Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Advice for Polyamorous Parents: When and How to Tell the Kids

Dear Viny,

My husband and I are new to polyamory, and we have two girls, ages two and six. Much of the reading we've done has not mentioned the subject of children or families. We are wondering when to tell our children about our decision to open our marriage, and how to tell them in a culture in which we fear they may be ostracized or worse. Do you have thoughts/advice about how to manage this issue?

A Poly Mama


Dear Poly Mama,

A few weeks ago, I was at a reading of Franklin Veaux and Eve Rickert's More Than Two: A practical guide to ethical polyamory (which is an absolutely stellar book, btw, and if you're new to poly, you simply must get your hands on a copy a.s.a.p. – you can buy one here or on Amazon). During the Q & A session after the reading, someone in the audience piped up with the same question you just asked me. Eve and Franklin responded that unfortunately they didn't feel qualified to weigh in on the subject of poly and parenting, because neither or them had any children. And I thought to myself, “Ah, so that's how you managed to write 400+ pages, bundle them into a beautiful book, publish the damn thing, and tool around the country for two months promoting it!”

Okay, I'm a little jealous. I mean envious. Whatever. In all seriousness, though: I do think there is a comparative lack of information on polyamory and parenting, and I suspect that the reason for this is that poly parents are not the ones writing the books. And why not? Why are we, as a group, so deplorably under-represented among the glitterati? I'm sure I don't need to explain it to you, since you have young children – but for those readers who don't have kids, allow me to point out that in the course of writing this paragraph, I have been interrupted no fewer than four times by my six-year-old. She and her little friend now have tortilla chips, salsa, a glass of milk, and a glass of water in front of them – which may keep them busy for a few... nope, I was wrong. Make that five times. (“Mom? Where'd those vampire teeth go? I wanna show Al!”) But I digress. The point I'm trying to make is that writing a book takes time and concentration, both of which are in short supply in households like mine. (And...we're up to eight times now, just for the record.) Yes, it's true that plenty of writers have managed to publish books despite being beset by minor technical difficulties like the ones currently running around my living room. In fact, I know several such miracle-workers personally. However, when it comes to publishing on the specific topic of polyamory and parenting, there's a far bigger obstacle in our way: fear of public scrutiny. As poly parents, we're hesitant to call attention to ourselves, lest the Eye of Sauron alight on our little ones.

Public perceptions of polyamory and other forms of consensual non-monogamy are changing for the better, but the threat of social censure is still very real. Many people assume that children do best in a “Leave It to Beaver” type of family; in their minds, parents who choose an alternative relationship structure are putting their own selfish desires ahead of their children's wellbeing. Thus, in some social circles, coming out as poly means running the risk of being judged an unfit parent. And that, my lascivious lovely, is why I write under a pseudonym – not because I'm worried about my name, but because I'm worried about my children. I mean, what if some yo-yo out there decides my kids would be better off in foster care?

All this to say: I understand your concern, Poly Mama. I really do. That being said, I feel strongly that parenting decisions should be guided by love rather than fear.

And now, without further preamble, here are my thoughts about when – and how – to tell your kids you're polyamorous.

1) Let your children's questions set the pace. Given that your girls are six and two, there is no need to make any kind of “announcement” for their benefit. This is great, because parental announcements are awkward, and best avoided. If your kids are anything like mine, they will ask enough questions over the years that you'll never have to trot out some cringe-worthy opening salvo like, “Kids? There's something your father and I need to tell you....”

2) When your children ask you questions, give them honest answers. Your two-year-old probably won't have any questions yet. But I can pretty much guarantee that your six-year-old will want to know all kinds of things: where you're going, what you're doing, whom you're doing it with, etc. Be candid in your replies – but don't offer more information than she can process.

By way of illustration, here's an exchange I had with my daughter just the other day, as I was preparing for a night out:

Sienna: Why are you getting dressed up? Where are you going?
Me: I'm going out with Cam tonight.
Sienna: Why do you need to wear a pretty bra? Cam's not gonna see it, is he?
Me: He might.
Sienna: Has he seen you naked??!
Me: Sure.
Sienna [shrieks in mock horror, then moves on, apparently unfazed]: Can I play Minecraft?

3) Pay attention to non-verbal cues, because some questions won't be asked out loud. There may be times when your children would benefit from a more in-depth discussion, or when they are looking for some reassurance, but they don't know how to ask you for what they need. If one of your children seems to be “fishing” for information, expresses confusion or anxiety around a particular topic, or simply seems upset, try to figure out what's bothering her, so that you can help her articulate her concerns.

Here's an example of another conversation I had with my daughter, a few months ago:

Sienna: Who do you love more, Daddy or Cam?
Me: I love them both the same amount.
Sienna: Then how come you kiss Cam more?
Me [surprised]: Do I? I don't think that's true.
Sienna: Yes, you do. And that's not fair. 'Cuz if you love them the same amount, then you should kiss them the same amount.
Me: But I love you and your brother the same amount, and I kiss you more than I kiss him, right?
Sienna: That's because Denali hates being kissed.
Me: Excellent point! Well, hmm. You seem really concerned about this. Are you worried that I love Cam more than Daddy? Are you worried that I'm hurting Daddy's feelings?
Sienna: Yes.
Me: I see. I don't think you need to worry about that, sweetheart. Daddy knows I love him tons and tons.

In a similar vein, if your child is normally talkative, an uncharacteristic lack of questions may be your cue to initiate a conversation, even if there is no overt evidence of distress. You may need to probe a little bit, and not simply assume that your child will broach a difficult topic on her own. When my son was nine years old, he and I had the following conversation, after I noticed that he had virtually nothing to say the day after my husband and his new girlfriend had spent the night together at our house:

Me: You're awfully quiet today. Was it weird that Lilianna had a sleepover with your dad?
Denali: A little, yeah. [Pause.] Was it okay with you that she slept over?
Me: Sure.
Denali: Even though she and Parker slept in the same bed?
Me: Of course.
Denali: You knew they were going to sleep in the same bed?
Me: I figured they would, yeah.
Denali: And... that was okay with you?
Me: Yeah.
Denali: Even if they didn't have clothes on?
Me: What makes you think they didn't have clothes on?
Denali: It sounded like they were getting dressed. In the morning.
Me: Oh. Well, I told Parker beforehand that whatever he and Lilianna wanted to do during their sleepover was fine with me. Were you worried that I would be upset if I found out they were naked? Did you think maybe I didn't know that might happen?
Denali: I wasn't sure.
Me: Parker and I talked about everything, sweetie, and I'm fine. Are you still worried?
Denali: No, if you're fine, I'm fine. I was just checking.
Me: I'm glad you checked. So let me ask you something – remember how I used to have sleepovers all the time with Scott? And that didn't seem to bother you. You never seemed to worry about it, or whether your dad was okay with it. So, I guess I'm wondering why you would be worried about me not being okay with Parker having a sleepover.
Denali: Wait...let me get this straight... Scott was your boyfriend?
Me: Yeah, what did you think he was?
Denali: I don't know. I didn't think about it. I was a little kid. He was just... Scott.
Me: All those years? The time he came to visit us in Denmark, and your dad was gone for a week on that architecture trip? Kissing each other goodbye, and not just on the cheek? You seriously didn't know?
Denali [shrugging]: I'm telling you – I didn't think anything of it. Huh. Wow. Scott was your boyfriend. A lot of things are suddenly making sense to me now!

{Note: Because I'm a mother giving advice to another mother, I feel the need to point out that I haven't shared these conversations because I think they showcase my parenting skills at their absolute finest. (Actually, I can hear that panel of snooty Parenting Experts from On High tsk-tsking as I type, going “overly-directive here!” and “overly-dismissive there!” Sheesh!) No, I've shared these conversations because I wanted to provide some examples of the kinds of questions your children might ask, and because I hope my responses demonstrate that it is possible to encourage open dialogue without getting into details that may not be age-appropriate.}

4) Do not ask your children to keep secrets for you. In an ideal world, children could repeat any conversation they have with their parents to anyone else, verbatim, and the worst outcome would be mild embarrassment, or a not-so-surprising “surprise” party, or something along those lines. However, we do not live in an ideal world, and if there is a piece of information your children absolutely must not repeat, do not share it with them. If being unintentionally “outed” as poly by your children would be a disaster – that is, if it would put you and/or your children at risk of social censure, or worse – you will need to be careful about what you say, and how you say it. And, of course, you will also need to be careful about what you do, and when you do it! (In other words: Don't have sleepovers. Don't kiss your other partners in front of your kids. You get the idea.) But no matter where you fall on the spectrum from “completely in the closet, with a kid-proof lock on the doorto “totally out in the open, napping naked in the sunshine,” your children are bound to have questions at some point, and I think you should answer them as honestly as you can. Perhaps you will have to omit certain details, or evade certain lines of inquiry, but do not lie. Human beings come equipped with incredibly sophisticated lie-detecting machinery, and even very young humans can often sense when someone isn't being straight with them. Please don't give your children cause to distrust you. If you cannot think of any way to answer a question honestly, and you cannot change the subject gracefully, simply say, “I'm sorry, honey, but I can't answer that question.” And when your child presses you for a reason why not, as she no doubt will, explain to her that some information is private. It's perfectly okay to ask your children for privacy. It's not okay to lie to them, or to tell them the truth only on condition that they keep it to themselves. Secrecy is too big a burden for a small child to bear. 

5) Find opportunities to point out that relationships can take many different forms, and talk with your kids about different kinds of families. With each of your children, there will come a Right Time to have The Conversation. I don't think there's a way to predict when that will be, exactly. Raising children is one of those “mileage may vary” deals, as I'm sure you're well aware. Our son was nine when the light bulb came on, so that's when we introduced him to the term “polyamory.” I suspect we'll be talking to our daughter a little bit sooner than that, or possibly a lot sooner – who knows? We'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, though, we've discussed all kinds of relationship-related topics with her. She knows that families come in all shapes and sizes. She is beginning to understand that social norms vary from culture to culture, that they tend to change over time, and that she need not allow them to dictate which path she takes in life. When the time comes for us to spell out for her all the ways in which her own family does not fit the traditional mold, she'll already have the context she'll need to make sense of that information, and the confidence she'll need to deal with the social consequences of sharing it, should she choose to do so. At any rate, this is how we approached things with our son, and he turned out great! (He's officially an adult now, which means I get to make official declarations about how he turned out – but if you'd rather hear him speak for himself, you can check out this guest post he wrote four years ago, at age fourteen, about what it's been like to grow up with parents whose relationship choices have placed them well outside the monogamous mainstream.)

Well, Poly Mama, I think this is a wrap. There's only so much advice you can stuff into one bitty burrito, you know? Maybe one of these days, I'll get around to writing a book, or editing a collection of essays, or at least contributing something more substantial to the still-developing public discourse on the unique challenges and rewards of being a polyamorous parent. Or maybe I won't. Either way, I get to rest on the greenest, glossiest, most gorgeously lucky laurels out there: my two brave, bright, beautiful, curious, open, thoughtful, socially-savvy children. May you be as blessed!

Coffee spoons and harvest moons,


  1. Thank you for posting this! I'm also a PolyMama. It's such a hard subject especially for those of us who are just stumbling through for the first time and having children makes it all the more complicated. The sentence that resonates most for me came from your son's post: "...the only issue I ever had was when friends would look down on my parents."

    We (Boyfriend, Me, Husband) work very hard to be honest, open, and considerate of one another. The well-being of our children is always the priority for parents like us and when someone comes along and cuts us down with their hateful words, their judgements, it really hurts. They don't know our hearts, our minds, our families, or our love and respect for all involved. Sadly, these people will always be ready to pounce on anyone who doesn't live according to their personal code so part of our work is to grow a much thicker skin. So far I haven't figured out how to do that.

    My kids haven't started asking questions yet but they've always been exposed to my big circle of friends. My significant other Other is simply one of those friends. We're raising them to be open-minded and tolerant, and I often talk about the different shapes of families (two dads, single mom, two moms, one grandma with no parents, step-parents, etc.). It's easy to throw in, "And some people are in love with more than one person at a time." The sex stuff I keep pretty neutral.

    The big lie I told told in the car recently was when my six year old, having heard an NPR segment on sex, asked, "Mom, do you and daddy have sex?" He giggled as if it was a dirty question. I had a carful of kids after school and I really didn't want to get into the details of a companionship marriage and/or polyamory in mixed company so I just said (sheepishly), "Sure we do. Sex can be a wonderful part of being a grown up." The lie was that my husband and I have sex. I still feel so guilty about it. I perpetuated the myth that husbands and wives have sex and yet there are staggering numbers of married couples who are in sexless marriages like me. Many of them suffer in silence. Many of them cheat. And a few of them find that they value the spousal friendship enough to stay married and find an alternative lifestyle. But, of course, telling people we're in a companionship marriage comes with all the same negative judgements. Some people practically insist we get divorced so except for a few safe friends (and thank God for them) we mostly stay in the closet.

    I wish we could just live our lives in peace.

    Thanks again for the post. You're a very brave woman. xoxo

  2. I love the advice, and we try to do the same things (with the exception of asking our nine year old to keep some things under her hat with some people). Her grandparents to are raging religious nut jobs, and the outing could be problematic. So, we've given her true, if more socially acceptable, answers for her teachers and grandparents in exchange for us being willing to be honest about whatever she asks. (Since we all live together, it'd be an impossible task, I think, to be both honest and discrete enough to evade her notice). It is working, especially as she knows people can be cruel.

  3. This is fantastic advice!