Tuesday, June 9, 2015

More on Polyamory and Parenting: Exploring Some Possible Drawbacks

Dear Viny,

I read your post on poly and parenting a while back, and I'm writing because I hope there is room here for a real discussion about the possible drawbacks to raising kids in this setting. The truth is, while being poly is vital to my current well-being, I'm not so sure it's great for my little kid. There are the obvious extra time demands. But also, I think it can be detrimental to kids to have adults shifting in and out of their lives and homes. I say that as someone who experienced discomfort in childhood around partners of my (divorced) parents I didn't like.

I always thought I'd be the type of poly parent to be building long-term relationships involving the intertwining of families, and I didn't understand people who kept their relationships separate. After my non-primary partner and I broke up recently, I began to respect that choice more. I have this amazing photo of my 2 y.o., smiling widely, hugging my ex-partner tightly. It was taken less than a week before he initiated our break up. I am pretty haunted by that photo. I'm not blaming my ex for anything (he is an awesome person); I'm pointing out that I didn't fully understand what I was getting into when I involved my kid socially in my relationships.

Obviously, issues that are difficult for kids can pop up in any kind of relationship; poly isn't special that way. But, because poly relationships are under such scrutiny, and we feel we need to be protective and defensive and rah rah rah about them, we don't always explore the negatives. I'm not asking you for advice. I'm just wondering what your perspective is.

– Considering the Cons


Dear Considering,

I have an eighteen-year-old son who is getting ready to move out at the end of the summer. Whether he goes to the University of Oregon (the parent-approved Plan A) or finds a job that pays well enough that he can afford to rent an apartment with his girlfriend (the not-yet-discussed, not-so-appealing-to-his-parents Plan B), we've got another three months with him, at most. We'll still see him regularly, no doubt, but in a very real sense, we'll be letting him go.

And man, am I ever going to miss him.

Maybe because I am reaching the end of full-time, functional parenting with my son, I have been feeling nostalgic and contemplative, thinking a lot about what I have learned over the course of his childhood. What went well? What do I wish I could do over, and how would I do it differently the second time around? Questions like these aren't purely hypothetical, in my case: I also have a seven-year-old daughter. So I appreciate this timely opportunity to tackle the topic of poly parenting again, this time focusing on the possible negatives.

I do agree with you that there are cons – some of them considerable – to raising children in a poly context. And I think you've put your finger on two of the biggies: 1) parents who are trying to maintain multiple intimate adult relationships probably end up with less time for their children; and 2) poly households may be less stable, overall, because more people often means more chaos. I also think that there are cons you didn't mention in your letter, such as the possibility that children with poly parents will experience difficulty reconciling the different, and often discordant, messages they receive about love and relationships from parents, peers, extended family, and the wider culture.

I have to tell you, though, that my own personal list of parental regrets does not include anything very poly-specific. I wish I hadn't been afraid to let my son co-sleep with us as a baby. I wish I had been more patient with him as a small child. I wish I had been better about giving him permission to express his emotions, even when those emotions were hugely inconvenient for me. I wish I had involved him in more body-centered activities that he might have enjoyed, instead of giving up when he didn't immediately take to soccer. I wish I had paid more attention, been more fully present, when he used to prattle on about Bionicles or Legos or Bugdom or Harry Potter or Magic (the card game), or any of his other childhood obsessions, even though his monologues made my eyes glaze over and my brain go numb. Sometimes I think I might have been better able to focus on Denali and his interests if I hadn't been so distracted by my own interests, and it is definitely true that adult relationships have been a huge interest of mine. But I suspect that the real problem was my youthful self-absorption (I was only 22 when I gave birth to Denali), rather than polyamory per se.

I do often wonder what lessons – positive and negative – my son has learned from watching me and my husband interact, both with each other and with our other long-term partners. And I wonder how those lessons will manifest later, in his own intimate relationships. The jury is still out on that one. It may be that there are future regrets that haven't come into focus yet, or poly-specific parenting pitfalls I will really wish I had avoided once it becomes apparent I already fell into them long ago, bringing my kids down with me.

One thing I can say for certain, however, is that I do not regret involving either of my children socially in any of my relationships, or the relationships of any of my partners or ex-partners. Yes, some of those relationships have involved some drama, and even, on occasion, a bit of dysfunction. Yes, not all of those relationships have lasted. But every one of my partners, and every one of my partners' partners, has been a person well worth knowing. Every one of them has enriched my life, and therefore – either directly or indirectly – the lives of my children as well.

My perspective, Considering, is that you do not need to worry about having exposed your child to an awesome person. I think your child's bond with your ex-partner will turn out to have been a good thing, on balance. The photo that's haunting you now? The one in which your two-year-old is tightly hugging your ex-partner? That's your proof. From your perspective, it may be a painful memento, something that stirs up sadness, regret, and resentment – but I'm willing to bet that the memories it evokes for your two-year-old, if any, are basically positive. (Now, if your kid had felt uncomfortable around your ex-partner, that would be a different story. I sympathize with your desire not to subject your kid to the negative experiences you had as a child with your parents' panoply of successive partners. I think it behooves us as parents to be careful about the people we bring into our children's lives. Personally, though, I wouldn't consider dating anyone I didn't feel comfortable introducing to my children.) 

I do understand why you might want to shield your child from the disappointment of bonding with someone you're dating, only to have that person up and disappear. However, losing people we love is just a reality of life. Whether you like it or not, your child is going to develop meaningful relationships with all kinds of disappearing acts: friends who move far away; favorite teachers who retire; lovers who write break-up letters; close relatives who succumb to dementia or mental illness or addiction or cancer. I believe that one of the best lessons we can teach our children is not to let fear of loss limit our ability to love. Love always entails loss, and it's always worth it. That's my opinion, anyway.

Since this post could use a bit of levity at this point, I'm going to leave you with one of those “you can't make this shit up” stories we parents love to tell about our children, this one courtesy of my daughter, who is always coming up with quotable quotes I'm way too embarrassed to post on Facebook: the other day, as I was bending over to retrieve a clean bra from my underwear drawer, Sienna observed, “Did you know that your breasts look kind of like twin baby koalas hanging onto their mama?”

The moral of this story is that no matter what you think of yourself -- as a polyamorous parent, or just as a person -- your children are very likely to have a completely different perspective. And you may or may not find it flattering.

Kids. Ya gotta love 'em.

Snickers and Doodles,

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