Negotiating One’s Place in the Family through Space

In a book on “Families in motion: Ebbing and Flowing Through Space and Time” edited by Lesley Murray, Liz McDonnell, Tamsin Hinton-Smith, Nuno Ferreira and Katie Walsh (2019), Laura Merla and I discussed how family relations structure children’s ‘life spaces’ and ‘lived space’. We summarize here the main arguments that we developed in our contribution, entitled “Children Negotiating their Place through Space in Multi-local, Joint Physical Custody Arrangements”.

Based on the preliminary analysis of two post-separation family cases in which children live in shared physical custody arrangements, we explore in particular the meanings and feelings that family relations confer to the ‘house’ space through the experiences of two girls, Marie and Coralie, including both the physicality of the place of residence, and the relations and emotions these two children attach to it (Forsberg et al., 2016, p. 435). We also highlight some of the strategies they develop to mediate/influence their family relations through ‘space’, including processes of spatial appropriation and territorialisation.

Considering space as relational and embedded in actions, we highlight that space plays the role of an intermediary between the material and the social (Remy, 2015) in the sense that children in motion exchange through it goods, ideas and symbols with their relatives (Weichhart, 2015). In each dwelling, a specific familial way of living, which combines mobile and stable daily practices, is created. Children don’t only switch from one house to the other. They also travel between rules, roots and ways of doing that vary from one house to the other (Winther, 2015). By doing so, they develop various strategies and competences to adapt to these various ways of ‘doing family’ (Morgan, 2011) in each house and to the different roles assigned to them, based on their position in the family (son/daughter, sibling/half-sibling, stepson/daughter, etc.). These strategies concretely attest to the way children make use of and appropriate those places, individually or collectively, giving them a sense, a particular symbolic meaning.

Marie and Coralie’s testimonies allowed us to show the important and multi-facetted role that space plays in the multi-local lives of children living in joint physical custody, mediating the interaction between the social and the material, and helping them deal with two (or sometimes four) different family settings. Space appears as a resource that children mobilize in their family relationships to confer a specific sense to the material places they inhabit.

First of all, through materiality, spaces influence family relationships based on how family members use them during their interactions. We highlight that children can mobilize spaces to negotiate and mark their physical place in the environment of the houses by leaving spatial footprints symbolizing and recalling their presence in the family. At the same time, other kin members also use the materiality of space to show to the child that she does belong to the house – and, by extension, the family group – by increasingly giving her a physical place through the materiality of the home’s space. Coralie who was at first treated as a guest in her stepfather’s house, progressively moved to a status that positioned her more equally with regards to her stepsiblings. By increasingly giving her a physical place through the materiality of the home’s space, her stepfamily testified to her the importance of the place she also symbolically takes into the family. This recognition started with the invitation to choose her towels’ color and use a cardboard box to store her belongings, thereby integrating a system put in place for the children of her stepfather, until the space of the house was re-organized so she could have her own room. Despite the fact that the child is absent at regular intervals, she remains symbolically present by the marks she leaves in each house during her absence. 

Furthermore, children use spatial marks to delimit the territories they consider as their ‘own’, where they can temporarily exercise symbolic control and that they appropriate by conferring them a set of symbolic meanings (Félonneau, 1997). They attach themselves to spaces that become places they invest, and to which they assign a specific sense. This sense varies according to their interpretation of the physical setting; the relationships with the people in presence and the positive or negative emotions that are felt. These three dimensions influence the child’s perception and attachment to a specific space, leading her to prefer to remain there, making her feeling more comfortable and safe or on the contrary, encouraging her to avoid a specific room.

Children also mobilize spaces as a resource to express themselves and display their emotions and state of mind to the rest of the family, by slamming doors for example to express their anger or by sitting in a dislike armchair to display negative emotions, etc.

Finally, they also use spaces as transfer airlocks to facilitate their transition from one house to the other. Children who inter-connect various life spaces also need to suspend this connection during phases of transition between houses in order to adapt to the household where they arrive. ‘Neutral’ time-places facilitate the disconnection from the house of departure infused by a particular family culture, and the reconnexion with the place and family setting of destination.

As the various themes of the results show, by delimiting their territories, by leaving material marks recalling symbolically their place into the family, by giving a sense to some places, by appropriating them or avoiding others, by mobilizing spaces as a way to express themselves or preparing themselves to switch between houses, Marie and Coralie transform their various ‘life spaces’ into a single ‘lived space’. Their various ‘life spaces’ are embedded in intimate networks that form a coherent whole combining spatial representations and frames (di Meo, 2012). Coralie expressed really well this idea of multi-local living when she defined herself as the central link in the chain that connects the whole. She connects her different life spaces and the representations attached to them, and which are influenced by the various family contexts among which she travels, to create her ‘lived space’.

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Bérengère Nobels

I studied Sociology at the Université libre de Bruxelles, and in my Masters dissertation I studied school strategies and scholar practices within a gentrified locality of Brussels, mixing urban sociology and the sociology of education. One of my key research interest lies in the spatial embeddedness of social and family practices. This is why my research within the MobileKids project focuses on the ways in which children from separated parents build a sense of ‘home’ in a multi-local context.