Reconcilable Differences

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There was a time when divorce was an ugly thing that created unremitting enmity between former spouses and severed ties between fathers and children. Times have changed. Now a spate of unusually cozy celebrity splits is drawing attention to a far different set of templates for divorce.

Five years after their marriage ended amid tabloid tales of toe sucking, Britain's Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, live with their daughters, now 12 and 11, in the same 20-room manor the Queen gave the couple as a wedding present. This winter the Yorks vacationed together in Switzerland. "The welfare and lives of the children are of paramount importance," explains David Pogson, a spokesman for the Duke of York. Two years after their marriage was annulled, Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall are once again sharing meals--though not bedrooms--in Hall's home outside London. Jagger was a lousy husband, Hall says, but he remains a great father to their four children, ages 3 to 17. After singer Melissa Etheridge and filmmaker Julie Cypher separated last year, they bought back-to-back houses in Los Angeles. The children they co-parent, ages 4 and 2, move between homes every four days--and at any time in between. "They truck through the back fence. It's very fluid," says Cypher. "We don't want a child to have to get on an airplane to see the other parent."

It's not just celebrities and folks who live in mansions. Ordinary mortals too are finding novel ways to keep their families largely intact following separation or divorce. They're sharing homes, living next door to each other, vacationing together. But why on earth would ex-spouses want to remain in each other's lives in light of the troubles that estranged them? The answer is usually a combination of pressures: financial necessity, a tight real estate market, a child-care shortage and--pre-eminently--an increased awareness of children's need for both parents. As those pressures increase, some people who work with families of divorce say they are seeing a rise in the number of ex-spouses who share many aspects of married life.

Having practiced family law for 40 years, San Francisco attorney Lowell Sucherman had heard of "birdnesting," in which children continue to reside in the family home while their parents take turns moving in and out to care for them, and "doublenesting," in which ex-spouses live in separate areas of the family home. But he had never handled such a case until four years ago. Since then, he and his law partner have helped six couples set up such households. Says Sucherman: "I don't see an end here anytime soon. The more housing prices rise, the more this will happen."

It was family values, not property values, that motivated Rabbi Perry Netter and his wife Esther, a museum executive director, to begin birdnesting in 1997, when it became clear that their marriage had soured. Their three children, then ages 7 to 12, continued to live in the Netters' five-bedroom Los Angeles home. Perry and Esther rented an apartment around the corner and swapped residences every Monday. "Children need stability, and we were trying to provide that," says Perry. The arrangement cushioned the impact of the separation on the Netter children. Though only one parent lived with them at a time, "my life didn't change much," says their oldest child, Elisheva, now 15. "My parents were busy before. With birdnesting, it seemed like one was having more meetings than the other."

There were downsides, of course. Perry's and Esther's friends and colleagues had trouble finding them. Hauling a week's worth of clothes to and fro was a pain. And Esther began to long for more privacy. So when the couple decided to shift from separation to divorce after 19 months, Esther bought a condominium. She and Perry continue to share custody, but now the children must commute between her condo and their old home, where Perry is living until he can find a smaller place. Elisheva finds the constant shuttle a nuisance. "I have two boxes with CDs, books, makeup and clothes that I take back and forth," she complains. "I have five phone numbers--my line and a house line at each home, and a pager."

Even though birdnesting turned out to be temporary, Perry believes it eased the transition for everyone, including Esther and him. "It was more important to our self-image to feel good as parents than as partners," he says. "I'm very proud of the way we handled it."

Divorce experts see birdnesting and similar arrangements as well-meaning attempts to come to terms with America's divorce-prone culture. "Adults are searching for models that are acceptable, feel good and also recognize divorce," says Shirley Thomas, author of Parents Are Forever. "Too many lost their fathers when their parents divorced. They saw abandonment by fathers, or fathers cut off by angry mothers. The pendulum is swinging the other way now."

There is no large-scale research on the effects on children of such arrangements, because they remain a small-scale phenomenon. Many studies, though, find that children are more likely to thrive when they have access to both parents. And birdnesting is one--albeit extreme--means of maintaining access. But some experts see it as a short-term solution only, one that bristles with dangers in the long term. First there's the potential for friction. "People don't take the big step of divorce unless there's something terribly upsetting about the relationship, something that will re-emerge with any long-range continued contact," says New York City family lawyer Jeffrey Cohen. Then there's the privacy problem: "The parents don't have a real home, so it's hard to get on with their own lives as adults," says Constance Ahrons, author of The Good Divorce. Then there's the confusion factor. Says New York City divorce mediator June Jacobson: "Children harbor a fantasy that their parents will get back together. To the extent that children are encouraged to maintain this fantasy, it can do harm because it doesn't allow them to fully integrate the change in family structure."

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