What do we stand to gain by recognising post-separation losses?

Recognising and facilitating multiple and differing relationship priorities after separation
Wednesday 25 July, 1110 – 1130


Vivienne Elizabeth
University of Auckland

When Smart and Neale (1999) identified the principle of recognising loss as integral to a feminist ethic of care that could guide decision-making in custody disputes they had in mind non-resident parents, most of whom are fathers. Yet gender-neutral custody laws and the increased prevalence of shared parenting over the last 15 years means that mothers can and do experience loss too. Indeed Parker (2011) views custody law as an instrument for the redistribution of loss post-separation.
However, as Smart and Neale (1999) point out, custody law operates according to an ethic of justice. Consequently, custody law addresses fathers’ loss experiences through coercing mothers into servicing father-child relationships by, first, sacrificing time with their children (Rathus, 2010) and second, by compelling sometimes reluctant children to go with their fathers (Cain, 2011). Coercion is thus highly likely to keep in circulation a toxic cocktail of emotions that act as obstacles to building relationships based on respect, trust and cooperation. But what might happen if our interventions with post-separated parents who cannot agree on custody arrangements simply began from the recognition of loss as part of applying an ethic of care.
This paper seeks to address this agenda through briefly mapping the post-separation loss experiences of mothers and fathers before going on to engage in a thought-experiment about the possibilities afforded by a feminist ethic of care for constructing post-separation family life in a manner that enables multiple and differing needs to be met.