As a polyamorous parent, few things are as frustrating or as offensive to me as the “but what about the poor children?” argument against polyamory, which I hear far too frequently. As with similar objections to same-sex marriage, it seems to me that this argument is really just an excuse for passing judgment; when pressed as to why it matters how consenting adults choose to live their lives, talking about the children in non-traditional family settings is a way for opponents of such relationships to claim that there are in fact “innocent victims” here. I don’t believe that these folks are really concerned about the well-being of children so much as they’re desperately seeking to validate their own biases and criticisms. And, of course, it’s a good way to “go for the jugular,” so to speak, as it seems fairly universal (and understandable) that parents are highly sensitive to any accusation that their home environment is harmful to their children. No matter how baseless we know such accusations to be, they still sting.
That’s why I was pleased to see a couple different articles speaking favorably about poly parenting in recent weeks. In her Psychology Today Blog last month, Bella DePaulo discussed some of the results of research on poly families being conducted by Elisabeth Sheff, and made several points about poly parenting that I’ve found myself making time and again. For one, on the question of stability, DePaulo points out that single parents also date, creating potential for their romantic partners to move in and out of their children’s lives, but we do not see single parents criticized for dating; we recognize that children can form valuable and meaningful relationships with step-parents. She also quotes the research finding that children are equally likely to report feeling a loss of platonic friends who have, for one reason or another, moved out of their parents’ lives. And finally, she raises the question of whether polyamorous partners might be more likely to remain in a child’s life even after a romantic relationship has ended. Those two points certainly hit close to home for me; my daughter has become attached to several platonic friends who are now no longer in our lives. My ex-boyfriend, however, is still a close friend and a part of her life. The idea that polyamory offers any larger threat to stability in a child’s life than any of the myriad other varieties of relationships kids are exposed to simply seems without merit; after all, even family members sometimes have a catastrophic falling-out that ends relationships. We can’t possibly shelter our children from any and all possibility that close and trusted adults will pass out of their lives, whether we’re single parents who are dating, polyamorous parents who are dating, or even just monogamously partnered parents who include other humans in our children’s lives.
More recently, at Live Science, Stephanie Pappas wrote about debunking 5 polyamory myths—one being that polyamory is bad for children. Pappas sited Sheff’s research as well, and pointed out that one concern many poly parents have is about the stigma their children potentially face from the outside world. If I had one poly-related concern for my daughter, this would be it. We talk frequently about other people’s opposition to families like ours, and I adore that she often says things like “oh no, kids having more people who love them! How scary!” But I hate that such conversations are even necessary. I don’t worry at all about her being harmed by our happy, loving, stable family. But I do worry about her being harmed by the hateful attitudes of people who don’t approve of her family simply because it has a different shape than what’s considered “normal.”
I’m immensely appreciative of articles like these, and I hope that they’re the beginning of a turning tide of opinion about polyamorous parenting. And I’d also like to add one thing that neither article mentioned: the fact that poly parenting can have feminist potential as well. We all know that even in supposedly progressive heterosexual relationships, the bulk of the childcare burden still tends to fall disproportionately on women’s shoulders. It seems to me that in order to truly change this, we’re going to have to rethink parenting in some drastic ways, to move beyond the male/female dyad. Polyamorous relationships open up the possibility of involving more adults in the raising of children, creating new potentials for more equitable distributions of child-rearing responsibilities. There are certainly other means of doing this: communal living and community resource sharing can allow for similar flexibilities in child-raising. And on the flipside, polyamorous parenting is of course not inherently feminist. But it seems to me worth noting that polyamory is at least one of the many ways we can think about taking a revolutionary approach to gender roles and responsibilities in parenthood.