 for years,’ says Kate, ‘but we got the flat after conversations about how it would be easier if we just had one place for the girls.’ Their new partners, John and Sally, agreed.

‘Between marriages, I’d had a few relationships, including one which jeopardised my relationship with Kate,’ says Toby.

‘After that, I was even more determined to put the girls’ needs first. Sally totally supports that. She was very happy about it, as it made life easier, and it was partly John’s idea in the first place,’ explains Toby.

When the children were smaller, going a week without seeing them must have been tough. ‘I missed them terribly,’ admits Kate. ‘But it was never about me. It was 100 per cent about my daughters’ happiness and their relationship with their dad.

‘I’ve never had any concerns about Toby’s parenting. He’s more organised than I am. When the girls were babies, he did the night feeds. I still trust him totally.’

Kate adds that, if the girls need the other parent when it’s not their week, ‘there would never be anything to prevent me popping in. But I wouldn’t just turn up.

‘We are divorced; this is definitely not a ‘let yourself in, make yourself a cup of tea’ situation.’ They can even go months without seeing each other, as one often arrives after the other has left.

While the girls have all their things around them permanently, Toby and Kate live out of a suitcase during their weeks with their daughters. ‘On a Monday morning I’ll strip the bedding and put it in my side of the wardrobe, then Kate arrives and puts hers on,’ explains Toby. ‘I arrive with my groceries. Kate does the same.’

It’s a case of treating the place like a hotel. ‘We always do a clean-up on Sunday so it’s ready for the other person,’ adds Toby.

They don’t leave anything behind, either. ‘I think you once left some hotpot in the fridge,’ jokes Toby. So far, so jolly.

But there are downsides. The flat is determinedly neutral, with white walls. The only decorations in the shared spaces are photos of the girls as babies.

‘You could get into a world of pain around territorialism,’ says Kate. ‘So we keep it really hotel-like. Both Toby and I would say this isn’t our taste, and my house is utterly different — full of antiques and dark colours.’

As the girls get older, the shared spaces become less shared, says Toby, with some sadness. ‘Their rooms are where they spend most of their time now. I’m alone in the lounge of an evening, wondering what it’s all about!’ he laughs.

‘But there are negatives,’ Kate notes. ‘For me, it’s the soul-destroying drudgery of living out of a large black suitcase.’

The approach is and can only work when both parents can commit to full-time parenting for half the time. (File photo)

Shifting house rules are an issue, too. While both parents agree on the fundamentals, such as commitment to schoolwork, and politeness, they do prescribe different rules. Kate forbids chewing gum, for example.

‘There are differences between us,’ says Toby. ‘I’m the uptight authoritarian, who wants everything done a certain way. Kate’s much more relaxed. I tend to cook boring staples, and she’s more adventurous.’

But when there are clashes, or if the girls ever tried to play them off against each other, Kate says: ‘We would phone each other and discuss it. There is no doubt, we have had fractious conversations over the years, but we always calm down and find a solution.’

Nowadays, Kate adds, she and Sally get on so well, she’ll sometimes call her for advice, and Toby and John get on, too.

Flexibility has been another casualty of their set-in-stone Monday arrangement. ‘We would never swap weeks because that mucks diaries up — planning is vital. And we also prioritise the fact your week belongs to the girls, not you,’ says Kate.

Unlike many parents of teens, in ‘her’ week, she doesn’t go out to see friends. ‘There have been many occasions when I’ve turned down nights out, because this is my time with the girls.’

Yet Kate feels strongly that the week-on/week-off arrangement has helped her career. ‘When we split up, I had a career I wanted to get off the ground and that was part of my thinking, that we should try to support each other in developing our careers and not have one person take the burden of the responsibility of childcare.

‘My job quickly involved a lot of travelling, but I’ve been so lucky, as a consultant, to be able to plan my diary around the girls.’ Both accept that if their new marriages had produced children then bird-nesting might not have been feasible. ‘If you threw in another set of children, that would be so complicated,’ says Kate.

Toby agrees. ‘Our partners didn’t want more children, luckily, and nor did we. I can’t see how it would work otherwise.’

Financially, they share the rent, and if a daughter needs a new uniform or PE kit, ‘whoever’s on that week will buy it, or we’ll settle up later’, says Toby. ‘People probably think, ‘It’s all right if you’re loaded’. But we’re not.

‘We both work full-time, and it’s about where you choose to apportion money. For now, this is our priority.’

As far as extra costs go, Toby explains that, having run two wholly separate single-person households before they moved in with their current partners, this arrangement is more affordable.

‘The flat comes out of our joint marital budgets; I contribute to my home with Sally and she contributes to this. I assume Kate and John are similar.’

And the girls themselves — who have admirably failed to roll their eyes at anything their parents have said — agree this way of living works.

‘I don’t really remember them being together,’ says Lowry, who’s in her second year of studying art history in Holland, but comes back in the university holidays.

‘I only realised it wasn’t a conventional set-up when my friends started to say, ‘Oh, that’s weird…’ I realise that not everyone does it, but it worked for us.’

Erica, now in her GCSE year, loves the fact that all her things are in one place. ‘Both of us found it frustrating organising to pick up something if you’d left it at Mum’s, then you’re at Dad’s.

‘Their other houses are our homes too, and we do go there sometimes, but it’s nice this can be our main one, and we know there’s always a parent here.’

As for rules, Lowry says: ‘They’re not massively different. Though Mum lets us eat on the couch, and Dad won’t! The only downside when we were younger was missing the other parent sometimes. But I think it’s made us resilient.’

When Toby is in charge, Erica says, ‘we’ll go for walks and do family stuff’, and ‘see [step-siblings] Jake and Ruby’, to whom the sisters are close. ‘With Mum, it’s a bit more grown-up —galleries or shopping.’

They appreciate the effort their parents have made to put them at the centre of all their decisions. ‘Even though they’re not a couple, we’re still a family,’ says Erica.

Kate admits it’s not for everyone. ‘I’m sure people wonder: ‘What kind of mother doesn’t see her children for a week at a time?’

Plus, you must have a unique set of circumstances. You need jobs that would enable this, spouses that would be OK with it, the financial envelope to be able to do this — it’s no small undertaking.’

But looking at the four of them together in their very unusual ‘nest’, it seems a pretty effective way of avoiding the rupture of a divorce. ‘Lowry!’ says Kate, as they get ready for the photograph. ‘Is that chewing gum?’

‘Oh yeah,’ says Lowry. ‘Sorry. I forgot it was your week.’ And all four of them burst out laughing.

Visit Toby’s parenting blog at tobyhazlewood.com

 

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