I Grew Up in a Polyamorous Household
As a kid, I lived with my mom, my dad, and an interconnected network of grownups who were all banging each other.
Illustration by Kelsey Wroten
Few cultural symbols have as much heft as the "traditional" nuclear family. You know the one: two heterosexual parents, two kids, one dog, two tablespoons of white picket fence, whisk gently. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with that—it's just not how I was raised.
My parents are polyamorous, a Greek/Latin mishmash word meaning romantic non-monogamy with the consent of everyone involved. As a kid, I lived with my dad, my mom, my mom's partner, and for a while, my mom's partner's partner. Mom might have up to four partners at a time. Dad had partners too. I was raised by an interconnected network of grownups whose relationships weren't exclusive but remained committed for years, even decades.
They first explained it to me when I was about eight. My four-year-old brother asked why James, my mom's partner, had been spending so much time with us.
"Because I love him," Mom said, matter-of-factly.
"Well, that's good," my brother replied, "because I love him too."
It was never really any more complicated than that. Looking back, that's what I find most extraordinary about our situation: how mind-numbingly ordinary it all was. I almost wish it were more exciting than that—a wide-eyed kid, stumbling into amphetamine-fueled sexfests to find a gaggle of ass-naked circus mimes, nuns, and poultry—but we were just as run-of-the-mill-dysfunctional as every other family on the block.
I never resented my parents for hanging out with their partners. We all went on trips to the movies and narrow boat holidays together. Having more adults around the house meant there was more love and support, and more adults to look after us. Dad and James didn't get jealous or resent each other either, far from the alpha male antler clattering you might expect. They were good friends.
I do remember the first time James told me off. I was eight and had almost toddled into traffic, when he pulled me to the pavement and shouted at me for not looking left and right. I remember thinking: Oh, this grown-up is allowed to discipline me too? But it didn't take me long to realize that it also meant that another grown-up had my back—and would keep me from being flattened by oncoming traffic—and that this was a good thing after all.
It's fortunate I was living in relative familial bliss at home, because school was a living nightmare. I had a stutter and a penchant for 80s power ballads—telling anyone about my domestic situation would be to give myself a wedgie by proxy. I mean, one kid got picked on by (weirdly patriarchal) bullies just for having a stay-at-home dad—I wasn't about to profess that Mom had four boyfriends. I had only one best friend (any more would've interfered with my spiritual path of devotedly studying Star Wars encyclopedias and reveling in epiphanic early masturbatory experiences). He was the only one who knew about my parents, and he just shrugged it off.
Our church community, on the other hand, did find out about my parents' arrangement. We were very close to our parish at a local Anglo-Catholic church in East London—my mom even taught at Sunday school. We never lied about our family dynamic; we just didn't want to broadcast it. James was called "a family friend," which worked for a while. Eventually though, we were outed. Someone trawled the web and tracked down my mom's LiveJournal page, and word got out that my family was poly.
Most people tried to understand, but not everyone could. One family was so condemning of our parents' lifestyle that they forbade their kids from playing with us. This later escalated into a particularly nasty phone call to social services, essentially conflating polyamorous parenting with child abuse, and sending a swarm of social workers into our home. I remember sitting on the living room floor with my Robot Wars toys, Hypno-Disc in one hand, Sir Killalot in the other, trying to convince them that my parents weren't hurting me.
Good parents are good parents, whether there are one or two or three or four of them. Fortunately, mine were incredible.
Nowadays, if I mention to people that I have poly parents, reactions oscillate between "that's so weird" and "that's so cool." Most people enjoy the novelty of it. Some feel threatened, but they're usually OK once I reassure them that it's not a criticism of their monogamy.
All in all, my upbringing shaped my personality for the better. 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.
I never envied my friends with monogamous parents. I knew kids who lived with two parents or one, or stepparents, or grandparents, or aunts and uncles. So what I had didn't feel odd. I'd imagine there's very little variation between the ways monogamous and poly parents fuck up their kids. Good parents are good parents, whether there are one or two or three or four of them. Fortunately, mine were incredible.
I don't think polyamory is superior to monogamy in any way—it's just different. But I wish it wasn't so stigmatized. Only 17 percent of human cultures are strictly monogamous; the vast majority of human societies embrace a mix of marriage types. There is no traditional family. In his book Sex at Dawn, author Christopher Ryan argues that human monogamy only dates back as far as the agricultural revolution. Prior to this, we lived in small foraging communities and shared our property (food, shelter, wooden clubs, saber-tooth loincloths, etc). Then, post-agriculture, monogamy developed, out of concerns regarding paternity, and the inheritance of material goods. Ryan argues that our modern romantic attitudes are needlessly puritanical, "an outdated Victorian sense of human sexuality that conflates desire with property rights." Since the 20th century, many of us have begun to return to our polyamorous roots, following the sexual revolution, and feminism, and by extension the increased financial independence of women. This upward trend will only continue.
A lot of people ask me whether having poly parents has shaped the way I look at love as an adult, which is hard to answer. Growing up with polyamory as the norm, monogamy seemed alien and counterintuitive. We can love more than one friend or family member at the same time, so the idea that romantic love only worked linearly was befuddling. I'm in my 20s now, and I tend to have multiple partners (though that's more my libido than a philosophical conviction). I don't consider myself poly, but I am open to having either multiple partners or just one.
Life is mostly pain and struggle; the rest is love and deep dish pizza. For the cosmic blink of a moment we spend on this tiny dust speck of a planet, can we simply accept that love is love, including love that happens to be interracial, same-sex, or poly? Discrimination against love is a disease of the heart—and we get enough of that from the pizza.
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