“But What About the Children?!”

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.


8 thoughts on ““But What About the Children?!”

  1. Dane the Barbarian

    A week from today I “give away” our daughter in marriage. She doesn’t remember a time when mom and dad were monogamous. She knew that mom was involved emotionally and physically with her girlfriend since she first understood what that meant. So, I think we count as a poly parents.
    I spent 20 years as an educator and social worker. I worked with children raised in monogamous chaos and with children raised in stable but non-traditional homes. When I worked with troubled parents (mostly moms) I told them kids need 2 things: love and structure. If a child knows their parent(s) loves them and will be there to protect them today, tomorrow and as far in the future that their little minds can conceive, they will be secure. If they are presented with a stream of men whom mom tells them to call “dad” and are allowed to become “head of the home” who come and go as they move from place to place they will have a very difficult life (well after they are grown).
    I get worried by the discussions and criticisms about hierarchal polyamory. Guess what, if you have a young child (whether you are a male or female) you’d better have a primary relationship that trumps all others….that being the one with your child. It doesn’t matter if you are celibate, monogamous, serially monogamous or poly your obligation to provide love and stability to that trumps any and all other priorities. It’s not which of these lifestyles you chose (or find yourself in) but how you parent while you live that lifestyle.
    So, yes, your observation is correct in saying that choosing to be poly is not necessarily a bad thing for children. I would go further and say that the poly lifestyle can be better for children than monogamy; however, choosing the poly lifestyle does not give legitimacy for chaotic mal-parenting.

    1. Angi Post author

      Thanks for sharing your experience!

      I definitely understand what you mean about your relationship with a child always being “primary.” As someone who’s extremely critical of “hierarchical” polyamory, though, I don’t mean to include the relationship with one’s children in that criticism. Of course parental responsibilities and the needs of a child should always come first, but that’s not what people are talking about when they label romantic relationships as “primary,” “secondary,” etc. The fact that I don’t believe in having a hierarchy of my romantic relationships doesn’t mean I don’t put my daughter first.

  2. Roxanne

    I love this post! I have two sons and they get a lot of sympathy from “normal” people who know that they are the product of MY 5 weirdnesses. I feed them all homemade from scratch real food and do not let them have fast food except for once in a blue moon. We’re nudists and we have friends that come over and get naked. I homeschool them, so they are home all day when the rest of their friends are in school. My husband and I are swingers looking for a third person to form a triad with, and lastly I am pagan.
    After ALL of that – which, by the way, I do not hide from anyone – there are a LOT of people who think that I am ruining my children and that they are going to grow up deviants who get into a lot of trouble. You want to know the most ironic bit of all. Out of ALL that, the thing I get the most flack about is the food thing. “What do you mean your boys can’t have this non-organic bag of potato chips? What about this carbonated can of high fructose corn syrup? How will they ever fit in with the other kids???”
    It makes me sick that my desire to raise them to be as healthy as possible is looked down on as a bad thing, but at least I have a that as a tool I can use. It’s funny actually. “What do you mean you’re swingers? Doesn’t that affect the children?” Me: “Nah, not as much as they are affected by my choice to only feed them organic foods with as little grain as possible.” Them: “Wait, what??? You don’t let your kids eat junk food? Your POOR kids!!!” I just laugh and laugh 🙂
    Have a happy day,

    1. Dane the Barbarian

      Oh – I so identify with your kids. My mother was that way back in the early 70’s. No sugar in the house, we had some of the first available organic food, and she made us eat a tablespoon of brewers yeast every morning -YUCK! And they were swingers and they were open about going to the nude beaches. So what’s a kid to rebel against when he’s a teen in a home like that? In 1980 I became a Reagan Republican & Christian Fundamentalist! LOL…really. But, like most people, after my early 20’s passed, l came back to the values of how I was raised. So by our mid 30’s my wife and I were poly & began to go to nude swinger clubs. Now in my 50’s, I’ve spent my career trying to save the world as a social worker/counselor. But I don’t eat brewers yeast! YUCK!
      So Roxanne, your kids might push back at some point, but they will be just fine in the end….and carry your positive values to the next generation.

      1. Roxanne

        I know that and keep telling myself that so long as I can get them to age 18 without any major diseases – such as my diabetes – they will go through a wild stage where they eat nothing but junk food, and then they will realize how terrible they feel and decide that I might be right after all, lol! I look forward to seeing what else they do to rebel 😀
        Have a happy day,

      2. Angi Post author

        We’re not totally strict about junk food, though we try to keep things fairly healthy. But I can’t believe how many people have acted as though it’s practically abusive that my daughter has been raised as a vegetarian. I’ve had multiple people say to me: “But you’re taking away her choice! When she’s older, she won’t be able to eat meat!” Which is untrue, for one thing, but it’s hardly as if the greatest travesty in one’s life would be an inability to digest meat properly. It’s annoying how people see any non-normative thing as being “forced upon a child against their will,” but no one thinks that way about the normative choices; I don’t accuse anyone of “forcing” their children to eat meat. We all raise our kids within the context of our own values, people just take that for granted when the values in question are “normal.”

      3. Roxanne

        I do not consider vegetarianism anything close to abuse and I applaud you for your commitment to your daughter’s health. My only concern – not that my opinion matters – is that excessive soy consumption can cause precocious puberty in girls (and delay it in boys). Other than that, I think that vegetarianism is MUCH better than letting kids eat all the junk food that is so ubiquitous. However, don’t you think it’s funny? You could practically stand on the roof of your daughter’s school and shout that you are poly, and people will probably roll their eyes and walk away quickly, BUT shout that you’re vegetarian and they get ready to fist fight!
        Rolls my eyes… lol.
        Have a happy day,

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