When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that same-sex couples could marry no matter what state they lived in, many believed it would open the door to polyamorous marriage – marriage among three or more people.
“I don’t think it’s going to be as far in the future as people think,” a confident Robyn Trask, executive director of the polyamory support organization Loving More, told U.S. News and World Report.
Whether it’s close or not, there’s one thing for sure – if you’re a parent, you could learn a thing or two about parenting from poly people, even if you have no desire to live the lifestyle.
I’m not poly and I’m not promoting polyamory. I’ll bet there are some bad poly parents just as there are bad monogamous parents. Yet, there’s no denying poly people are different, and it has nothing to do with their sex lives.
Most children don’t want to know about their parents’ sex lives. Many of us grew up thinking our mom and dad did it as many times as there were kids because, ew.
If it’s not just about sex, then what might be the lessons monogamous parents can learn from poly parenting? Lots of things, it seems.
If you ask Trask, she believes many poly people are successful parents because they’re open and honest with their kids, which creates trust.
“My guess is that parents who model honesty and communication give their kids a great foundation. Kids have amazing intuition and perception, often much more than people give them credit,” she writes in a Loving More blog. “When we lie to our children, we give them the message that they can’t handle the truth.”
It also sends a message that lying is okay. If we want our kids to be truthful with us, especially when they become teens – the lying years – then we might want to be better role models.
Elisabeth Sheff, who has studied polyamorous families for decades and wrote about her findings in her 2014 book, "The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families," says that this kind of transparency brings families closer together.
“Creating a family atmosphere where children feel confident their questions will be met with thoughtful, honest answers allows kids to take the lead and ask questions not only about their family dynamics, but everything else, too. Poly parents report that free ability to think and talk helps the children trust them, and creates emotional intimacy for the whole family,” she writes in Psychology Today.
The takeaway: Create a culture of transparency in your family.
Beyond that, poly parents benefit by having a lot more help with household chores, expenses, and childrearing. There’s also a lot more caregiving done by men, especially to children who aren’t theirs. How often do you see that happen in today’s society?
“Pooling their resources also allows adults to have more personal time, work more flexible hours, and get more sleep because there are multiple people around to take care of the children,” Sheff writes. “Poly parents said that they felt more patient and had more energy for their children when they were well rested and had sufficient income – all of which benefited their children.”
Rest, personal time, help – what harried monogamous parent seeking work-life balance wouldn’t appreciate that?
But what about the kids? Adults can easily rationalize and justify their behaviors to fit what they want to believe, and they'll convince themselves that their kids will be fine no matter what they do.
Sheff admits there can be as many problems for kids in poly families as there are in intact monogamous families, single-parent families, or divorced families. Still, there are some definite positives.
The takeaway: Let dads do more, join babysitting co-ops, find other parents with whom you can share the load, and avoid parenting in isolation.
In poly families, children have an extended family of nonparental adults who care for them, often serve as role models and trusted confidantes, and remain in their lives even if they are no longer romantically involved with the child’s mother or father. They have, basically, a village.
That’s what Benedict Smith, who grew up with poly parents, writes in Vice. He knew he had a bunch of people who had his back, and it broadened him.
“I got to speak to adults from all manner of varying backgrounds, whether they were my parents’ partners, or parents’ partners’ partners, or whoever. I lived with people who were straight, gay, bi, trans, writers, scientists, psychologists, adoptees, Bermudians, Hongkongers, people of wealth, and benefits claimants. Maturing in that melting pot really cultivated and broadened my worldview, and helped me become the guy I am today,” he writes.
The takeaway: Create a loving, nurturing, and ongoing community of mentors from various backgrounds for your children.
Polyamorists often talk of “compersion,” a word coined in the poly community that explains the joy people feel when they see a loved one experiencing pleasure with someone else. It’s the opposite of jealousy. While it’s typically spoken of in terms of poly lovers, it’s a lesson non-poly parents can benefit from, particularly mothers.
With the rise and often necessity of dual-income families, more parents rely on babysitters, nannies, and au pairs to care for their children. These aren't always happy arrangements.
“Many parents who share the care with childcare providers also share the fear of losing the prime place in their child’s life,” writes child development specialist Claire Lerner in Parents.com.
That can lead to jealousy and competition with their child’s caregivers, which can cause negative consequences, she notes. It can create “distance between caregiver and parent or inadvertently place the child in a loyalty conflict where she feels she is betraying her parent when she cares for another adult.”
In her research on professional women and their relationships with the caregivers they hire, sociologist Cameron Macdonald, author of "Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs, and the Micropolitics of Mothering," says that in their desire to be their child’s number one, some moms only keep caregivers around for a year so that their child won’t get too attached, thus depriving their child of long-term, stable, and loving relationships, and depriving the moms themselves from the help they actually need.
The takeaway: Let go of your jealousy and allow your children to love their caregivers, and support and encourage those bonds.
Sheff observes that, by the very nature of their alternative and frequently misunderstood lifestyle, poly people are open to new ideas and are good at shifting expectations. This allows for growth and builds resilience while also demanding they explore emotions others generally avoid, such as jealousy.
Since children challenge parents at every stage, approach parenting with an open mind rather than a set of rules we either learned from our parents or the latest parenting “expert.” This might alleviate some of the anxieties parents have.
Sheff also notes that, despite the belief that polyamory is all about sex, it’s actually a strong emotional connection that maintains a poly family. That has ramifications for everyone if a relationship ends, and the divorce rate – while not as high as we might have supposed – is still somewhere between 30 and 50 percent.
“The end of sex does not have to mean end of relationship. Remaining friends is a real choice, and especially important when people have had children together,” Sheff writes in Psychology Today. De-emphasizing sexuality opens the way for people to focus on cooperative co-parenting and being cordial to each other. That’s important as studies show divorce per se isn’t the problem, conflict is.
Poly people “communicate to death,” Bjarne Holmes, a psychologist at Vermont’s Champlain College, observes in LiveScience – a necessity when there are so many people’s feelings to consider. While that may sound exhausting, better communication is what most marital counselors tell struggling couples.
The takeaway: Be open-minded and flexible in your parenting and relationship. If your marriage ends, be respectful, kind, and supportive to your former spouse so you can co-parent without conflict and anger. You’ll model for your children that a healthy romantic relationship isn’t just about sex, it’s about kindness and generosity.
This piece was originally published on Vicki Larson’s blog OMG Chronicles.