‘It is important that my kids see us all spending time together and that we do spend time together’: Pacific mothers and fathers displaying post-separation family connections

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  • 1 University of Auckland, , New Zealand
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In this article, we draw on concept of family display to examine how collectivist understandings of family intersect with gender to shape mothers’ and fathers’ post-separation displays of family life. Drawing on interviews with fifteen separated Pacific parents (ten mothers and five fathers), we explore how mothers and fathers navigate how, when, with and for whom they display family relationships and family life following separation. In pursuing this inquiry, we pay particular attention to how family imaginaries and norms in Pacific cultures affect participants’ post-separation family displays. We found gender differences among our participants, with mothers displaying post-separation family connections in child-centred and collectivist ways, while the post-separation family displays by fathers were child-related and more individualistic.

Abstract

In this article, we draw on Finch’s (2007) concept of family display to examine how collectivist understandings of family intersect with gender to shape mothers’ and fathers’ post-separation displays of family life. Drawing on interviews with fifteen separated Pacific parents (ten mothers and five fathers), we explore how mothers and fathers navigate how, when, with and for whom they display family relationships and family life following separation. In pursuing this inquiry, we pay particular attention to how family imaginaries and norms in Pacific cultures affect participants’ post-separation family displays. We found gender differences among our participants, with mothers displaying post-separation family connections in child-centred and collectivist ways, while the post-separation family displays by fathers were child-related and more individualistic.

Introduction

In ‘Displaying families’, Janet Finch (2007) introduces family displays as a concept that extends the analytical toolbox for investigating contemporary family life. Finch invites scholars to use, develop and refine the concept. In this article we, like others before us, take up this invitation. Previous scholarship has examined how structures of power – for example, gender (Gabb, 2011; Kehily and Thomsen, 2011) or race (Haynes and Dermott, 2011) – shape family displays. Studies have also applied family displays to a range of family settings and forms: for instance, queer families (Almack, 2011; Heaphy, 2011) and reconstructed families in the wake of parental separations (Bakker et al, 2015). Much of this scholarship draws on the dominant discourses of family and parenthood associated with the nuclear family ideals of Western culture, recognising the potency of these discourses and ideals for how people ‘do’ and display family. However, what is yet to be explored is how culturally informed norms and imaginaries about extended families, which are prominent among non-White communities, influence the display of family life.

In this article, we address this gap and contribute to the literature, both theoretically and empirically, by investigating the family displays of separated Pacific mothers and fathers living in Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. Pacific people largely draw on collectivist understandings of family, such that Pacific families usually transcend the couple and parent–child dyad and household, and instead centre around extended family units and relationships (Fleming, 1997; Stewart-Withers et al, 2010). Consequently, the actions of Pacific post-separated parents affect larger and more complex networks of relationships than is typically the case for Palagi1 parents (Robertson et al, 2008; Sua’ali’i-Sauni et al, 2009; Waldegrave et al, 2011). Moreover, Pacific post-separation parents face the prospect of being called to account by family members from either side if they appear to be acting without regard to the needs and interests of extended kin. It is therefore important to consider how collectivist understandings of family intersect with gender in the lives of Pacific separated mothers and fathers to shape their post-separation family displays. Specifically, we consider how the changed relationship between mothers and fathers alters how, when, with and for whom they display family connections, as well as the meanings attached to and derived from different family displays.

In the following section, we define and discuss family displays as a conceptual tool for analysing contemporary families, before turning to the details of the study and, subsequently, our findings.

Family displays

Building on Morgan’s (1996) concept of family practices, Finch (2007: 80, emphasis added) argues that in situations where family connections are not always recognisable, family life not only needs to be ‘done’, it also needs to be ‘seen to be done’. Finch (2007:67) defines family displays as ‘the process by which individuals, and groups of individuals, convey to each other and to relevant others that certain of their actions do constitute “doing family things” and thereby confirm that these relationships are “family” relationships’. The concept of family display, therefore, highlights the importance of assigning meaning to our relationships, such that they will be readily discerned by observers as family relationships.

Cognisant of her earlier work with Jennifer Mason (Finch and Mason, 1993), Finch indicates that a key motivation for displaying family to others is to lay claim to the positive nature and character of one’s family relationships. An appropriate and, hence, effective family display demonstrates to others that ‘this is my family and it works’ (Finch (2007:70). Family displays are thus, as others have noted, a site where individuals contribute, both reflexively and non-reflexively, to how their family relationships and circumstances are interpreted by others (Dermott and Seymour, 2011; Heaphy, 2011; Bakker et al, 2015). Through their family displays, individuals attempt to show observers their family imaginary (Smart, 2007) or what the construct of ‘family’ means to them. In addition, family displays have identity-conferring effects; engaging in an ‘appropriate’ family display enables individuals and families to convey to others that they are moral actors (James and Curtis, 2010).

Family displays also work as a way of fostering and sustaining family connectedness. As Williams (2004: 41) argues, individuals for the most part are ‘energetic moral actors, embedded in webs of valued personal relationships, working to sustain the commitments that matter to them’. In a context where family relationships and living arrangements are often subject to change – for example, through divorce, separation and repartnering/remarriage – ambiguity about the status and proper character of one’s family relationships is relatively commonplace. For this reason, Finch (2007) asserts that family relationships need to be continually worked at and displayed to be recognised and maintained. To illustrate, Finch (2007) draws on Smart and Neale’s (1999) work on post-divorce families to point out that where parents and children live apart for periods of time, family displays are necessary to reaffirm family connections. Similarly, Bakker et al (2015) note the importance of family displays to post-separation family life. Family rituals were used by their participants research to display the boundaries of their post-separation families. For those who wanted to display family continuity, at least some family rituals involved both parents, whereas family rituals for those who sought to redefine the contours of their family either involved one parent or both parents at different times.

Methods

Given our interest and focus, we employed a qualitative research method. The first author conducted semi-structured, in-depth, one-on-one interviews between 2017–18 with fifteen separated heterosexual Pacific parents (ten mothers and five fathers) living in Auckland, New Zealand.

Participants were recruited in two ways: three through advertisements displayed on noticeboards at Samoan early childhood education centres; and the remaining twelve via an email/Facebook invitation distributed by community and media organisations with high levels of interaction with Pacific people. The call for participation invited Pacific parents who had been separated from their child/ren’s other parent for at least one year, cared for their child/ren for at least one night per week, and privately established care arrangements for their child/ren without litigating.

An interview schedule was created that reflected the project’s research aims. The interviews were conversational in style, with many topics and themes arising organically through parents’ talk. This interview style gave participants some control over the interview process and content of the data collected. Interviews took place at a date, time and location convenient for participants and lasted ninety minutes on average, with the shortest running for sixty minutes and the longest for just over two hours. With permission from participants, all interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed.

Participants varied in ethnic affiliations, age, number/ages of children, ethnicity of their child/ren’s other parent, relationship status, income source and level, living arrangements, and care and contact arrangements, each of which we discuss in turn.

Of the ten mothers, four identified as Samoan/Palagi, two as Samoan, one as Tongan, one as Cook Island Māori, one as Tongan/Māori and one as Māori/Fijian/Samoan. Nine of the mothers were New Zealand born and one was born in Australia. Of the five fathers, four identified as Samoan and one as Samoan/Palagi. All five fathers were born and raised in New Zealand. The ethnicity/ies of participants’ former partners also varied. Five mothers identified their former partner as Samoan, one as Niuean, one as Māori, one as Palagi and two as Samoan/Tongan. Of the fathers, two identified their former partners as Samoan/Palagi, two as Palagi and one as Samoan.

The ages of participants ranged from 22 to 46. Of the mothers, five had one child, three had two children and two had three children. Of fathers, one had one child and the remaining four had two children. The ages of the children ranged from 1 to 14 years. An overwhelming majority of participants – 13 of the 15 – classified their relationship status as ‘single’, one mother had remarried, and one father was in a cohabiting relationship. Prior to separating, one mother had been married, and the remaining 14 participants had been in a cohabiting relationship with their child/ren’s other parent. Participants had been separated between 1–9 years, and 2.5 years on average. Participants also reported having a co-operative and amicable co-parenting relationship with their children’s other parent.

Of the mothers, six were employed full time and the remaining four in part-time work. All five fathers were employed full time. Three mothers reported annual incomes between NZD$20,000 and $40,000, four mothers between $40,000 and $60,000, one mother and three fathers between $60,000 and $80,000, and the remaining two mothers and two fathers reported annual incomes higher than $80,000.

In terms of living arrangements, eight mothers and four fathers lived in extended family households, two mothers lived in sole-mother households, and one father lived with his new partner and children. All participants reported having flexible childcare arrangements with their former partners that often changed from week-to-week or month-to-month. Of the mothers, two reported having their children in their care for four nights/week, five for five nights/week, one for six nights/week, and the remaining two had a 50:50 shared care arrangement. Of the fathers, two reported having their children two nights/week and the remaining three had 50:50 shared care arrangements.

Drawing on the guidelines set out by Braun and Clarke (2006), the first author conducted a thematic analysis of the interviews. The thematic analysis was done through a three-step coding process. The first phase involved reading each transcript to gain a general sense of the interview and points of interest. The second phase involved open coding the interview data into discrete thematic categories. The ten thematic categories that were established were: understandings of family, care time, paid work, mothering, fathering, family practices, family displays, identity, routines and rituals, relational thinking/doing. In this article, the third phase involved systematically re-examining and coding thematic content in the ‘family displays’ category, looking for more focused ideas within the broader theme. In doing this, the first author found that there were gendered dimensions to how, when, with and for whom separated mothers and fathers displayed family connections. As a result, the first author created ten additional sub-themes: nuclear family displays, extended family displays, Pacific/cultural displays, display work, mothers’ displays, fathers’ displays, ‘appropriate’ displays, ‘inappropriate’ displays, reflexive displays and non-reflexive displays. Some comments were coded and allocated to only one thematic category, while others were placed into two, three or more categories. The forthcoming sections are derived from patterned responses of the participants regarding how, when, with and for whom they displayed family connections following separation. Paying attention to these patterned responses led to the organisation of our discussion of these themes in terms of: displays of enduring nuclear family life, displays of extended family togetherness, gendered displays of extended family togetherness, and displays of appropriate post-separation family life. The following section begins this discussion by focusing on displays of enduring nuclear family life beyond separation.

Displays of enduring nuclear family life

Across the study, mothers and fathers spoke of feeling guilty about the breakdown of their couple relationships because of its impact, in particular, on their children. For instance, one mother said, “I feel bad that we’re not together, not for me but for [my children]”. This mother, as well as most of the other participants in the study, attempted to manage her children’s sense of loss, while also managing their sense of guilt, by displaying ‘family togetherness’ (Ribbens-McCarthy, 2012). The following quote explicitly links feelings of guilt with a desire to ‘make things as normal as possible’ for the children by doing things together as a family:

‘He drops [our daughter] off … I just say, “Doors unlocked”. He comes in and he hangs out … for a little while and even though I’d like to say, “Don’t come in,” or “Get out,” … I see … how happy she is, when she sees Mum and Dad together. She will do things where … she’ll [say], “Daddy, you grab my arms and Mummy, you grab my feet and swing me.” … How I see it, it’s her wanting to see her mum and dad do something together with her at the same time. … She doesn’t get that. … I feel an immense sense of guilt. … I think that was one of the biggest things when we finally separated, was [that] I had failed my child. She now comes from a broken family. … To try and make up for that, if ever I can, I try to make things as normal as possible … finding time or making time to do things together.’ (Katrina, one child aged 3, separated one year)

Katrina’s account points to the role of ‘family imaginary’ (Smart, 2007) in family displays, including who counts as family and what constitutes ‘doing’ family. What is meant by ‘family imaginary’ is clarified by Gillis’s (1996) distinction between the ‘families we live by’ and the ‘families we live with’: the family we live by is the ideologically constructed family norm of our imagination, while the family we live with is our everyday family and all its imperfections. The family display of amicable togetherness is used by Katrina to bridge the gap between a family she lives by – a loving nuclear, heterosexual family – and the family she lives with – a family characterised by parental separation and spatial and temporal disconnections.

Making sure their children’s lives mirrored, as much as possible, ‘normal’ heterosexual family life was achieved by engaging in family displays that offered the children visible symbols of continued connections between both parents and children. Here Leah describes a seemingly normal family outing to a park, followed by lunch, as evidence that she and her ex-partner could still function like a ‘family’:

‘[One] Sunday, [my former partner] came over to drop off the kids and he said, “Let’s go to the park with the girls?” So we did, then we went out to lunch … came home and we were basically talking about formalising a separation agreement outside of the court. … We were getting along really well and … the girls loved it. … And then he went off to work and I thought, “Great! Things are back on track.” … We can actually function as a family. … We’re separated, but … we’re still their parents, … we’re still a family.’ (Leah, two children aged 4 and 7, separated two years)

Similarly, one of the fathers talked about the importance of continuing to do family things with the mother as a way of signalling to themselves and to their daughters that they could amicably share space:

‘We always meet up … and take [our daughter] to her [sports game] like we used to. … It’s nice that at the end of the day we can still get along and do things … for the kids. ... When we were together, we’d usually just meet at home and then go together … but now it takes a little bit more organising, depending on what time the game is, where it’s at … all of that. … We’ve always followed [our daughter’s] sports and so we didn’t want it to be all of a sudden now that we’re not together, we sit on [opposite] sides of the court. We just didn’t want that to be the focus of her games … she’s the focus.’ (Wayne, two children aged 9 and 13, separated two years)

As demonstrated in the quotes above, parents doing child-related activities together operated in the context of their separations – the families they lived with – as important displays for their children, demonstrating that they were capable of enacting the family they lived by – amicable nuclear family togetherness – at least some of the time. Fathers and especially mothers were aware of how various actions might be interpreted and understood by children. In particular, they recognised the symbolic significance attached to doing and not doing things together, especially activities that were typically done together as a family prior to separation. In the context of separation, participating in activities that they had previously done together carried new symbolic meanings. For example, Wayne, quoted above, anticipated that if he and his former partner did not go to their daughter’s game together, or if they sat apart, it would provide their children with a visible picture and reminder of their changed family dynamics and, more specifically, of their parents’ separation. However, by displaying family togetherness, mothers and fathers demonstrated to children that despite being separated they could cooperatively work together to continue to care and be there for them.

Parental separations challenge the presumptive basis of family life, the sexual couple as Martha Fineman (1995) calls it. As a result, the ties between parents and their children need ongoing reaffirmation. The post-separation family is thus a family form that requires more regular displays of family connectedness than the co-residential nuclear family (Heaphy, 2011). Yet, paradoxically, when parents separate the opportunities to spontaneously participate in ‘normal’ family activities together tend not to occur organically during the humdrum of everyday family life. Consequently, the post-separation fathers, and particularly mothers, in this study spoke about the need to orchestrate doing ordinary family things together. As Kate said:

‘We try to keep swap-over days on Sunday so that we can do something [together] with the girls, like go to the movies, go to the mall, have lunch. … I don’t like giving up … Sundays, but it’s good “family” time. … Sometimes a month or so will pass and we haven’t really done anything together so … [I’ll] ring him up or … [he’ll] ring me up and [say] “Should we do something this weekend?”’ (Kate, two children aged 10 and 13, separated two years)

Prior to separation, many taken-for-granted family practices – like sharing meals, going to the movies or sports games together – occurred in non-reflexive ways, which had more to do with doing, and less to do with displaying, everyday family life. However, on separation, many of these practices became occasions for the mothers and fathers in this study to show and display enduring family connections to children and other observers. Given the importance of extended family in Pacific cultures, participants not only talked about nuclear family displays (as discussed), but also the significance of extended family displays. In the following section we turn our attention to how Pacific mothers and fathers enacted family displays in relation to their extended families.

Displays of extended family togetherness

Not only did the parents in this study stress the importance of displaying nuclear family togetherness despite having separated, mothers in particular also attached a lot of significance to displays of joint extended family togetherness. Just as displays of nuclear family togetherness were often performed in highly conscious and reflexive ways, so too were displays of extended family togetherness. Likewise, these purposeful displays of extended family togetherness were pursued to show children that their larger family network remained intact; they did not have to choose between the two sides of the family. This is well illustrated by Salote, who talks of continuing to adhere to a routine practice of spending time with her ex-mother-in-law to reassure her children “that [family] things are still the same”:

‘I spend a lot of time at [my ex-mother-in-law’s house]. …We’ll have shared dinners … or when I pick them up, I always go in and at least have a coffee. … [My ex-mother-in-law’s] house is like another home for them. … So I always stay and spend time there like I used to so that my kids can see that things are still the same. … I wouldn’t want them to … feel like now that we’re separated, they have two disjointed families.’ (Salote, two children aged 3 and 6, separated two years)

The family that Salote lives by in the above extract is an amicable, extended family composed of both Salote and her former partner’s family. Yet Salote, like all the other parents in this study, lives in a family where the couple bond (tying two sides of the family together) no longer exists. Salote’s purposeful display of extended family togetherness for her children acts to diminish the significance of the couple as the basis of extended family ties, and instead centralises her children. As Salote went on to say:

‘Before we separated, sometimes I’d just honk my horn [when I arrived at my ex-mother-in-law’s house] to let them know I was there. But now I always make sure I go inside and at least have one coffee and just chit chat. … Because kids, they see, absorb and know everything and I just don’t want them reading into anything, so if anything, I make a bigger effort now with my [former partner’s family] than I used to.’ (Salote, two children aged 3 and 6, separated two years)

The contrast between Salote’s past off-hand approach to extended family relationality and her present reflexive and deliberate approach underscores the relational work that she performs as well as the relational work achieved by co-residential coupledom. Having stepped outside the institutional parameters of couple-based family relationality, who is included in the ‘doing’ of family becomes ambiguous. Prior to separation, it was a given that the two families were connected through the parents’ couple relationship and children. However, the breakdown of the parental relationship changed the meanings associated with, for example, simple pick-up and drop-off practices that made mothers, in particular, acutely aware of how family connections were being displayed and consequently interpreted by children. Extended family members, such as Salote’s mother-in-law, play an important role as facilitators and co-participants in displays of extended family togetherness. Displaying family life in ways that emulate many pre-separation practices fosters children’s sense of belonging and security among their extended families on both sides.

Although mothers talked at length about how they sought out and created opportunities to display that their children’s extended family still worked, none of the fathers in this study seemed to experience a similar obligation to maintain, foster and display ongoing extended family connectedness to their former partner’s family. For instance, when asked about whether he spent time with his former partner’s family, Dion said:

‘Not really, no. … I do see them …, but I don’t spend proper time with them … just sort of in passing, if I’m picking the kids up or dropping them off but that doesn’t really count. … It would feel really weird to just hang around … with them.’ (Dion, two children aged 10 and 12, separated four years)

In a similar vein, Wayne also rejected the idea of spending time with his former in-laws explaining that they were no longer family:

‘We don’t all spend time together anymore, they’re really good people … but we’re not family anymore, so it’s awkward. … The kids spend a lot of time with them and then when they’re with me, we’re with my family so they get to see and spend time with everyone.’ (Wayne, two children aged 9 and 13, separated two years)

In contrast to mothers’ imaginary, which centred children’s connections to extended family, fathers’ imaginary appeared to be couple-centric; the demise of the couple relationship meant their sense of family reverted to ‘his’ and ‘her’ extended family networks. Thus, the family they sought to display was limited to the nuclear family or their own extended family. What was also noticeable in fathers’ talk was how they displayed family in much more individualistic ways than mothers, operating on the basis of their own comfort or discomfort (that is, being comfortable when engaging in family displays with just children and former partners, but uncomfortable when engaging in displays together with their former partner’s family). To draw on Smart’s (1991) work, fathers’ display practices demonstrate that they care about their children, whereas mothers care about and for their children. Thus, mothers’ orientation to family displays were much more collectivised and child-centred, which meant that, irrespective of how they felt about spending time with their former partner and his family, they engaged in these displays to meet their children’s needs for extended family belonging, whereas fathers’ extended family displays were more self-centred and individualistically oriented towards their children and their own extended family, a point we examine in greater depth in following sections.

Gendered displays of extended family togetherness

Writing about family displays, Heaphy (2011) argues that the labour involved in displaying family is often gendered, with women investing more time and effort than men. For this reason, Gabb (2011: 39) argues that not only should we pay attention to family displays but also ‘what is happening at the edges and behind the scenes’. In this section, we examine gendered differences in how the mothers and fathers in this study organised, managed and staged family displays. We start this work by reflecting on what the mothers had to say.

Most of the mothers talked about the explicit effort they made, and the behind the scenes relational work they did, to create and stage family displays with their former partners and both sides of the family. For example, Salote said:

‘Special occasions like Christmas or birthdays are always spent with both sides. … If their dad’s side can’t make it for Christmas, I’ll change the day to suit them and just try to make sure it suits us all. … I even do that with their birthdays. … I want to build that relationship with their other side [of the family]. … With my family it is easy because they’re always around. … I never want my kids to feel like they’re betraying me by spending time with their other side and for wanting to spend time with them. So it is important that my kids see us all spending time together and that we do spend time together.’ (Salote, two children aged 3 and 6, separated two years)

For mothers in this study, organising and staging displays operated as an important way that they could care for their children following separation. Caring for them, however, required fostering the relationship with the other parent and the other parent’s family as well as the overall appearance of ‘family’. Moreover, by doing this care work, mothers felt they were creating important family displays that helped their children transition into and navigate post-separation family life. Yet mothers, just like fathers, expressed discomfort about spending time with their former partner’s family. This is well illustrated by Katrina:

‘Yeah, I do feel uneasy … when we’re all together. … For [our daughter’s] birthday, I invited [my former partner’s other children], my siblings, [my former partner’s mother] and [his] two sisters, who I had a strained relationship with. … But I still included them. … I wasn’t excited to see them … but I know it meant a lot to [my daughter] that we were all there together. … I sent some pictures [of her birthday] to her [early childhood education centre] and they printed them … and she was telling everyone, “That’s my sister, my Nana, my aunties,” you know, naming everyone that was there, and it just melted me … and just reminds me what this is all for.’ (Katrina, one child aged 3, separated one year)

Despite their feelings of unease, mothers continued to organise and participate in family displays because of the importance attached to them by their children. As both quotes above highlight, displays of amicable extended family togetherness, especially on culturally prescribed family occasions (such as children’s birthdays and Christmas), operated as symbols conveying to children that ‘we are all still a family, and it works’ (Finch, 2007).

In contrast, none of the fathers mentioned planning family gatherings so that their children saw them spending time with both sides of the family. Rather, as we noted in the previous section, fathers’ displays of family centred on their children and extended kin or their children and their former partners. That fathers did not attach much significance to displays of a unified extended family is underscored by Ioane, who describes declining his former partner’s invitation to jointly celebrate their son’s birthday because they “weren’t getting along”:

‘For [my son’s] birthday … [my former partner] organised it, she just told me how much it would cost. … This year was the first year we celebrated together… The first birthday after we broke up, we weren’t getting along, so we didn’t do anything together, well [my former partner and her family] had a party at their place, but we didn’t go.’

Interviewer: ‘Were you and your family invited?’

Ioane: ‘Yeah, yeah. I just told my son that I couldn’t make it that day but that we’d go to Rainbow’s End [theme park], and you know, you say, ‘Rainbow’s End’, oh the excitement.’ (Ioane, one child aged 6, separated three years)

Not all fathers rejected participating in displays of extended family togetherness, however. While Tavita also speaks about feeling uncomfortable being seen in the presence of his ex-partner by her family, he nonetheless participated in the joint birthday celebrations organised by his former partner:

‘[My children’s mum] usually does them, well the big-number ones. … Last year the youngest turned 5, so that was a big one. … I gave her a couple of hundred dollars and my Mum baked up a storm. … It was a great day, the kids had fun and that’s what it’s about. … I actually get along quite well with [my former partner] but it’s sometimes uncomfortable when we’re all together with all the family [that is, both sides of the extended family], because you can just feel all the eyes on you … so I just kind of keep my distance … and with her family, yeah, I don’t know, it just feels uncomfortable.’ (Tavita, two children aged 6 and 8, separated two years)

Tavita’s quote suggests that the role played by fathers in extended family displays was less about ensuring that they occurred and more about being present and making financial contributions. That fathers participating in this study were not involved in initiating, organising or even doing extended family togetherness did not seem to diminish their moral identities as good post-separation fathers. It was enough that they demonstrated displays of responsible fatherhood through their physical and financial involvement in their children’s lives (Dermott, 2008; Miller, 2011; Philip, 2013; Earley et al, 2019). As found in other studies, Ioane’s comments demonstrate how caring for children often centres on fathers doing fun activities with children (Neale and Smart, 2002; Dermott, 2008). In the context of this research, fathers used grand displays and gestures of, for example, going to theme parks, as a substitute for meaningfully contributing to their children’s sense of post-separation extended family belonging and security. Yet, fathers relied on their former partners to do the largely invisible though highly symbolic care work in order to participate in displays of family togetherness that secured their moral identities.

‘Appropriate’ displays of good post-separation family life

As demonstrated earlier, ongoing displays of family connectedness between participants and their former partners typically occurred when their children were the centre of activities or events. None of the mothers or fathers talked about inviting their former partners to important celebrations in their own families. Following separation, the mothers and fathers in this study renegotiated how and when to ‘appropriately’ display family life and family relationships, to the extent that they no longer engaged in family displays in relation to all and any family-related activities, occasions and settings. As such, family displays were not always used, in Finch’s (2007) sense, to show family relationships and connections. Sometimes family displays were used to establish and demarcate family disconnections. By displaying family togetherness on child-centred occasions and, conversely, not displaying family togetherness when activities were not centred on their children, participants sought to display their ongoing parental connection but their disconnection as a couple.

Mothers, in particular, told stories highlighting the challenges they experienced trying to, on the one hand, maintain connectedness, and, on the other hand, establish a level of disconnectedness. For instance, one mother said:

‘When I drop my girls … [My former partner would say] in front of the girls, … “Hey, do you want to come in for a coffee?” … And sometimes I go in, but I don’t want to do that too much, so I’d [say], “Nah, I’ve got to go … get their stuff” … and he’d [say, in a sad tone], “Oh okay.” … And they would see that, and they’d be angry at me. … I was such the bad guy in their eyes, and I understand why. … But I don’t want to give them the wrong idea. … One time I stayed, and we all [that is, mother, father, children and father’s other family members] watched a movie together, and then at the end of the night when I went to leave, I just saw the disappointment in their eyes. … So now I try not hang around too long or just chat by the car. … but no more … intense time together all day [and] all night because I know that they want us to be back together.’ (Kate, two children aged 10 and 13, separated two years)

Or as Leah said:

‘I don’t think I would want the kids to think we were getting back together. So, it’s also important to maintain some sort of distance as well. Because I do remember the time when we did go for lunch and movies and we sat around all day and talked … the kids became very hopeful: “Is Daddy coming back?” So it’s, I guess, drawing that balance in terms of we can be there for the kids, but we’re not in a relationship. But of course, this is working out what … for a 4- … and 7-year-old, what they can be comfortable with.’ (Leah, two children aged 4 and 7, separated two years)

These excerpts highlight the symbolic significance attached to family displays as well as the complexity of having to anticipate how various displays might be interpreted. As these quotes illustrate, family displays need to send the right message, especially to children: we are still a family, but we are no longer an intimate couple. Mothers talked about the delicate balance between displaying continued family togetherness while not giving their children a false sense of hope of their parents reconciling. The deliberate doing or not doing of family displays thus required ongoing reflexivity that entailed anticipating the various meanings that might be attached to different displays and practices, and adjusting one’s actions based on those reflections.

Mothers in this study also spoke of being reflexive with respect to extended displays of family life; they were attuned to the possibility that they and their children might feel like outsiders if they were not able to display the enduring nature of extended family connections despite parental separation. As Sina said:

‘[Our daughter] had her [end of year] celebration … and because it’s a [Samoan early childhood education centre], you see generations of families – grandparents, siblings, cousins, just everyone and we’re all packed into the [centre]. It’s beautiful to see. … I didn’t want [my daughter] to be the only one with a mother and father who arrived separate and because it’s so packed, we’ll sit separated. … Of course, I invited my whole family, but also [my former partner’s family], you know, his sisters and mum and [his] other [children]. … I don’t necessarily want to go to things together with them but for her to see that we were all together and that she had a great big huge family there to cheer her on … it’s, you know, worth it.’ (Sina, one child aged 5, separated three years)

In this quote, Sina compares her family to other families attending the end of year celebration, noting the disjunction between the post-separation family she lives with and the family that other families seemingly live with, which seem closer to the family Pacific peoples live by. This comparison shapes both how she feels she should display family and, also, how she imagines others, particularly her daughter, might assess their family if they cannot display extended family togetherness successfully. Orchestrating a collective display of extended family and its recognition by others was important to Sina because it made her own family conform to normative displays of Pacific families with ‘generations of families’ present.

Sina’s excerpt also emphasises the interactive nature of family displays: Sina anticipates how others might assess the quality of her family relationships, which consequently shapes how she displays family. Using displays as a claim to recognition, means drawing on imaginary notions of family that ‘are often closely connected to conceptions of morally and socially “good” families’ (Heaphy, 2011: 31). Thus, displaying family life in ways that conform to both the expectations of parents working collaboratively following separation (van Kriekan, 2005) and the norms of Pacific extended families affirms that the mothers in this study were still good Pacific mothers, despite being separated. Family displays were especially used by the mothers in our study as an overt strategy to gain social recognition, just as Almack (2011) found in her research with lesbian mothers. The mothers in our study intentionally organised, staged and engaged in family displays as a way of gaining recognition that they were still good Pacific mothers, because they continued to bring together both sides of their families in order for their children to continue to experience a key facet of Pacific culture: extended family togetherness.

In the context described in the previous paragraph, ‘the degree of intensity in the need for display’ (Finch, 2007: 72) was heightened by the fact that it was Sina’s daughter’s end of year celebration, a moment in the calendar year in which Pacific families gather together to celebrate. Thus, Sina’s orchestration of extended family togetherness was not taking place in front of just any audience, but a largely Pacific audience. Pacific collectivist discourses that require mothers in particular to put the interests of children and their extended family connections first, coupled with discourses about cooperative, post-separation parenting, ensured that Sina felt morally obliged to show other Pacific parents, families and teachers that despite being separated they could still do family in the ‘right’ way. It was especially important for Sina to show these relevant others that her child still had a supportive, loving and involved family, even though she was no longer in an intimate couple relationship with her child’s father. Being able to come together as one unified family, not fragmented by separation, demonstrated to others that they still collectively operated as a Pacific family.

Discussion and conclusion

In this article, we demonstrate how the norms associated with ‘doing family’ in Pacific cultures interacted with gender to shape how the Pacific mothers and fathers in our study displayed family connections following separation. The breakdown of the intimate couple relationship altered the family dynamics and reconfigured, to some extent, mothers’ and fathers’ family imaginaries and sense of family connection to each other and their respective families. As a result, the place, context and audience shaped how, when, with and for whom mothers and fathers displayed nuclear family togetherness and extended family togetherness. Family connections between participants and their former partners, and their former partner’s families, were thus displayed in highly contextual terms that centred on their children. As such, family displays work in more nuanced ways than simply conveying and confirming family relationships, as Finch originally suggested. Rather, to modify Finch’s (2007: 67) definition, family displays for the separated Pacific mothers and fathers in this study operated as a way that they could communicate to their children and relevant others that some of their actions constituted ‘doing family things’ without trying to convey that their former partners were ‘family’. Thus, mothers and fathers used family displays to show relevant others, especially children, that they could continue to act like a family despite no longer being intimately involved with their child/ren’s other parent.

Further, in the context of separation, displays of family occurred in more deliberate and conscious ways that made fathers, and particularly mothers, reflect on how their actions and various activities might be interpreted by their children and others. Discussing family displays, Heaphy (2011: 36) emphasises the analytical significance of paying attention to how reflexive displays are influenced by what he terms ‘“naturalised” habits’ in an effort to capture non-reflexive and more habituated ways of displaying family. Although Heaphy uses naturalised habits to refer to White Western discursive constructions of family, in the context of this article, we use it to denote how gendered cultural norms associated with ‘doing’ family in Pacific cultures coupled with discourses about cooperative, post-separation parenting shaped, in gendered ways, mothers’ and fathers’ family imaginaries and thus also their reflexive exercises of family displays. As illustrated, mothers in this study exercised agency in relation to family displays in child-centred and collectivist ways that involved reflexively relating to others in the entire post-separation family, including former partners, extended family on both sides, and especially children. Mothers were attuned to the relational consequences of their displays, or lack thereof, and thus purposefully organised, managed and staged nuclearised and extended displays of family, largely for their children. These displays operated as a means through which mothers demonstrated care for their children. Yet these displays were also tied to their moral identities and could, therefore, be interpreted as what good post-separation Pacific mothers do for their children.

Although fathers in this study were also reflexive of their family displays and display work for their children, they operated with a more circumscribed family imaginary that related to their former partners and children or children and their own extended family. Fathers were therefore involved in family displays in more self-centred and individualistic ways than mothers. This is evidenced by fathers only organising or actively participating in family displays with children in situations where they felt comfortable (that is, family displays with just children, or with children and former partners, or with children and their own families). As such, fathers displayed and enacted their fathering identities by fulfilling breadwinning roles, being present at activities and being involved more generally in their children’s lives. But they did not feel, nor were they made to feel, accountable for displaying extended family togetherness with their children, former partners and extended families on both sides. Thus, as the Pacific mothers’ and fathers’ talk demonstrates, Pacific collectivist notions of family intersected with gender to produce varying felt accountabilities on behalf of mothers and fathers regarding how and with whom they displayed post-separation family connections.

Given the small sample size of the study, the arguments made throughout this article are necessarily limited and reflective of the particularities of the study and its sample. Not only do the conclusions we have reached require more extensive investigation, but many questions remain. For example, because the study sought to exclude post-separation parents with experiences of domestic violence and/or coercive control, questions remain about the possibility of the use of child-centred family displays for nefarious purposes. Despite these limitations, this article illustrates the importance of family displays in navigating some of the issues, dilemmas and challenges experienced by Pacific post-separation mothers and fathers, while also highlighting the significance of examining family life at the intersections of gender and ethnicity.

Note

1

Palagi is Samoan for a person of typically European descent.

Conflicts of interest

The authors declare that there are no conflicts of interest.

References

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bakker, W., Karsten, L. and Mulder, C. (2015) Family routine and rituals following separation: continuity and change, Families, Relationships and Societies, 4(3): 36582. doi: 10.1332/204674314X13891971182856

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sua’ali’i-Sauni, T., McTaggart, S. and Von Randow, M. (2009) Pacific Families Now and in the Future: A Qualitative Snapshot of Household Composition, Wellbeing, Parenting and Economic Decision-Making among Pacific Families in Auckland, 2008 [Report number 2/09], Wellington: Families Commission.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Waldegrave, C., King, P., Maniapoto, M., Tamasese, T.K., Parsons, T.L. and Sullivan, G. (2011) Resilience in Sole Parent Families: A Qualitative Study of Relational Resilience in Māori, Pacific and Pakeha Sole Parent Families, Wellington: Family Centre Social Policy Research Unit.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Williams, F. (2004) Rethinking Families, London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

  • van Kriekan, R. (2005) The ‘best interests of the child’ and parental separation: on the ‘civilizing of parents’, Modern Law Review, 68(1): 2548. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2230.2005.00527.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Almack, K. (2011) Display work: lesbian parent couples and their families of origin negotiating new kin relationships, in E. Dermott and J. Seymour (eds) Displaying Families A New Concept for the Sociology of Family Life, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 10218.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Bakker, W., Karsten, L. and Mulder, C. (2015) Family routine and rituals following separation: continuity and change, Families, Relationships and Societies, 4(3): 36582. doi: 10.1332/204674314X13891971182856

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Braun, V. and Clarke, V. (2006) Using thematic analysis in psychology, Qualitative Research in Psychology, 3(2): 77101. doi: 10.1191/1478088706qp063oa

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dermott, E. (2008) Intimate Fatherhood, London: Routledge.

  • Dermott, E. and Seymour, J. (2011) Developing ‘displaying families’: a possibility for the future of the sociology of personal life, in E. Dermott and J. Seymour (eds) Displaying Families: A New Concept for the Sociology of Family Life, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 318.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Earley, V., Fairbrother, H. and Curtis, P. (2019) Displaying good fathering through the construction of physical activity as intimate practice, Families, Relationships and Societies, 8(2): 21329. doi: 10.1332/204674318X15213675247903

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Finch, J. (2007) Displaying families, Sociology, 41(1): 6581. doi: 10.1177/0038038507072284

  • Finch, J. and Mason, J. (1993) Negotiating Family Responsibility, London: Routledge.

  • Fineman, M. (1995) The Neutered Mother, the Sexual Family and Other Twentieth Century Tragedies, New York: Routledge.

  • Fleming, R. (1997) The Common Purse: Income Sharing in New Zealand Families, Auckland: Auckland University Press.

  • Gabb, J. (2011) Troubling displays: the affect of gender, sexuality and class, in E. Dermott and J. Seymour (eds) Displaying Families: A New Concept for the Sociology of Family Life, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 3860.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gillis, J. (1996) A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  • Haynes, J. and Dermott, E. (2011) Displaying mixedness: differences and family relationships, in E. Dermott and J. Seymour (eds) Displaying Families: A New Concept for the Sociology of Family Life, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 14559.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Heaphy, B. (2011) Critical relational displays, in E. Dermott and J. Seymour (eds) Displaying Families: A New Concept for the Sociology of Family Life, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 1937.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • James, A. and Curtis, P. (2010) Family displays and personal lives, Sociology, 44(6): 116380.

  • Kehily, J. and Thomsen, R. (2011) Displaying motherhood: representations, visual methods and the materiality of maternal practice, in E. Dermott and J. Seymour (eds) Displaying Families: A New Concept for the Sociology of Family Life, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp 6180.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Miller, T. (2011) Making Sense of Fatherhood, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Morgan, D. (1996) Family Connections: An Introduction to Family Studies, Cambridge: Polity.

  • Neale, B. and Smart, C. (2002) Caring, earning and changing: parenthood and employment after divorce, in A. Carling, S. Duncan and R. Edwards (eds) Analysing Families: Morality and Rationality in Policy and Practice, London: Routledge, pp 18399.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Philip, G. (2013) Relationality and moral reasoning in accounts of fathering after separation or divorce: care, gender and working at ‘fairness’, Families, Relationships and Societies, 2(3): 40924. doi: 10.1332/204674313X667407

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Ribbens-McCarthy, J. (2012) The powerful relational language of ‘family’: togetherness, belonging and personhood, The Sociological Review, 60(1): 6890. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-954X.2011.02045.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Robertson, J., Pryor, J. and Moss, J. (2008) Putting the Kids First: Caring for Children after Separation, Wellington: Families Commission.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Smart, C. (1991) The legal and moral ordering of child custody, Journal of Law and Society, 18(4): 485500. doi: 10.2307/1410322

  • Smart, C. (2007) Personal Life, Cambridge: Polity.

  • Smart, C. and Neale, B. (1999) Family Fragments?, Cambridge: Polity.

  • Stewart-Withers, R., Scheyvens, R. and Fairbairn-Dunlop, P. (2010) Being A Single Mum: Pacific Island Mothers’ Positive Experiences of Parenting, Wellington: Families Commission.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Sua’ali’i-Sauni, T., McTaggart, S. and Von Randow, M. (2009) Pacific Families Now and in the Future: A Qualitative Snapshot of Household Composition, Wellbeing, Parenting and Economic Decision-Making among Pacific Families in Auckland, 2008 [Report number 2/09], Wellington: Families Commission.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Waldegrave, C., King, P., Maniapoto, M., Tamasese, T.K., Parsons, T.L. and Sullivan, G. (2011) Resilience in Sole Parent Families: A Qualitative Study of Relational Resilience in Māori, Pacific and Pakeha Sole Parent Families, Wellington: Family Centre Social Policy Research Unit.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Williams, F. (2004) Rethinking Families, London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

  • van Kriekan, R. (2005) The ‘best interests of the child’ and parental separation: on the ‘civilizing of parents’, Modern Law Review, 68(1): 2548. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2230.2005.00527.x

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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