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22 August, 2009

Reasons to be Cheerful (Part Three)

Here's the big trick. Plenty of people fool around when they're young, but with polyamory, if you stick with it for the long run, your household won't end up looking much like white bread America. You might end up living in a group of people committed to each other across the board, or you might have one of your or a lover's partners as a roommate; you might be someone's "aunt" or "uncle" who spends the night after the kids go to bed. You might have to look after your own kids, and that could get problematic.

Teach Your Children

I don't know about the rest of you, but I don't expect ever to be in another monogamous relationship. I can easily imagine being satisfied with a single partner and spending years without dating another person, but even after getting married and having a child, I wouldn't want to close off the chance to pursue a new attraction. Neither would I ask my partner to promise that kind of exclusivity.

Having a child in a polyfamily creates a completely new suite of challenges. First of all, there's the problem of informing the kid. I'm a huge fan of being honest with children, but kids talk. This isn't Britain in 1966 - my dad's preschool has plenty of kids with more than one mommy - but generally, those two mommies are either monogamous lesbians or the result of a second marriage. To most ears, "non-monogamous" sounds like "sexually depraved", which is good grounds for many a conservative social worker to raise the alarms. Even worse is the problem of divorce: if a polyamorous relationship doesn't work out, all the bitter party needs to say is, "My spouse is promiscuous and doesn't maintain a household appropriate for children." Many people in the online poly community have voiced concerns that polyamory endangers their custody of their children, enough people that it's even made its way to the polyamory Wikipedia page. In my home state, I imagine the legal argument would have to be based on a risk of "Emotional Injury: an impairment to or disorder of the intellectual or psychological capacity of a child as evidenced by observable and substantial reduction in the child's ability to function within a normal range of performance and behavior." Luckily for me, I suspect that Massachusetts isn't equipped with a legal code that's likely to break up a polyfamily; other states might be less forgiving.

Happily, I'm only aware of one family who's actually lost a kid in this way, and after contesting the case for two years, the mother in question apparently conceded that she was actually an unfit mother on other grounds. (That case, and some of the other legal worries surrounding polyamory, appear in a little more detail on page two of this Salon.com article.) For all that talk that you'll see about the threats to polyamory in divorce courts and social services, those fears haven't been tested. I couldn't call myself a scientist if I didn't withhold judgment on the reality of those risks until I saw a case file. Still, I wouldn't be surprised to find that a court would leap on any excuse it found to break up a polyfamily; whether or not that would be the legal basis for the action, nonmonogamy disturbs many people in a deep way.

All that said, I have to make one claim about raising children in a polyamorous family. It's exactly what kids need.

I haven't been smoking the devil-weed, I promise! Here's my line of thinking. Today, given the ease and frequency of moving from one city to another, many people don't live in the regions where their parents did. My mom lives days' drive away from her family, and we almost only see my dad's at family gatherings. I get the impression that it wasn't always this way, though. When communities were more sedentary, one grew up and raised the next generation within a social network that had been slowly woven over generations. Now, people often go through a series of homes, starting out in cheap apartments and buying a home or more expensive rental place when they're ready to settle down and drop spawn. New parents are lucky if they know the neighbors' names. I know that on my street, more than half of the families we knew were the households of bullies on the bus route or just obnoxious rednecks. None of these people were really close with us; we only had one set of intimate family friends, the ones who turned us on to this town in the first place.

When your family consists not just of you and a spouse but also of your longterm lover, your spouse's unofficial husband, the girl he's been dating for a year or two, your lover's ex who's still close as family, that ex's two boyfriends and their girlfriends Sue and Jo, the cute guy from the video store you asked out this May and who seems hip to the whole poly thing ... suddenly, your circle of support seems a lot wider. Polyamory takes intimacy, communication and trust, three excellent features to have with the person who's taking care of your child while you relax for a night.

Because I'm only 21 and have never raised a child of my own, I spent a little extra time online looking for resources to back up this post. It didn't take long for me to bump into Scenes From a Group Marriage, the story of a child raised during brief but rich and loving experiment in group marriage. I found the article via Practical Polyamory, a blog with a layout alarmingly similar to my own. The author, looking back on his childhood, writes, "the communal household enjoyed a kind of camaraderie I have never felt since. ... I've felt for myself the stress that our hyper-individualist culture puts on families. Few of us live with extended family; fewer and fewer of us know our neighbors, go to church or belong to a social club. We measure success by the size of our houses and our paychecks. We see child rearing as a lifestyle choice, not a community endeavor. But two grown-ups sometimes aren't enough to pay the bills, to wipe the noses, to coach the soccer team and listen to the stories of schoolyard bullying. After 17 years, my wife and I are still passionate about each other. I have no desire to engage in the bold sort of experiment my parents took on. But sometimes, even when all four of us are home together, our world feels too small, and I understand the hope with which my parents blindly plunged into uncharted love." As long as the family was stable, it created a kind of community that's hard to find today. That particular marriage ended in divorce, which threw the whole situation into chaos. A stable nonmonogamous family, though, could work wonders.

If there are short-term or unstable relationships in your poly circle, that might be less conducive to the needs of a child. Children like stability; they like to know when people are going away and when they're coming back. It's important to remember that although kids can adapt to almost anything, they're sensitive to habits and social structures and can get alarmed if either shifts too often or too abruptly. For someone who leans more toward the swinging end of the nonmonogamy spectrum than the polyfidelity end, it would almost certainly be best to keep short-term partners out of the kids' worldview -- not to lie about my practices but to avoid setting a child up for disappointment when a . If you have more than one serious, long-term lover, though, it can only benefit a child to have another reliable, loving parent figure around. In that sort of situation, I suspect that all the explanation you'd have to give your children is the simple fact of living; if the arrangement is stable, they'd grow up with that many more parents to help them and a plethora of healthy relationship models on which to base their own lives. I can hardly see how it hurts to have more love, especially when children are involved.

For now (and, if all goes as planned, for the next several years), that's all I can really say on the subject of polyamory in the big bad Real World of taxes and babies. I've talked about some of the basics and the hypotheticals in these last three articles, but next time, I think, there's call for a look at what it's like in the trenches. What does it look like when a polyamorous relationship actually happens? It might be sunshine and puppies when all parties have the same agenda, but what happens when something goes wrong? Happily, I don't have that much experience on the latter subject, but I'll do what I can.

EDIT: Despite what I said in my reboot, I can't help but want to revise this one. It's probably healthiest, if one is seeing casual or short-term partners, that one model those behaviors visibly early in the life of one's child. Better to have the child think of those things as nothing special than for them to come out years later, a situation that might lead to feelings of betrayal or distrust. Besides, what if the child someday wants to try seeing multiple short-term partners? Better to already know how than to flounder around hurting feelings. That's what parents are for: giving their children examples of some ways to live in the world, and ultimately setting them free to pick their own.

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