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What Happens to Polyamorous Relationships When One Partner Has Kids

When a member of a polycule gets pregnant, everyone faces new choices about how to adjust their relationships.

by Sofia Barrett-Ibarria
Aug 23 2019, 5:27pm

Photo by Rob and Julia Campbell

What It's Like To Start A Poly Family

Sofia Barrett-Ibarria

Matias and Amory Jane’s relationship started with flirty texts and book recommendations sent back and forth. Amory Jane, a sex educator in Portland, was dating two other partners at the time and struggling with infertility, but she was still looking to flirt and have fun. Matias was game, drawn to the idea of a polyamorous relationship. The two dated around for a while, seeing some partners together as a couple and others on their own before eventually moving in together.

Now a married couple and the busy parents of a young child named Elliot, Matias and Amory Jane’s love lives are much quieter, though some of their partners have since become valuable members of their growing family. “I think there are many benefits to having more attentive adults in every child's life,” Amory Jane said. When Amory Jane became sick with hyperemesis gravidarum during her pregnancy, she and Matias’ other partner, Joelle, became close friends. “She brought me crackers and ginger ale when I had bad morning sickness and massaged me as I grew larger and more uncomfortable,” Amory Jane said. Joelle was also present as a doula during Elliot’s birth. “It was over the top magical for me,” Joelle said. “It was a privilege I wasn’t anticipating.”

After Elliot was born, a “poly pod” of seven partners regularly took turns looking after the baby, including Joelle, who lives next door. “We would often split date nights so one couple had baby duty half the night and could relax, and actually go out during the other half. There were always at least two adults watching the baby,” said Amory Jane. “It worked well for helping us keep our sanity and stay connected to friends, lovers, and ourselves in ways that brand-new monogamous parents might not get to do.”

Polygamous family units exist globally and across cultures as part of both secular and religious traditions that date back thousands of years, and the practice is thoroughly documented in ancient Judeo-Christian and early Mormon texts, though it’s no longer encouraged or permitted. In the U.S. during the 1960s and 70s, secular counterculture communities began establishing communes and intentional living spaces that embraced non-monogamy and non-traditional sexual practices while swinging slowly entered the mainstream. Other polyamorous and non-monogamous couples and families lived quietly in order to avoid stigma.

Now, polyamory is reportedly on the rise with approximately 10 to 12 million polyamorous people living in the United States, and like Amory Jane and Matias, many of them are parents. Many of those parents also report this multiple-partner family structure can be to the overall benefit of the parents, the partners, and family life.

“The great thing about this arrangement is that everyone gets to have exactly the relationship that works for them and nobody is expected or required to do things they aren't good at or don't want to do,” said Ragen. “Parenting is still stressful and difficult but when the labor is shared so broadly across so many different people, it never feels like a burden. Nobody is isolated or overwhelmed, there's always help, and nobody is ever forced into a role that doesn't work for them.”

Dr. Elisabeth “Eli” Sheff, a researcher, expert witness, and relationship coach, is the co-author of an upcoming research study on polyamorous parenting that identifies common trends among polyamorous families in Australia and the United States. According to Dr. Sheff’s findings, poly parents tend to favor free-range, collaborative parenting styles with permeable family boundaries that encourage bonds with chosen family members who often provide their partners with emotional and logistical support.

Ragen lives with their husband and 6-year-old daughter, 19-year-old stepson, and two other partners, who occasionally step in to help with childcare and enjoy their own unique relationships with the children. As the primary caregiver to their daughter, Ragen is usually in charge of day-to-day parenting decisions on their own. Their husband takes over for playtime, manages logistical tasks like schedules and appointments, and is generally the one “in charge” when Ragen isn’t around. Ragen’s boyfriend helps with daily maintenance tasks like school drop-off and pick-up, and their girlfriend, though uninterested in being a co-parent or having kids of her own, enjoys joining the kids in more spontaneous play. Both prefer to leave the serious decision-making and parental guidance to Ragen, but enjoy volunteering their time and support when they’re able.

“The great thing about this arrangement is that everyone gets to have exactly the relationship that works for them and nobody is expected or required to do things they aren't good at or don't want to do,” said Ragen. “Parenting is still stressful and difficult but when the labor is shared so broadly across so many different people, it never feels like a burden. Nobody is isolated or overwhelmed, there's always help, and nobody is ever forced into a role that doesn't work for them.”

Joelle never planned on having children of her own, but when Amory Jane became pregnant, Joelle knew she wanted to be involved. As a longtime nanny and permaculture advocate, she felt that caregiving came naturally, and she didn’t see a reason to end her relationship with Matias when he became a parent. “I absolutely love and adore children,” she said. Joelle occasionally comes over to babysit Elliot on her own, helps with meal times and diaper changes, and often stays with Elliot and Matias overnight. “I feel very grateful that Amory and Matias would allow me to have such an involved relationship with Elliot.”

Joelle doesn’t weigh in on major parenting decisions, like when to potty train Elliot or where they will attend school, but Amory Jane and Matias welcome her input. “Matias and I are open to our partners' ideas, especially about things where they may have more experience than us,” Amory Jane said.

As much as Joelle enjoys helping out, finding the time to date other people can be a challenge. “It has put dating on the back burner a little bit more for me,” she said. She also wishes she could spend more time with Matias, her primary partner. “That’s been the hardest part of the whole dynamic, but it’s also hard for Amory Jane and Matias now that they have a child that’s part of everything all the time,” she said. “It takes three very desiring people to make it work.”

Ragen believes poly parenthood offers emotional and psychological benefits for both parents and children. “The kids get reasonably happy adults in their lives who can fully engage in the aspects of the labor that they're good at and genuinely want to do, and they get well-rounded parenting because of the ways that we all compliment each other. The kids and adults are all much happier this way!” she said. “I'm able to get alone time with all of my partners, they're able to get alone time with all of their partners, we all get the opportunity to be whole entire people outside of parenting roles because we don't have to be parents all the time.”

Many of the polyamorous families Dr. Sheff spoke during her research placed a higher value on chosen relationships than hierarchies of biological parenthood, and some included children adopted from their local communities. “I've known several polyamorous families who have adopted either queer youth, or young people their child meets at school, when it’s clear that their home life is not working out,” Dr. Sheff said. “Whether that kid is yours by procreation or not becomes much less important. Who cares? The parent is the person who shows up. The parent is the person who does the hard work and takes care of that child on an emotional and physical and practical level,” Dr. Sheff said.

Dr. Sheff also found that polyamorous parents, biological or otherwise, can help shape their child’s understanding of sexuality by modeling honesty, communication, and mutual respect within their romantic relationships. “It can be incredibly difficult for young people to come by accurate and compassionate information about sexuality,” Dr. Sheff said. “Polyamorous parents are often willing to provide all sorts of information.” In the U.S. only 24 states enforce mandatory sex education in schools, which means relationships with trusted adults and parents who can discuss sexuality openly are especially valuable and necessary for young people. “Until you can talk about that, how do you know?” Children growing up within poly family structures may also learn the value and diversity of interpersonal bonds and sexual expression within romantic relationships. “They learn they can choose romantic partners based on other things besides procreation,” Dr. Sheff said.

Despite an increased cultural awareness of polyamory, Ragen worries that “coming out” in her local community could be risky. “The biggest fear is other parents keeping their kids away from our kids, which for the six-year-old would be truly devastating. Having friends her age is vital, and since we don't know who we can trust to be understanding and accepting it's just safer to not share the truth,” she said. Keeping her family life hidden from other parents is a constant source of stress for Ragen, but she’s committed to protecting her daughter from potential social stigma.

Amory Jane said she occasionally receives disapproving messages from strangers on Instagram when she posts photos of Elliot with their extended polycule. “People who don't know us like to make a lot of assumptions, but I don't let them get to me. I know my child is safe and loved and cared for by many, and that I also have lots of support. I know we have a group of people teaching our little one diverse life skills, consent, kindness, and acceptance,” she said. “Hopefully by the time Elliot is in school, there will be more awareness and acceptance of polyamorous and non-traditional families.”

Writer and advice columnist Lola Phoenix chose non-monogamy because she hopes to raise any potential children with a number of chosen parental figures. She grew up with non-monogamous parents herself, but their tumultuous relationship lacked transparency and honest communication. Various partners came and went, which made Phoenix feel like an afterthought. “One of my mother's partners whom she was with for awhile told me that I was important to them and made a commitment as a parent. After I moved out of my mother's house, I never heard from them again. It was incredibly painful,” she said.

Phoenix advises non-monogamous parents to honor these unique relationships and consider their children’s feelings when approaching a breakup with a partner. “Whomever you introduce into your child's life as a parental figure needs to understand that a child will not know or care that your relationship with that person has broken down. They will only know that the person said they were going to be a parent and then split, and that is incredibly painful,” Phoenix said. “I want every parent to know, regardless of what kind of relationship they're in, that making a commitment to a child as a parent is not a joke or something you do just to win a spouse over.”

Though many children grow up with step parents or single parents who date, and it’s fairly common for kids to grow up with multiple adults in their lives, family members outside the poly community may struggle with the concept of poly parenthood. “We are open with our families, about who we are and how we love,” Amory Jane said. “They have met our other partners and are generally supportive, although they occasionally have a hard time understanding why Matias and I don't have a strict hierarchy where our relationship is placed above all others. This is especially true now that we are married, perhaps because marriage equals monogamy in our parents' eyes.” Some poly families may face stigma from grandparents or ex-spouses who disapprove of their parenting style, sometimes resulting in legal backlash and disputes over child custody. However, legal rulings in California, New York, and Canada could set a precedent for increased protection and recognition for poly families in the future.

For Amory Jane and Matias, parenting in a polycule just comes naturally, and they’re grateful for all the friends and partners who help care for Elliot and for part of their chosen family. “Even if things shift for me in the future and polyamory doesn't match where I'm at (although I've been practicing it for over 10 years now, so that doesn't seem likely), I won't regret raising Elliot with a village approach,” said Amory Jane. “If some of the village is made up of partners and special sexy friends, that's a bonus for me!”

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