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To share and “be shared”…

Everyday life experiences as “shared children” – micro-anthropological analyses and conceptual offers
Ida Wentzel Winther and Steen Nepper Larsen
p. 95-119


Many children either commute in and out of multiple households or have siblings who do so. They switch between home settings; some of them have to pack themselves and their history/ies into their luggage and move them across the country. They move between multiple households; from one set of home logics to another. They are parts of multi-local extended families and as participants in such multiple families and households share in the conditions of having to share. To a certain degree, they share their everyday lives, things, memories, places, and past and future experiences, but as the ones who move back and forth, they belong a little less to each place. They are “demanded” and “shared”. This paper focuses on children who share family and siblingship – limited to neither a single place nor family unit. Based on a phenomenological understanding, our research sheds light on how the children’s participation in different households places them in different “we-communities”, where sharing must be handled and practiced in an everyday manner. We also shed light on how “shared children” expose different patterns of commonality and divisional practices.

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I. Introduction

1This article focuses on children whose sharing of family and siblingship is not limited to a single place or a family unit. Based on a phenomenological understanding, our research sheds light on how children’s participation in different households places them in various “we-communities”, where sharing must be handled and practiced in an everyday manner. We also shed light on how “shared children” evidence different patterns of commonality and divisional practices.

2Our way of grasping what is quite an “everyday” element is to work from an empirical level, “harvesting” the emic terms gathered in the fieldwork, and blending that in with theoretical concepts (Nancy, 2000; Massey, 2005; Tomasello, 2009; Widlok, 2017). In this way our work has a twofold ambition: we present dense empirical based analyses and we create theory, i.e. present new concepts.

3Over the last fifty years, ways of living, gender roles and working life have changed, as have cultural views of family life and family relations. There’s a growing recognition of the diversity of family forms, which are more mobile and associated with various places of residence. Many family configurations include multi-local extended families, and many children move between families and households. These children come to live exten­ded everyday lives in different family forms, while they traverse and experience many different spaces. Sometimes it’s due to work, but most often, it comes down to the fact that the adults in the family have previously been part of other families that “resulted” in children.

4Today, a wide range of family forms exists. In Denmark, for example, there are officially 37 different types of family (Statistics Denmark, 2018: 33) and, despite the continued reference to the nuclear family as the norm, statistics show that fewer Europeans get married and an increasing number of marriages ends in divorce (e.g., Oláh, 2015; Eurostat, 2017). Following a break-up, many adults form new partnerships, and some have children from previous nuclei that have now split up. This often results in even more offshoots, as the new nuclear families also produce children together. The adults repeatedly establish themselves (serial nuclear families) and, among other things, each break-up generates many partial sub-sets; all of these partial sub-sets weave in and out of the other shared and numerous partial sub-sets.

5Many children either commute in and out of multiple households or have siblings who do. If they commute between their parents’ separate households, gaps and pauses arise due to how far they must move. If they live in “just” one place, they may spend time and energy coming to terms with the various reasons why they opted out of life in the other household or were, or felt they were, rejected. They live with the knowledge that they do not share the entirety of their everyday life with the other members of either household – and therefore, they do not count 100 percent. From a child’s perspective, one might say that as some of these children switch between home settings, they must pack themselves and their history/histories into their luggage and move both to the other home setting. They move between multiple households; from one set of home logics to another. They’re parts of multi-local extended families, and as participants in such multiple families and households they share the condition of having to share. To a certain degree, they share their everyday lives, things, memories, places, and past/future experiences, but as the ones who move back and forth, they be­long a little less in each place. They’re “demanded” (Widlok, 2017) and “shared”.

6Perhaps they manage to turn these entangled life conditions into possibi­lities they can profit from. They potentially become part of a greater commonality that they share with many others where space and co-being are expanded and minimized. They’re part of an ongoing “doing family” with relationships, wherein “I”, “we” and “co-being” change composition and character in social life (Nancy, 2000; Tomasello, 2005). They live in and with small-scale mobility (both spatially, socially, and emotionally), loaded with demands and sometimes even mandatory imperatives impacting various spheres of life, not the least family lives. To live in this kind of super-flexible relationship where one has to connect and disconnect requires practice, skills and improvisational talent – and practice and formation of character take time.

7In this article we present dense, empirically based analyses based on research done in Denmark. The ethnographic research has followed children whose lives are divided between multiple households and families. As an ethnographer and a philosopher we are working (and thinking) from below. I.e. the movement goes from the empirical material and is enriched by theoretical concepts. Though this movement the ambition is to fertilize theore­tical approaches and create new concepts.

8The analytical research question leading the fieldwork is twofold: How do children from multi-local extended families share everyday life? And how do they practice these super-flexible relationships wherein they have to be able to connect and disconnect?

  • 1 In 2018, Winther wrote a chapter for a narrowly-focused Danish anthology about the phenomenon of “s (...)

9The paper will be composed in the following way: First, by positioning our approach to shared children and children who share families and households within the fields of sociological and anthropological family studies. Secondly, we will introduce theoretical reflections about the concept “to share” and, along the way, we coin and insert concepts such as “we-ness”, “co-existence”, and “throwntogetherness”. Then we present analytical perspectives on sharing and perform four analyses: a) To share households; b) To share things; c) To share life; d) Sharing the condition “of sharing”. Finally, we offer an epilogue1.

II. Sociological and anthropological family studies on children who share families and households

10Children’s movements between families are thus part of a larger body of family research, focusing on families as relationships where personal life, intimacy and small scale mobility are central. The so-called “modern family” has been described and discussed by social psychologists and sociologists, among others. In this varied research, the focus is on the types of change the family has undergone – from being a circumstance to a choice – and on the family as a reserve of intimacy. They all have a focus on family relationships beyond the nuclear family and many scholars develop a configurational approach to families, which emphasises interdependencies existing among large numbers of family members (e.g., Beck/Beck-Gernsheim, 2002; Jensen/McKee, 2003; Smart, 2003, 2007; Widmer/Jallinoja, 2008; Castrén/Ketokivi, 2015; Oláh, 2015; Cesnuitytè/Detlev/Widmer, 2017).

11A growing body of sociological and anthropological family studies address issues of separation, divorce and single or shared parenting and care, with an interest in the ways family relations and structures are constituted through and in actions, processes and practices (e.g., Ahlberg, 2008; Widmer, 2010; Heaphy/Smart/Einarsdottir, 2013; Castrén/Widmer, 2015; Heath et al., 2017; Eldén et al., 2019; Mason, 2018; Merla, 2018; Merla/Nobels, 2019; Castrén et al., 2021). This work underlines that “the family” has no fixed or eternal form. Family relations (e.g., siblingships) are not stable or easily demarcated phenomena, and are contextually defined. They change over time in shape, intensity, and character and varies depending on who is included in the category. Family forms (including kinship) affect the specific family figuration as well as the interactions and practices that take place. British sociologist David Morgan focuses on kinship as social praxis, and his work underscores variations in forms of both family and family practices (Morgan, 1996, 2011). The focus should be on what people do when they “do” family.

12Since the 1990s, the interest of anthropological/sociological studies of childhood has moved towards how life is practised. The empirical and theoretical point of departure has shifted from families with children to children within families; that is, to complex understandings of reciprocity and mutual dependence between family members. Rather than portraying children as dependents and recipients of their parents’/adults’ care, the child’s perspective has become central. There has been a move away from understanding childhood and family life as primarily bound to the parent-child relation(ships), and instead looking at both the vertical relationships (child/adult) and, not least, the horizontal (child/child, sibling/sibling) pairing forms as well (Mayall, 1994; Morgan, 1996, 2012; Neale, 2002; Gulløv/Olwig, 2003; Haugen, 2008; Rasmussen, 2014).

13Children’s perspectives and points of view are central to contemporary extended family studies when their everyday lives are divided between homes, families, and siblings, where different systems, logics, and routines exist. Children move in and out in different double-looped situations. At one parent’s home there is one meaning-giving and rule-setting loop, at the other’s/others’ different “scripts” exist (Davies, 2015; Gulløv et al., 2015; Marshall, 2017; Palludan/Winther, 2017; Merla, 2018).

14From anthropological studies, we know that family relationships and kinship are, to a great extent, culturally variable, and that kinship is created through actions and processes. British Janet Carsten’s concept of “relatedness” emphasises that family relationships are not a given but are created, established, and formed through actions by individuals actively relating to each other (Carsten, 2000, 2004). In line with this perspective, British sociologist Carol Smart emphasises that an individual’s family relationships are formed through actions and interpretations, which are characterised by the person’s history and the conditions she/he are in. From this perspective, specific relationships are not perceived as relevant in every situation; they’re activated or pushed into the background depending on specific situations, relationships, and social interests (Smart, 2007). The British anthropologist Marilyn Strathern does not see humans as independent entities, but as part of a bundle of relationships that is constantly being formed and reformed through human interactions and friction (Strathern, 1988). These bundles of relationships are not defined by biology or sociality but are composed and function momentarily. Family takes place in a relational space individuals must work on (Viry/Vincent-Geslin/Kaufmann, 2015).

15In a certain segment of the research literature, the focus is on the fine-meshed fabric of understandings, connections, conflicts, and networks one must work within to understand family life in light of its complexity. Regardless of family form, family is more than social processes, practices and interactions. American historian John Gillis separates it into “the family we live by” and “the family we live with” (Gillis, 1996). The idea of a united family we live by still exists as a powerful normative category, even though many people actually live in very different and more divided, shared, and differentiated families in several households. In a historical perspective, family being divided and reorganized is by no means a new phenomenon. The American historian and sociologist Leonore Davidoff has described “the long family” as characteristic of a middle-class English family. She writes that in the mid-1850s there were often 7 to 10 children in a sibling group because mothers often died and fathers remarried, having several sets of children with different wives, which meant that the age gap between children was rather large and extra children were added to families, e.g., foster children, nieces and nephews (Davidoff, 2012). It appears that there was no regularity or legislation regarding where these children ended up. No research exists on how certain children experienced it.

16Indeed complex family forms and patterns are definitely not new “inventions” and across various classes people have lived in both long and broad families. Some farmers in rural West-Jutland (Denmark) in the early 1900s had as many as 15-25 children with the same wife or different wives. And no children ever had a free choice of where to be born or live.

17From a historical perspective, there seems to be a shift going on involving cases of divorce or a parent’s death. Formerly, children were allocated to a family – whereas children today are stretched/shared between multiple, equitably-positioned parents in what we term multiple families. According to Carol Smart, this shift has led to a change from the allocation and thereby delegation of responsibility to a focus on remaining jointly committed to sharing. This means that, even though they’re divorced, parents remain connected to each other because they must share responsibility for their child, and must ensure that the various shared residence and contact arrangements are maintained. The law allows for shared residence arrangements, and children today have become emotionally valuable and central to “the good life” – this means that the struggles over them have intensified, while there is also a greater awareness of childhood’s psychological significance for development and the children’s experiences of the lives they lead.

III. Research contributions

  • 2 We wanted to create material encompassing a wide variety of family models and a diversity of relati (...)

18As mentioned in the introduction, Winther and her colleagues have carried out a qualitative research project exploring children’s understanding of siblingship and family life (Winther et al., 2015; Gulløv/Palludan/Winther, 2015; Palludan/Winther, 2017; Rehder, 2016; Gulløv/Winther, 2021). The study comprised 93 children between the ages of 6 and 32, from all over Denmark2. We applied an intergenerational, and thereby horizontal, perspective in our approach to how sibling formations happen, as well as to how they’re understood by children and young people. We call it “(Ex)changeable siblingship”, which underlines the ongoing practical and sensitive relationships involved. Using these concepts, it’s possible to identify these social dynamics, variations and changes by way of the movement metaphor. Relations are mobile, not least because people move, between families and homes, but also as they move each other through actions and expressions of emotion as well as by opting in or out. Our findings showed us that many of our informants stated that the usual categories (e.g., “real siblings”, “divorce kids” are normative and not representative of the complex relationships they’re living in. We therefore developed two concepts inspired by Davidoff, done as a way to avoid reproducing normative understandings of “real” and “plastic” siblings, etc.

19The “long and broad” consists of children who live in multiple households that are shared by several sets of children who do not necessarily share the same biological parents. The age span between the youngest and the eldest child may be large, as their parents may have several sets of children or live with someone who has children from previous nuclear formations (in our material, there is an age span ranging between four and 32 years, for example). Similarly, it’s not always certain that children will share a household with the siblings they have, as they may live elsewhere or have offset shared residence or contact arrangements. In the material, there are several adults who have formed new families five or six times. For example, one 14-year-old has 12 siblings (four “half-siblings” and eight “bonus” (step) siblings’), and she lives with none of them. Another 15-year-old has seven siblings (one “full sister”, five “half-siblings”, and one “bonus (step) sister”) and currently lives with three of the “half-siblings”.

20The “short and narrow” are siblings who live together in one place, and where there are relatively few years between the children. In that situation, there is a narrow age span, shared parents, and living in the same residence, and thus generally sharing the same everyday routines.

21We include this distinction to show how “sharing” happens in different ways depending on which type of household one lives in. In both contexts, sharing occurs; mealtimes, atmospheres, emotions, air, engagements, and social ties are shared. This differentiation allows us to discuss various facets of siblingship and to show the interconnectedness between being a sibling and the life worlds and conditions siblingship is performed in. The participants showed us the physical conditions of their lives: their homes, rooms, interiors, and belongings. We also followed (and filmed) some of them as they moved between homes. We observed them packing, leaving, travelling (alone or together with siblings), arriving, and unpacking. They showed and told us about the differences in lifestyle, rules, and ways of being in their different homes, and how they cope with these changeable elements. This way of doing research along the way is a part of the interdisciplinary tradi­tion often labelled “new mobility studies”, which have looked at mobility primarily as an embodied practice (e.g., Löfgren, 2008; Winther/Bund­gaard, 2020). This includes a micro-oriented approach to mobility as practice, where the foci include skills, rhythms, routines, stuff, ways of walking, waiting or doing nothing (Miller, 2008; Löfgren, 2008; Ehn/Löfgren, 2010; Cresswell/Merriman, 2011; Vannini, 2012; Winther, 2015; Christensen, 2020).

22The focus on how children move between multiple households, from one set of home logics to another reinforces the interest in the scope and understanding of the concept of home. According to British anthropologist Mary Douglas, home is

[…] always a localizable idea. It does not need bricks and mortar; it can be a wagon, a caravan, a boat, or a tent. It need not be a large space, but space there must be, for home starts by bringing some space under control (Douglas, 1991:289).

23In Shared Housing, Shared Lives, Sue Heath et al. do an incisive, ethnographic analysis of shared housing, focusing on the material spaces and social, sensory proximities of day-to-day sharing (Heath et al., 2017). They focus on how people share homes, fridge partners and roommates. In our project on exchanging we focus on how children share parents, siblings and beds (Palludan/Winther, 2017). British sociologist Haley Davies focuses on how divorce children share different surnames, in- and excluding them from each other with identity-giving and inescapable name-tags. Naming practices are important factors in displaying kinship (Davies, 2011).

24Home is a localizable idea and a space. It’s also residence (a place), and often used as a referent for security; as a dream or a normative demand (Allan/Crow, 1989; Rybczynski, 1986; Winther, 2006, 2009). Home is also a place for possessions and materialization of family identity and memories (Chevalier, 1999; Marcoux, 2001; Miller, 2001; Löfgren, 2017a). In “Homing oneself”: Home as a practice, Winther splits the concept and phenomenon into four categories and makes a distinction between: 1) Home as a place where one often lives together with someone else; 2) home as an idea; 3) the feeling of home; and 4) “homing oneself” (i.e. how to create a sense of belonging or tactics for feeling at home both at home and in other places; Winther, 2009). This way of keeping the place (the building), the social space and more mobile elements (the feeling one can have in different pla­ces and different homes), makes sense when we try to understand shared lives, housing and children who live in multi-located residences. And it ma­kes it possible to do phenomenological analyses where materiality, feelings and ways of doing home is in the forefront.

IV. Analytical perspectives on sharing

25To reach more deeply into the vast complexity of multi-local family relations we will provide a few partial analyses of how children in various family constellations share, don’t share, and “are shared”. We draw mainly upon empirical material from the (ex)changeable sibling project. In the following, we share some theoretical reflections about the concept “to share” and, along the way, we coin and insert concepts such as we-ness, co-existence, and simultaneity. Welcome to our conceptual adventure.

26Using German anthropologist Thomas Witlok’s ground-breaking work on sharing, we can shed light on how children in modern families expose different patterns of commonality and divisional practices (Witlok, 2017). The inescapable question at stake in the pragmatic and practical realm is reconciling how one shares the rights and demands (verlangen in German) of being together with your children (for a certain amount of negotiated days per week) with the correlated compromise of giving up on your felt need and desire to be together with your children whenever and wherever you want. In this area, Widlok offers a productive theory of division shedding light on the complex tensions between wishes, needs, and demands on the one hand, and how to waive parental and children’s claims on the other. Across the board we imagine, and in fact observe, explosive conflicts (and even fights) but also peaceful negotiations within the parent-children relationship field in divorced families.

  • 3 Being and Time.

27According to the American anthropologist and psychologist Michael Tomasello, human beings have an exceptional ability to share, respect, cooperate, understand and decode the intentions of others – called “shared intentions” and “we-intentions”. Human beings also participate and act in social communities – due to the elaborated and promising concepts of “we-ness” and “acting in concert” (Tomasello, 2005, 2009; Larsen, 2014). Amidst all of this sociality and simultaneity, many things occur that are not shared or simultaneous. But they may not necessarily be in opposition to the shared. Mealtimes are shared but not the food itself. Perhaps friends are shared – but each relationship with them will be different. One may share many things, but generally not one’s body. British geographer Doreen Massey is concerned with the significance of places with regard to how we live together (Massey, 2005). According to her, when places constantly change form and contents, it affects our “throwntogetherness” (Ibid., 2005:151). “Throwntogetherness” is a Heideggerian inspired neologism. In § 29 of his famous classic and chef d’oeuvre, Sein und Zeit3 (1927), man’s fundamental existence in the world is depicted as “Geworfenheit” (“thrownness”). Man’s “thrownness” labels an inescapable ontology, as man decided neither to be born or not to be born. To be a human being is to be-thrown into the world and not to be the master of the universe, nor of individual existence. Heidegger also writes about “Mitsein” (being with) but does not elaborate on co-being’s sociological connotations and denotations. Coining the concept “throwntogetherness”, Massey emphasizes the inner connectedness between “Geworfenheit” and “Mitsein”. She stresses not only how we are always-already (Heidegger would say “je schon”, e.g., in Sein und Zeit, §23) “thrown” into the social and therein encapsulated by social bonds but also sensing “the productiveness of spatiality” (Massey, 2005:94; see also §23: “Die Räumlichkeit des In-der-Welt-seins”, and §24: “Die Räumlichkeit des Daseins und der Raum” in Sein und Zeit). By this productive conceptual move she manages to de-individualize Heidegger’s existential ontology and embeds our togetherness in social space. Dealing with the divorce children’s access to and actions in the world, it’s obvious that Massey’s concept “throwntogetherness” sheds light on the existential ontology of the child’s being-in-the-world, as he or she is always-already belonging to spatial-ontological “spheres”, e.g., experiencing different rules and practices in her/his/their different houses and families. Besides, and not to forget, the child is often living together with other siblings who “happen” to be there too.

28British anthropologist Marilyn Strathern writes about being entangled and intertwined in changeable bundles (Strathern, 1988). In her work, human beings are not understood as individual entities, but as “dividual” (i.e. dividable) bundles of relationships that change their composition and character in social life. For French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy, it’s not a matter of “I” or “we”. In his book Being Singular Plural, he examines the relationship between being “an I”, “a we”, “we-ness”, “commonalities”, and all forms of being and becoming (Nancy, 2000). Nancy breaks down and dissolves all the imaginable forms of identity construction and being to elucidate how “being-in-common”, “co-being” and “we-articulation” are unfolded (Ibid. :99).

29Why deal with these advanced non-mainstream concepts when writing about sharing and children who share? The reason is they may inspire us in assessing the extent to which children transgress their singularity (their “I”) and their own physical experiences when they’re constantly endeavouring to be part of shared universes and called upon. And by using these super-flexible concepts, we can understand what may happen between an “I”, an “us”, and “an other” when one is often “with others”, as these children are. But do Strathern’s “bundles” make sense? And if so, what do these lines and bundles look like when children move alone and sometimes entangle themselves and share and, at other times, develop? And does it make any sense to talk about “us” and “we-ness” in relation to these children who are sometimes among many “we’s”? It might be the case, that they may experience a kind of loneliness while trying to find space and establish footholds within what are often changeable landscapes, households, and families. Massey’s conceptual offer, “throwntogetherness”, is more useful in this context, as the children depicted in the following analyses move between places in the alternating households, which change form and content, depending on who resides here and there.

30The productiveness of spatiality both enables some new things to happen, as Massey writes (2005:94), but can also establish ritualized norms, and mandatory and reproductive behavioral, trans-individual patterns.

31In the coming section, we readdress four analyses and depict how these very flexible and non-individual-oriented anthropological and philosophical concepts and points make sense. Primarily, we will look at and “listen to” the participatory sense-making processes among the children studied and interviewed and “test” the conceptual offers above.

V. Analyses

A. To share households

32Living in a household where the cast of characters is reshuffled and chan­ged requires a sustained effort to create and maintain narratives, so that a particular form of consensus and a “we” or a “being-in-common” can emerge. Who one’s family members are and what status they have may seem banal, but it’s not all that simple for some of the children in long and broad siblingships.

33For example, Hans, Lea, and William share the same father and mother, and Tom and Pete share the same father and mother. A year before Winther first met them, they all shared a household every other week, and thereby the practicalities of everyday life. The eldest boy, Hans (12 years old), told us that the whole flock becomes «a kind of sibling» during those weeks. But during the other weeks, when they’re all in their other households and don’t share their everyday lives, Hans said, «Yeah, then we don’t think about each other.» Thus, on the surface, there would not appear to be any relationship between them. Nearly a year later, I revisited them. During this visit, Hans was lying on the sofa in a “closely entangled bundle” with Pete. In contrast to the previous visit, the closeness and entanglements seem to have emerged; “time” is their explanation, but it still stops when they move back to their respective other parents.

34Cecilie (12) doesn’t share her everyday life or residence with her older (almost-adult) brother Jim that much. He maybe sleeps at their shared father’s house once every three weeks. In between, the two siblings meet up at a café. She explains that, in many respects, she has grown up as an only child but would rather call herself a «live-alone child», as this inventive neologism emphasises, a potentially shared universe with her brother. In contrast to Cecile, Cornelius (10) is surrounded by many siblings. He lives full-time with one of his brothers (who’s two years older) and their shared parents. His two older sisters come every other week, and then there are four children living there. The household dynamics change when they go from being two to being four, and the atmosphere also changes from being predominantly male (two sons + father + mother) to suddenly having the two older sisters at home. The character of the place changes, the social dynamic, the language, the atmosphere is transformed by the older girls; and the ways they’re together – their “throwntogetherness” – changes form. During one of our visits, a friend of Cornelius stopped by and asked if he wanted to play, but Cornelius responded: «Can’t right now. I’m part of a study because I’m a child of divorce». His mother was making coffee, and she promptly turned around and said, surprised: «You are not a child of divorce!». «Yes, I am», replied Cornelius. «My two sisters leave me every other week. I’m separated from them, so I’m a child of divorce.» In his child’s logic, it was a matter of being apart from his sisters, which he is. He doesn’t share his everyday life and household with them, he doesn’t share every holiday with them, and the two sisters have three other sisters elsewhere. In his life and understanding, he shares something with his sisters, but there are many things that they don’t share or have in common. The otherwise extensive “we-ness” has limits, which Cornelius cannot yet comprehend.

35Being part of a long and broad siblingship often means that the children living in the household together with the adults will have radically different relationships with them. In some cases, the adults are their biological parents; in others, they’re step-parents or the partner of one of their parents. In our material about long and broad siblingships, differences in rules and home logics is one of the recurrent themes that seems difficult to handle. A great deal of upbringing occurs in a family; for example, in relation to what children can and must do at home and in their bedrooms. In blended households, the adults may have divergent views on how much they should interfere in each other’s child-rearing. E.g., how much they should comment on their own and the other’s language and behaviour, how much money/how many chores the children should have, what time they should go to bed, how much time they should spend on the computer, watching YouTube, and so on. The rules, regulations and atmosphere vary depending on which family a child is living with; this points to Strathern’s understanding of family, in which families are understood as bundles of relationships that are constantly formed and re-formed, and which change character within the social logics and forms of dominance prevailing. Whether it’s a case of constant becoming and transformation or of more fixed family and home logics, it’s unlikely that they will be “shared” across both homes. The children who move back and forth and share households say that they become proficient in testing the waters and determining the mood, as well as whether their parents’ rules about not interfering across homes continue to be valid or whether they’re more a statement of intent. The children also talk about alienation, and the experience of being a guest and having to ask permission to take something from the refrigerator, for example. One of our informants said:

I’m a bit more of a guest there, but that doesn’t have so much to do with them [my siblings]. I think it’s mostly my dad’s wife, who is, uh [hesitates] – I mean, without talking badly about her, because she’s a really sweet lady, but I think that she’s a very proper kind of person or that she wants everything to be orderly […] For example, she’s the one who controls the kitchen, and she prepares the food, and the rest of us should preferably not touch the kitchen, and it’s her who, like, yeah, maybe you have an image of how it is… […] When you’re only there for a week at a time, then you’re kind of there as a guest – for example, “Come on, I’ve made you all lunch”, or “Now I’ve made a cup of coffee for you all” and then you don’t just go out and make an extra cup of coffee.

36This seems far removed from Nancy’s concept “we-articulation” (Nancy, 2000) but Massey’s concept of “throwntogetherness” can be used in order to depict and analyse how kids can be woven together but may also risk falling out of family bonds.

B. To share things

37Several parents shared their reflections about reasonableness and fairness in relation to the allocation of money, things, and privileges. Not least of all in households with long and broad siblingships, the parents were clearly aware that, ideally, their children should want for nothing nor feel treated unfairly. To avoid conflicts about sharing, it seems as though parents generally attempt to ensure that each child has his/her own things. The article Having my own bedroom would be really cool… (Palludan/Winther, 2017), focuses on the distribution of children’s bedrooms. To a great extent, households are arranged based on principles of reasonableness and fairness in an attempt to create a framework for commonality, and the aim here is for each child to have their own space – preferably a room of their own in each home. The children describe how objects and social life are interwoven in the shared life, and how the sense of commonality is impeded when things are shared, allocated, and perhaps even unfairly distributed. With an understan­ding that objects are co-actors in social life (inter-objectification), the same sense of commonality can also be impeded when things are divided up, and therefore not shared.

38From the parents’ perspective, it may seem obvious to try to avoid problems – conflicts – by giving children the same things, but paradoxically, this may result in children not having very much to share, which can affect their relationships. It’s one thing to have to share one’s things with others, and it’s quite another to have to share one’s things between places. Regardless of what shared residence or visitation arrangements are in place, things must be packed and moved. Bags and suitcases are being filled, carried, and emptied at and between the spaces.

39In several research projects, Winther has followed children’s packing practices and taken an interest in what they share and don’t share between their places. She’s observed how the children drag their travel bags, rucksacks, or suitcases. In and out of busses and trains, whether heavy or light (Winther, 2015).

Julie (18): I really lug a lot back and forth and probably some things too that aren’t really necessary. […] When I was smaller, of course, it was often my parents who packed, and I didn’t think about it very much, but now… if I have to live in two different places, I just want to have all my things, so I actually pack almost everything I use, all the clothes I wear, and I pack it all. Half of my stuff just stays in my bag all week, but I actually take everything with me, I mean, all my electronics and school books of course and that kind of thing, yeah, a load of clothes, CDs when I was younger and books and…

40Julie doesn’t share her things between her two households. She “lugs” it around with her even though she knows from experience that she won’t use half of it. For her to function, the certainty that she has her things is impor­tant because her bits and pieces – the objects she packs – help to constitute her and give her the necessary peace of mind to feel at home in her father’s household (Miller, 2001; Winther, 2009). Perhaps this is a matter of inter-objectivity, wherein Julie and her objects are intermingled, and together they form the foundation of her being – and, perhaps, her co-being (see also Frykman, 2017:155). Ditte (14 years) also packs her bags. In contrast to Julie, she only takes a few things with her. She packs five minutes before she leaves, almost carelessly throwing her things into a rucksack. She main­ly takes school things and electronics with her. She has clothes in both pla­ces, and if she’s missing something, she does without it for the two weeks she’s at the other place. The place she leaves is left in a mess with the door open. When she arrives, she throws down her rucksack without unpacking it (neither that day nor the following). By filling the space, she shares herself and makes herself “present” even while she’s “absent”. In contrast, Sally (15 years old) packs slowly. She considers every little thing she’ll take with her. She thinks about the coming days and tries to figure out what she’ll need. She shares her considerations with no one, but just slowly and systematically packs her bag; it seems as though she packs herself, at a particular rhythm. Swedish ethnologist Orvar Löfgren describes how the suitcase (the travel bag) is more than just a practical measure: «The suitcase is not only a container for stuff, but also for affects, dreams, anxieties and ideals» (Löfgren, 2017b:126). Some things are brought along, other things are left behind – the past, present, and future are mixed together in the suitcase. Our engagement is embodied, and an entanglement of the material and the person occurs in a form of inter-objectivity. If we follow this conceptualisation, children who share a household also share things, places, memories, and the past/present to a certain degree – but they also pack themselves and their histor(y/ies) into their bags and “lug” them across the country.

  • 4 Recent body-phenomenological concepts, like enactive intersubjectivity, participatory sense-making (...)

41It’s obvious that the delicate relations between the children’s existential foothold in diverse and divorced families, the dynamic intersubjective patterns they inhabit, and their inter-objective “investments” in things can be described conceptually and theoretically in using Massey’s concept of “throwntogetherness”, Nancy’s concept “we-articulation”, and Tomasello’s concepts of both “shared intentionality” – and in this specific connection of moveable things – “shared attention”4.

C. To share life

42Julie’s parents divorced when she was five years old. She has seven siblings in multiple households, and she’s very focused on making her worlds meet and cultivating a form of commonality. She’s both part of something and, at the same time, not really a part of it. The person who moves back and forth belongs a little bit less. Her efforts to be part of her younger sisters’ lives have poor odds of success. They all share, and do not share anything at all. But they share in the condition of having to share. Later, when Winther visited Julie, a photo collage decorated one of the walls. She said:

It’s very nice, because it’s siblings from different places… And who do we have here? [she points at a photo]. That’s Jens there and Sofie. And again – it kind of criss-crosses [Sofie and Jens are both Julie’s siblings, but none of the three kids share the same two parents]. I just think it’s nice to have them like this. Then you can see “who Julie is, and what her family is”. Those pictures I have up on the wall are my siblings.

43Julie establishes lines of connection between her siblings, and they’re linked together in ways that go beyond the official family relations. Perhaps one might say that, through the photo collage as materiality, a co-being emerges that may take on a new form once it’s in her apartment. Another example of dosed care and shared intimacy takes place between two other teenagers when they cross the country by train between their two households. They’re annoyed by the time spent travelling. They quarrel and get maddest when they have to spend so much time travelling on a Sunday. Nanna (17) had to be absent from a party at high school, and Thomas (15) missed an important soccer game. But they get no more than 10 minutes by train out of Copenhagen before Nanna (18) places her foot in her younger brother’s lap; he then strokes her foot for the next three hours.

44Using Tomasello’s concepts, this involves their reading and understanding each other’s intentions (“shared intentions”). They’re in a pocket of time and experience the journey in different ways; but their bodies reach out for each other’s, and the train’s rhythm and the togetherness around the little table calls for this form of sharing. Participatory sense making and co-bodily attunement in a public train space. But just before the journey started, they shared mutual and vivid irritations.

45Two other boys Peter (8) and Ulf (11) share the journey between their households:

We were that way before. […] I mean, if I had to do something after school, then my younger brother had to wait until I was finished and then we went home together, and vice versa. […] He was so small that my dad didn’t like the idea of him taking the train alone, and there was also something about us being able to use the same ticket, I think [laughs].

46The boys must synchronise with each other (wait for each other) and move across the country with each other. In this terrain, they care for each other (and their father’s wallet). It’s possible to “be with” each other in many ways. According to Massey, the eternally shifting pathways of movement help to question our throwntogetherness (Massey, 2005:151). The teenagers on the train are very much “with” each other. They share time, space, and circumstances. In this context, they must find a rhythm, regardless of how much they argue and are in disharmony. Their bodies move from one household to another, from one set of logics to another. And they’re together in having to test the waters to determine moods and adjust themselves accordingly. But despite this commonality, they each test the waters separately. They arrive with different types of “baggage” – including social and emotional expectations – and are thereby both together and alone.

D. Sharing the condition “of sharing”

47Throughout this article, displaying various and multifarious forms of interactions and mobility patterns, we have shown how children who share households, families, and siblings live and practice extremely complex lives. Regardless of how everyday life and the double loops are organised, these children share experiences of living apart.

48Many of the informants talk about the terms and conditions by sharing, and thus also being outside what the others share. E.g., Julie (18) and Joy (16):

Julie: In relation to my parents, it has always been so little in the sense that I felt that they felt that we were missing, right? I, at least, feel about myself, that when I come to one place, there are some things that they have together, which I’m not quite part of, because it just can’t be done, because I’m not there as much… […] When they’re talking about all sorts of things that happen in their lives that I don’t know anything about. It’s also rare that I just say to my youngest little sister at dad “Well, I’ll get you continuation school”. I don’t really know what she’s doing, and I don’t really know her girlfriends and that way.

Joy: Once my sister moved out, I am no longer invited to the family things on her side. I feel that my sister has a whole family world outside of me.

49They live with an awareness that, no matter how much they’re loved, they’re nevertheless divided. They share histories and families with one part, but they will often be in (family) contexts where they’re strangers to another part of the guests (the extended family’s family). When they grow older, they live with the awareness that everyday life occurs in places they're not present in nor are parts of. No matter how much is shared (socially, linguistically, and physically), how much intersubjectivity configures and vanishes, and no matter how much entanglement and development occurs, we continue to be our own bodies, that move and are moved. Whether children are parts of long/broad or short/narrow siblingships, their individual ways of being a body in a house, and a body in relation to parents and siblings, will never be the same. They may have shared their childhoods and experienced many of the same things together. They may share many family narratives; but despite that, each carries their own embodied experiences, memories, narratives, and affects, making them who they are. As the boy Christian (14) summed it up: «After all, we’re most of all a bunch of children living together». In the long and broad siblingships, children share neither their everyday household, parents, or grand narratives (such as “this is how we do things in our family”), and all narratives change depending on who’s part of the household.

50Many divided kids are being framed – by the parents “for the time being” – as “we-articulations” (Nancy, 2000) with “shared intentions and attentions” (Tomasello, 2005, 2009), but the “we’s” are often fragile and momentary and the intentions and attentions are not in unison. But the intimation and facticity of “throwntogetherness” (Massey, 2005) seem to be quite imposing.

VI. Epilogue

51According to Strathern, we are formed in and by the shifting field of relationships we are a part of, and we embody social relationships. When a child is part of multiple households, there are multiple sets of social relationships that must be embodied in double loops, and the collective “we” shifts. Nancy’s words, «We are each time another, each time with others» (Nancy, 2000:97) may mean that one will always be another, and in another social relationship. Children who share in this way, shift their socialities, places, spaces and, to a certain degree, materialities.

52The question is whether they get the time to do that as super-flexible relationships require practice – and practice takes time. Perhaps “I” and “we” can be divided, but it’s unlikely to become “strong” without time and practice (temporality and experience play important roles in this context). The pathways of movement and sharing do not occur in a delimited space. The past, present, and future are all constantly at play with regards to whom one previously shared with, how it worked, and with whom one will soon be sharing. Whereas in Nancy’s work (“with”) or “together with” is a fulcrum; but there’s nothing that seems to support Nancy’s hypothesis about the transindividual, where singularity is transgressed – at least not in relation to the empirical material we’re working with.

53We’re all a part of numerous partial sub-sets; but children in long and broad siblingships are thrown into an everyday home life in which they must constantly re-group and re-configure their lives depending on who’s present, who’s coming or going, or re-arriving. They’re more or less bundled together with others all the time, in various types of space, with different forms of materialities and socialities, challenging and augmenting their ability to understand and decode the others’ intentions (their “we-ness”; confer Tomasello, 2005, 2009). They potentially become parts of a greater commonality they share with many others, and which allows for new offshoots. Both children and their (part-time) parents might be tempted, dri­ven, and forced to do their best to be “wanted” and needed, while at the same time preserving the right to be exchangeable and exclusive. A balance is not easily achievable and the sentiments and practices involved seem to be both paradoxical and conflictual.

54Perhaps the idea or dream that shared children can also flow around, co-exist, and connect and disconnect is captivating. But if it’s the case: 1) it requires time and shared practices; 2) the person who is doing the sharing manages to cope with the possible places and commonalities; 3) the commonalities have to be available, accessible, and able to contain the many partial sub-sets.

55The dual experience of being both shared (and thereby increased), and divided (and thereby minimised), requires that children come to terms with the idea that they will always be a partial sub-set, no matter what – children who share life conditions in the midst of a constant sharing, dividing, and distributing “logic” of everyday life.

56Altogether, this article envisages children in divorced families as both agents and seismographic co-workers in creating meaning, commonality, and trans-family bonds. Divorced children live, form, and experience complex everyday lives. We hope that this article contributes to qualitative children’s research in divorced families. Its ambition is neither to idealize nor criticize the super-flexible nomadic lives of “divorce kids”, i.e. we do not intend approach the field in a normative way. The analyses are based on dense empirical studies, besides igniting a theory-generative ambition. Our collected empirical material and theoretical work qualify each other. They are in need of one another.

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Structured summary

Presentation: This paper focuses on children who share family and siblingship not limited to a single place and a unit family. Based on a phenomenological understanding, our research sheds light on how the children’s participation in different households place them in different “we-communities”, where sharing must be handled and practiced in an everyday manner. We also shed light on how “shared children” expose different patterns of commonality and divisional practices. Our way of grasping such a very everyday based element is to work from the empirical level, “harvesting” the emic terms gathered in the fieldwork, and enlacing them with theoretical concepts (Nancy, 2000; Massey, 2005; Tomasello, 2009; Widlok, 2017). Over the last fifty years, ways of living, gender roles and working lifestyles have changed, as have cultural views of family life and family relations. There is a growing recognition of the diversity of family forms, which are more mobile and associated to various places of residence. Many family configurations include multi-local extended families, and many children move between families and households.

Theory: We draw upon – and the paper thereby becomes profoundly inspired by – a rich fund of philosophical, ethnographical, and sociological theories of wide and broad phenomenological origin. The sibling study was done between 2011-2013, the material has been analysed and published in various ways (e.g., Winther et al., 2015), and in this case I (Ida) as a ethnographer and project manager of the sibling study has invited a philosopher and epistemologist (Steen) “into” the material. In this way, we are working (and thinking) from below, i.e. the empirical material has its offspring in the paper’s movement, being then enriched by encountering theoretical concepts. And through this movement, the ambition is also to fertilize theoretical approaches and create new concepts.

Method: In this paper we present dense empirical based analyses relying ethnographic research done in Denmark. The study comprised about 90 children and young people between 6 and 32 years of age, gathered from all over Denmark between 2011-2013. Primarily using snowball sampling to reach respondents, the research teams conducted semi-structured, in-depth interviews with these informants, observing some of them several times. The relatively wide range in ages refers to the fact that many adults had several “litters” of children and/or found new partners. Generally speaking, the research team only interviewed and observed the children, but in a few cases it seemed obvious to also interview grown-up siblings who could provide us with insight into more extended siblingships and multi-local family narratives. The interviews were conducted in the children’s homes; one in a café; two of them in a residential institution for young people and four of them in an orphanage the interviewees resided in at that time. Some informants volunteered to photograph events or activities they would be partaking in with their siblings, which would then naturally lead to subsequent follow-up talks. Other informants – 30 in all – we followed with a camera, filming them as they did things with their siblings, including sporting events, visits to cafés, spending cosy evenings at home, or when travelling from one home to the next. We followed 10 of the children over a longer period of time, and made quite a few ethnographic observations about their everyday doings and interactions. Finally, we interviewed 12 parents and a handful of social workers and other professionals “around” the families.

Results: This paper envisages children in divorced families as both agents and seismographic co-workers in creating meaning, commonality, and trans-family bonds. Divorced children live, form, and experience complex everyday lives. We hope this paper can contribute to qualitative child research in divorced families. Its ambition is not to idealize nor to criticize the super-flexible nomad lives of the divorced kids, i.e. we do not intend to approach the field in a normative way. The analyses are based on dense empirical studies; besides, they also ignite a theory-generative ambition. Our collected empirical material and theoretical work qualify one another. They need one another.

Discussion: “Our” children in the study live in super-flexible relationships. It requires practice – and practice takes time, and the pathways of movement and the sharing do not occur in a delimited space. Both the past, present, and future are constantly in play with regards to whom one previously shared with, how it worked out, with whom one will soon be sharing. We are all a part of numerous partial sub-sets; but children in long and broad siblingships are thrown into an everyday home life in which they must constantly re-group and re-configure their lives depending on who’s present, who’s coming, going, and re-arriving (“throwntogetherness”; confer Massey, 2005 – and “being-with”; confer Nancy, 2000). They are more or less bundled together with others all the time, in various types of space, with different forms of materialities and socialities that challenge and train their ability to understand and decode the others’ intentions (their “we-ness”; confer Tomasello, 2005, 2009). They potentially become parts of a greater commonality that they share with many others, spawning new offshoots. Both children and their (part-time) parents may be tempted, driven, and forced to do their best to be “wanted” and needed, and at the same time preserve the right to be exchangeable and exclusive. A balance is not that accessible and the sentiments and practices involved seem to be both paradoxical and conflictual. The dual experience of being both shared and divided (and thereby minimised) as well as shared (and thereby increased) requires that the children have to come to terms with the idea that they will always be a partial sub-set, no matter what. These children share life conditions in the midst of a constant sharing, dividing, and distributing “logic” of everyday life.

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1 In 2018, Winther wrote a chapter for a narrowly-focused Danish anthology about the phenomenon of “sharing” (Winther I.W., 2019). When professor Laura Merla’s interest came to our attention, Winter 2019/2020, it was obvious to return to this chapter and rewrite it (with agreement from the editors). As a way to reshape and enhance the original gaze, the philosopher and associate professor in Educational Science, Steen Nepper Larsen, was invited as analytical co-writer. In concert we have “used” Widlok’s, Tomasello’s and Nancy’s concepts; also the perspectives of Heidegger and Massey are linked together in a so-far unseen way. Our mutual contribution combines detailed micro-anthropological fieldwork-based analyses with a good helping of new conceptual offers. First order empirical studies meet second order meta-theoretical reflections.

2 We wanted to create material encompassing a wide variety of family models and a diversity of relations between children. Instead of selecting families using a classic sociological gaze (urban/rural, ethnicity, class), we included full, step, and half siblings. A number of the children have experienced parents’ serial changes of partner. A smaller group of children were separated from their parents – and often from their siblings as well – living in institutions. Some children have no personal experience of divorce, but have siblings who commute between homes, or who have moved away from home to, for example, a boarding school. The families’ financial situations vary; their number and sizes vary, as do the age differences between siblings and their geographical positions. About half of the informants are from heterogeneous family environments, and the other half from post-divorce/separation families and extended families. Participants were recruited through health nurses, youth clubs, schools, and Facebook posts. We also used the snowball method (someone knows someone, who knows someone…), which brought us far and wide within the desired variability. The material was interpreted, using both thematic analysis and visual ethnographic based analysis. Thematic analysis explored the spread of certain issues across the data set. Using visual methods is a multidisciplinary methodology: a way of gaining insight, a way of seeing and interacting – and, not least, a way of analysing (MacDougall D., 2006; Winther I.W., 2013). The two sorts of analyses were used in conjunction, informing one another and qualifying our film production (Winther I.W., Rehder M.M., 2015).

3 Being and Time.

4 Recent body-phenomenological concepts, like enactive intersubjectivity, participatory sense-making and mutual incorporation (i.e. intercorporality and the sense of belonging; see e.g., De Jaegher H., Di Paolo E., 2007; Fuchs T., De Jaegher H., 2009; Larsen S.N., 2010, 2012, 2013, 2020a, 2020b; Fuchs T., 2018) and body-oriented evolutionary anthropology (Sheets-Johnstone M., 1990, 2009) do also possess theoretical potentials for offering and “donating” anthropological field studies on how “shared children” practice a meta-reflexive awareness their everyday life.

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Bibliographical reference

Ida Wentzel Winther and Steen Nepper Larsen, To share and “be shared”… Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques, 52-1 | 2021, 95-119.

Electronic reference

Ida Wentzel Winther and Steen Nepper Larsen, To share and “be shared”… Recherches sociologiques et anthropologiques [Online], 52-1 | 2021, Online since 01 January 2022, connection on 18 June 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Ida Wentzel Winther

Ida Wentzel Winther, Danish School of Education, Department of Educational Anthropology, Aarhus University, Denmark,

Steen Nepper Larsen

Steen Nepper Larsen, Danish School of Education, Department of Education Studies, Aarhus University, Denmark,

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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