Feminist Legal Studies

, Volume 18, Issue 2, pp 137–158 | Cite as

Autonomy for Mothers? Relational Theory and Parenting Apart

  • Susan B. BoydEmail author


This article explores the tensions between autonomy and expectations of mother-caregivers, in the context of normative trends in post-separation parenting law. Going back to first principles of feminism, the article asks what scope for autonomy there is for modern mothers in the face of socio-legal norms that prioritise shared parenting. The very relationship between mother-caregivers and children illustrates the important connection between relationships and autonomy: the caregiving that mothers provide enables children to become autonomous persons yet, at the same time, this caregiving relationship constrains maternal autonomy. In the current context that encourages shared parenting, the potential for maternal autonomy may be even more compromised—a deep irony in a supposedly post-feminist era. A responsible mother is now expected to nurture a child’s relationship with the father, unless he is proven to be harmful. The ability of women to be at all autonomous from the fathers of their children in the face of this normative expectation is dubious, even when the adults live separately. Moreover, the dominance of the heterosexual and patriarchal family—always a challenge for women’s autonomy—is reproduced in this imposition of equal parenting in the name of children’s rights. This article uses a contextual approach to relational autonomy to point to an approach that might challenge the normative climate of shared parenting.


Autonomy Legal norms Motherhood Relational theory Shared parenting 



The author acknowledges funding support from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and the UBC Law Class of ’68 Award, research assistance by Eiad el Fateh and Bree Makohn, and the constructive feedback of two anonymous referees as well as audiences at the 5th World Congress on Family Law and Children’s Rights in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 23–26 August 2009 and the Centre for Feminist Legal Studies Lecture Series, University of British Columbia, 19 January 2010.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of LawUniversity of British ColumbiaVancouverCanada

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