For more than two years, Prof. Laura Merla has been leading research on societal changes in divorced families. Member of the UCLouvain Institute for the Analysis of Change in Contemporary and Historical Societies (IACCHOS), she focuses on the significant increase in alternating residency arrangements. While exclusive residency at the mother's home remains more prevalent, nearly one in three young people surveyed alternate their residency. The place of fathers in this evolving family model is reassessed.
The MobileKids project asks how children perceive and adapt to alternating residency. ‘It's the children who travel one week to one and the next week back to the other ... they’re at the centre of our research’, says project director Laura Merla, a sociology professor at the UCLouvain Institute for the Analysis of Change in Contemporary and Historical Societies (IACCHOS). The project focuses on understanding the experiences of children of separated and/or divorced parents, in Belgium, France and Italy, who opt for alternating residence. The project first asks, ‘How do we navigate between places of residence, family cultures and rules that may differ between mother and father?’
‘Mobility occurs not only beyond national borders’, says Prof. Merla, who for six years has directed the Interdisciplinary Research Center on Families and Sexualities (CIRFASE). ‘Many families don’t live under the same roof all the time, for professional reasons or because the parents are separated and have to arrange alternating residency.’
She continues, ‘The heart of the study is the child’s point of view. But we also wanted to know more about the socio-economic profiles of families who set up this type of arrangement, in order to be able to place our results in a broader context. But at the very start we hit a snag. Very few surveys incorporate alternating residency into their statistics. So we had to conduct our own.’ The centre partnered with FAPOS (KULeuven) to conduct the Leuven/Louvain Adolescents Survey (LAdS). In the Wallonia-Brussels Federation 1,600 young people between the ages of 12 and 18 completed the questionnaire.
Having focused on the use of new technologies among members of broken families – and publishing her results last year – Prof. Merla now focuses on the evolution of the contemporary family model of alternating residency.
A contemporary family model against conventional wisdom
Among the questions posed via tablets in schools to about 1600 children, one set looked at the transformations of family configurations and how young people see the way they live. About 500 respondents were not in a nuclear family pattern. Four in ten lived exclusively with their mothers, three in ten alternated their residence equally, two in ten lived mainly with their mother (at least 70% of the time), and only one in ten lived exclusively with their father.
‘Although alternating residency is slowly catching up with exclusive residency at the mother's, the latter remains more prevalent’, Prof. Merla says. ‘We also see in children’s responses a change in the place of fathers in the family. The change is in line with that of the contemporary family which sociologists describe as “relational and democratic”. This doesn’t mean that a power relationship in families no longer exists but that the normative ideal is a model far from that of the “pater familias”, the father as master of the house, embodying authority, while the mother remains in a “carer” of children who have no right to speak. This traditional model has evolved, especially with women's emancipation. Today, we’re in a “democratic” family, in the sense that parents lead the family together.’
The child: member of ‘democratic’ family
The child’s place in this new hierarchy is also different. ‘Children now have the right to be vulnerable works in progress while subject to parental authority,’ Prof. Merla says, ‘but also to be full citizens with the right to be consulted about decisions that concern them. The notions of “child-king” or “-queen” aside, these are humans who can express themselves and be listened to. This new way of family thinking and living is more symmetrical, less pyramidal.’ More than one in two young people explained to Prof. Merla and her team that they had been consulted about the type of living arrangement that suited them best. Eight out of ten said they were satisfied with their current living arrangement.
‘We also find in this new family good relationships with both mother and father.’ When asked about the degree of parental control, the children described situations that went against the traditional family model. ‘The more controlling the mother, so too the father, and vice versa: they work as a team now. Unlike the traditional model, either both parents are controllers or both are not. This is a finding for families whose parents are present in the same household, but also for those whose parents live in separate houses: they continue to cooperate but to a lesser extent.’
Another salient aspect of the democratic family is the degree of conflict between adults. ‘We created a “dispute score” with a scale according to children's responses to a series of questions on this theme. The conclusion is clear: parents fight in all family configurations. Separated parents aren’t distinguished by significantly higher dispute scores than those living under the same roof. It can be seen as a sign that decisions are no longer made unilaterally in this new democratic model but subject to debate – and tension.’
Focus on exclusive residency with the father
Only 57 of the 500 children lived exclusively with their father. ‘The situation remains uncommon, even though the thinking of family judges has evolved over time. It’s very rare that the mother is no longer entitled to housing the child. When this is the case, it’s often in difficult situations. This usually concerns more vulnerable individuals.’
In this configuration, young girls especially report a weak relationship with the mother. They communicate less with their non-guardian mother than boys do in the same situation. ‘The relationship with the father is important’, Prof. Merla says. ‘He’s a reference point with whom the children maintain contact, including when they visit their mother. So this father-guardian remains a relational focus for children, unlike the cliché that it’s the relationship with the mother that’s “naturally” paramount ... or that fathers aren’t capable of taking care of children!’ On the contrary, 17% of fathers with exclusive custody work part-time, an equal percentage as mothers in the same situation. This figure drops to 9% in families where both parents live under the same roof.
‘It may be a sign that these parents arrange their work time in order to take care of their child ... without it being “better” with one or the other. These observations are fascinating because more generally certain images no longer reflect reality, such as the “weekend dad/boyfriend”, who takes his children only on weekends and school holidays and therefore is always the parent doing fun things with them, and the mother who as a result remains the “controlling” one. Indeed, young people tell us that separated fathers feel more responsibility.’ These observations draw a portrait of families that are more egalitarian and democratic than the stereotypes that remain in the popular mind.
How does this research stand out from other family sociology studies?
The originality of our approach: to directly question the children about their family experience. By conducting our survey in classrooms with tablets and chaperones, we were able to target an audience that is rarely the focus of study. There are few surveys of young people and their feelings within the family; overall, they focus more on parents. Our approach is part of an emerging trend that echoes the evolution of the rights of children who insist on being heard.
No inconsistencies when analysing the results?
No, no aberrations appeared when we examined the results. Our study therefore argues for greater use of our approach. Researchers shouldn’t be afraid to meet young people and ask them to respond using arrangements like ours with tablets. It speaks to young people, helps them feel comfortable ... So, yes, it requires some imagination by the researcher. But that’s our role: finding other ways than conventional methodologies to find relevant information. Parent income levels, for example. It’s impossible to directly ask a child for this information. But questions like ‘How many computers are there at home?’ or ‘Did you go on holiday last year?’ can harvest such information.
At the same time, we conducted a survey of family judges and lawyers whom we asked about legal developments in separations and divorces involving children. We focused specifically on both alternating residency and broader developments in court decisions. To do this, we asked 100 lawyers and eight judges to complete a questionnaire about their practice and application of law. Some questions addressed their criteria for arguing in favour/against alternating residency. The study is being analysed, we hope to release it next year.
A glance at Laura Merla's bio
Laura Merla is a UCLouvain professor of sociology, where she directs CIRFASE, and an honorary research fellow at the University of Western Australia. After having studied political science and occupational science at ULB, she earned a fellowship to complete a PhD in family sociology at UCLouvain from 2000 to 2006. She then obtained a Marie Curie Fellowship for postdoctoral research on transnational families at the University of Western Australia and the University of Lisbon. She returned to UCLouvain in 2010, where she continued her work on this theme within the framework of dual BELSPO and FNRS fellowships. In 2015, she was appointed to the UCLouvain faculty, received ARC funding which allowed her to continue her research on migration in collaboration with UCLouvain lawyers and demographers, and earned a prestigious ERC Starting Grant to further explore the interconnections between multi-residency, geographical mobility, and virtual mobility in the family sphere.