Family socialization and gender in multi-local, post-separation families

In a special issue on “Doing family through gender, doing gender through families” published in the Sociologica journal, I engaged in a discussion of how shared custody arrangements can challenge our current understandings of gender socialisation within families. I summarize here the main arguments that I developed in my contribution, entitled “Rethinking the interconnections between family socialization and gender through the lens of multi-local, post-separation families”.

A focus on children growing “in” and “between” “two homes” as a result of post-divorce/separation shared physical custody arrangements, provides new avenues for the study of gender socialization within families in heterogeneous environments.

So far, mainstream family and gender sociology have indeed had a tendency to conceptualize family socialization as a homogeneous process, and to focus on parents as a ‘unit’ that produces rather homogeneous “family cultures”. If gender studies have highlighted the different roles that mothers and fathers play in children’s socialization to gender (See for instance, Risman, 2004; Thorne, 1993),  but intra-parental divergences with regards to gendered norms and expectations and their negotiation in relation to children’s education have received scant attention. However, specific research areas, including scholarship on ethnically-mixed couples, illuminates the ways in which parents deal with cultural differences and points of disagreement regarding the upbringing of their children. These results extend beyond the groups under study: all couples are “mixed” to a certain degree – be it along gender, age, class, ethnic, religious, language and/or other markers of difference.

Post-divorce/separation families practicing shared custody of their children, are a particularly relevant example of the heterogeneity of family socialization processes. In this situation, children who travel back and forth between two ‘homes’, as they alternatively reside with their mother and father, are socialized within, and across heterogeneous family environments with their own specific gendered norms and practices. Ex-partners can apply distinct rules in their own homes, engage in new partnerships and form recomposed households… Each of these ‘homes’ are thus governed by specific gender regimes, that can include contradictory elements. For instance, clothes, but also body language and attitudes, or symbolic representations of masculinities and femininities in the interior design form parts of symbolic representations of gender that participate in the gender regime that characterizes each household. These come along norms and rules around the sexual division of labour (who in the house does/is expected to wash the clothes, do the dishes, engage in paid work?, power relations, involving for instance how much the boys, girls, men and women living in the house have a say in family decisions,  and emotional relations that establish amongst others the type of attachment that girls/boys are expected to develop with their parents and their new partners, or the age at which a girl/boy can go out on a date. It is therefore crucial to understand how children appropriate and negotiate these gender regimes, how they navigate between them and how they construct their own gender identity in this context. 

Two major societal transformations are of particular relevance for the study of gender socialization across households, and constitute the two key avenues we explore in MobileKids: the mobility turn, and the digital revolution. Gender socialization in shared custody arrangements needs to be connected with children’s capacity to appropriate their own mobility and engage in processes of territorial appropriation. Parents for instance may be more reluctant to leave girls travel alone than boys, or hang out in the neighborhood without surveillance… There is today a large body of literature that highlights the gendered dimensions of space and how much boys and girls may be respectively (dis)encouraged to access and make use of private and public spaces. Gender regimes also influence processes of territorial appropriation and the development of a sense of ‘home’ by associating certain places and spaces in the house to males or females. Furthermore, gender regimes shape how and to what extent boys and girls appropriate their own physical mobility between two homes, and establish (dis)continuities between them.

Shared physical custody arrangements also involve episodes of intermittent absence and co-presence, an aspect of mobility that cannot be studied in isolation from the digital revolution. ICTs indeed can play an important role in the everyday lived experiences of shared physical custody and these technologies also intervene in gender socialization processes. Do boys and girls use the same tools and platforms to communicate with their mothers/fathers across households? How much control do parents exercise on boys’ and girls’ online activities? Do parents allow/encourage them to use the same tools and platforms, or do they consider that some tools/platforms are more adequate for boys than girls, and vice-versa? Are these rules similar across the two households?  Gendered cultures shape and constrain the way boys and girls, mothers and fathers, and other members of the two homes appropriate ICTs. The gendered cultures of each household intersect, and interact with the specific gendered cultures that characterise the communicative platforms that family members use, influencing, along gender lines, their communication styles, the elements they consider appropriate to display online, and the types of co-presence they engage in within and across households. Gendered cultures therefore colour in specific ways the repertoire that children develop to appropriate and navigate polymediatic environments, and sustain family relations across households through a continuum of on- and off-line interactions. 

Children in shared custody arrangements grow up within and across two homes that are “separated, yet connected” (Smart & Neale, 1999). They are separated and different because they are each governed by specific, and probably in part divergent, gender regimes. But they are also closely connected in the lived experiences of children, through processes of mobility, territorial appropriation, and continued communication in polymediatic environments. As they learn to move from one house to the other and engage in virtual forms of co-presence that blur the distinction between “here” and “there”, girls and boys are continuously exposed to, co-creating, and also challenging different norms, visions, rules and practices that equip them with a large repertoire of action-schemes and habits. These in turn guide them in how they embody, enact, and (re)produce gender in specific interactional contexts. Moreover, this happens in an environment that can be fraught with tensions, especially when there is a high level of conflict between ex-partners. Still, these two homes and the “gendered family cultures” that characterize them, should be apprehended as inter-connected rather than fragmented and mutually-exclusive, socialization spheres, because they do form a continuum in lived experiences of many children.

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Laura Merla

I am professor of Sociology and member of the CIRFASE (University of Louvain, Belgium), where I study family relations in a context of geographical distance, including when family members are separated by migratory processes, or in the case of separation, divorce and family recompositions.