What does ‘home’ mean for children whose parents have separated?

dogbod2018, blog

by Associate Professor Kristin Natalier

Home is a familiar yet complex idea. Its meaning extends beyond a physical dwelling to include a feeling of comfort, a sense of control over space, connections with family and other important people, and a site in which rituals and routines create feelings of belonging. A sense of home can be important in helping people build their identity, psychological wellbeing and trust in the constancy of people and things. It follows, then, that children will likely suffer when their needs for home are overlooked. Yet so far, very little is known about children’s experiences of home when their parents separate.

Failing to focus on home is a lost opportunity to address an ongoing challenge in post-separation parenting laws and processes: how to prioritise children’s, not parents’, interests when determining care arrangements. Family law and international law emphasises a child centred approach but post-separation parenting arrangements are still largely determined with reference to parents’ needs, and linked to clock and calendar time. A focus on home shifts the emphasis towards children’s feelings and experiences. It can help us to ‘stand in children’s shoes’, to borrow a phrase from Carol Smart, and see post-separation parenting arrangements from the perspective of children. It draws attention to the matters children consider necessary to create a context that allows them to feel at home, and flourish.

Our initial analysis of interviews with 22 children suggest that home matters. For example, Zac described what he liked about being at his father’s house: “Just being with my dad and just having fun with him, working on my car and just doing boy things”. His comment highlighted how children can feel at home when:

  • there was an atmosphere of ease and comfort;
  • their relationships with others signalled they belonged in that space;
  • they spent time with parents and other meaningful people in ways that reflected shared interests and experiences; and
  • they could do and have things that mattered to them.

When children felt at home, their experiences might seem unremarkable. However, they are a reminder of the importance of relationships and often mundane family practices in children’s post-separation lives. The times and dates children stay with a parent were not as important as what my colleague Bruce Smyth has called ‘being in the moment time’ – those unstructured and intimate experiences that build connection with others.

Some children described feeling not at home at a parent’s house. An equal shared care arrangement did not allow Benjamin to build two homes; rather, it removed him from his home (his mother’s house). He said of his father’s house, “I feel like I’m on an involuntary holiday, like I’ve been taken away from my home and I don’t want to be there”. Benjamin dreaded going to his father’s house, which he found oppressive and which brought him face to face with large and unwelcome changes in how his father lived his life. His mental health and relationship with his father eroded as a result.

Benjamin’s parents were responsive when he talked to them about his feelings, and changed the care arrangements so that Benjamin no longer had to stay at his father’s house. His family’s emphasis moved from nights spent at each parent’s home to Benjamin connecting with his father in different ways – away from the place where he did not feel at home. Importantly for Benjamin, they developed routines and a meaningful connection that were not rooted in a place, but in an activity: football. Benjamin’s father attended every practice session and game and in doing so, rebuilt a meaningful relationship.

The idea of home can sensitise parents to the importance of attending to children’s lived experience of time– how they feel on a Thursday night, not whose house are they sleeping at on a Thursday night. In emphasising children’s experiences, home might decouple relationships from parental residence, and instead highlight the alternative ways and places in which meaningful relationships can be built – a sense of home, away from home.

Professor Belinda Fehlberg (The University of Melbourne), Associate Professor Bruce Smyth (Australian National University), and I have received funding from the Australian Research Council to explore these ideas further. We have undertaken some initial analysis (here is a summary) and are about to talk to a much larger group of children and their parents about what home means when parents separate. We are aiming to understand children’s experiences of home after separation as a means of promoting new ways of attending to children’s voices when their living arrangements are decided post-parental separation.

About the Author

Associate Professor Kristin Natalier from Flinders University, Australia, provides a summary of the research she presented at a CRFR Informal Seminar.