Tag Archives: poly families

The Value of Personal Narratives

Since my personal essay about my family was published at Salon a few days ago, numerous people have called me “brave.” I greatly appreciate the sentiment, though it feels incredibly strange that simply talking about my family should be considered an act of bravery. I would be lying, though, if I said that writing and publishing the piece was not a little terrifying. Salon has a large audience, and I knew that I was going to be exposing a lot of people to the inner-workings of a poly family for the very first time. I worried a lot about how my words might be misinterpreted, and whether or not readers would truly believe that my partners are happy. I wished there was some magical way I could really offer a people a window to see how loving and peaceful and healthy my family is. And I knew that no matter how hard I tried, the comments would be full of hate and personal attacks.

But I did it anyway.

When I was still living monogamously, suffering from depression and trying to choose between the unbearable pain of losing my husband and the equally unbearable pain of never being free to love another, it is no exaggeration to say that the personal stories of other poly people saved me. I knew that I believed in polyamory in theory. But it was only through reading personal narratives–the personal stories in Tristan Taormino’s Opening Up; Jenny Block’s Open; Scott, Terisa, Matt, Vera, and Larry’s story in Newsweek–as well as having conversations with another human being who desired polyamory, that began to make me feel less crazy and less alone. And when I was having those difficult early conversations with my husband, it was those personal narratives I gave him to read. He didn’t need any convincing that poly sounded great in theory. What he needed was proof that were actual people, actually making it work in practice (and, as something of an amusing side-note, hateful internet comments on some of those stories were the very thing that made my husband certain he was comfortable with a poly relationship, as he found himself reading those comments and feeling protective and defensive of the articles’ poly subjects… way to go, nasty comment-makers!). I truly, honestly would not have the live I have today–the life I love more than I ever thought I could love life–had it not been for others sharing their stories.

Now that I am so fortunate as to be happily and comfortably settled in a stable poly family, sharing my own story feels like the least I can do for people who are struggling like I once was. Of course, I want to help humanize poly folks to society at large, and help educate the general public about our relationships and our families. But far more than that, I want to be that example that helps someone out there who is hurting and feeling trapped and who doesn’t know that it’s possible to live the way they dream of living. That’s why it’s worthwhile to me. Because if no one else had been willing to do that before me, I shudder to even think about what my life would be like right now.

As a final note on the topic, I just want to say that in spite of all the nasty comments, the support I’ve received has been overwhelming. I’ve received emails from strangers, messages and texts and facebook comments from friends who I’ve never really discussed poly with before who have told me how much they appreciated the essay, and kind words from both fellow poly activists and fellow writers as well. To everyone who has kindly commented, re-tweeted, re-posted, and “liked” my essay: thank you. In a world with so little validation and acceptance for my family, your support means more than you know.

Some of my Writing Elsewhere…

First of all, last week I wrote a guest post on Offbeat Bride, the best wedding blog on the interwebs. I first discovered Offbeat Bride a few years ago while helping a friend plan her wedding, and it’s the only wedding resource I’ve been reading for ideas and inspiration since my boyfriend and I decided to have a wedding next year. Offbeat Bride has featured poly posts in the past, and they offer an extremely safe and inclusive environment for those of us in non-traditional relationships. You wouldn’t expect a wedding blog to be one of the most poly-friendly places on the internet, but they truly are. My post there is about the things I wrestled with in deciding whether to have a wedding with my boyfriend, and I’m very thankful to Offbeat Bride for publishing it and for all the kind comments I’ve received.

Last evening, an essay I wrote about my family went up over at Salon. It’s wonderful and also a bit unnerving to tell our personal story in such a visible, mainstream publication. In the essay, I focus quite a bit on how ordinary my family feels to me, and I realize that there can be pitfalls of falling into a kind of “assimilationist” mindset, ie. “look how normal we are! We’re just like everyone else!” I certainly don’t want poly families to be accepted only on the grounds that we closely resemble traditional families; there is countless variety in the structures of poly relationships, and I don’t want to put forth a homogenous view of poly relationships as something just like traditional nuclear families only with an extra adult or two. At the same time, though, I don’t know how to talk about my own family without returning to the fact that it does feel very simple and ordinary to me, and I believe that there is value in sharing the personal stories that potentially humanize us to society-at-large. In some ways, it seems incredibly strange that simply describing my family in a very visible way feels like a revolutionary act. But then, that’s exactly why I believe such things are necessary.

I’ve had a whole lot of new blog readers as a result of both of these publications, so if you’ve found your way here through Offbeat Bride or Salon, welcome! I hope you stick around.

Happy (Slightly-Belated) Mother’s Day!

Instead of a real post of my own, I’m just going to take a few moments to direct you to some poly-sweetness elsewhere on the web.

First up, a lovely post over at the Strong Families blog about poly motherhood (and sisterhood) from a non-biological mama in a poly relationship. I’ve long been aware of Strong Families, and am a huge fan of their multi-racial, multi-family-style mother’s day e-cards. So I was particularly appreciative of them for including a piece from a poly perspective. It always especially makes me happy when an organization/blog/website/whatever that I already know and respect from the feminist part of my life is poly-inclusive as well. Thanks, Strong Families!

Second, this sweet new poly webcomic, Kimchi Cuddles:

Not all the posts are about poly parenting specifically, but they’re all cute and there are more than a few that I can relate to. Again with the appreciation, it’s always nice to have art/media/entertainment available that actually reflects our poly lives and experiences. And of course, every little bit of it is a part of our growing visibility.

Finally, and having nothing at all to do with Mother’s Day: the fine folks over at Modern Poly have opened up a webstore, and they’re currently taking pre-orders for an assortment for T-shirts and buttons (and more fun goodies to come soon!) in a variety of “poly pride” designs, including a LGBTQ/poly solidarity design by yours truly. All proceeds support their poly advocacy work. 


 

On Coming Out of the Poly Closet

One of the primary features of compulsory monogamy is that we live in a society where alternatives to monogamy are rendered invisible. Compulsory heterosexuality once functioned in much the same way; the impossibility of openly discussing non-normative sexual orientations and desires made it impossible to form gay and lesbian communities outside of a few major metropolitan cities. Queer folks were isolated, quite possibly unaware that there was anyone else like them in the world. When you see no visible examples of alternatives to the status quo, it is much more difficult to forge your own path outside of the socially constructed norm. And that’s a huge reason why “coming out” was initially conceived of as being a radical act. In a world that imagined homosexuality as nothing more than a kind of depraved sexual deviance, simply saying “I exist, this is who I am, I’m a human being” was, and to some degree still is, a revolutionary act for queer people.

 

I mention this bit of history not because I think it’s new information to most people, but because I think it’s worth considering how it compares to the current state of compulsory monogamy in our society, and I want to pose the question of whether being out and poly is also a radical–and perhaps necessary–act. By and large, the world does not even realize we exist. This matters because it’s far more challenging for people to accept and respect our relationships when they’re starting from a place of absolute shock and confusion about the way we’re living our lives; in order for the public to form any positive opinions about polyamory, they have to first know that it exists, and that the people doing it are human beings just like everyone else. But it also matters because people cannot be truly free to form relationships in the way they desire unless they can see that there are options. When monogamy appears to be the only way to form a lasting romantic relationship, people don’t have “choices” in any meaningful sense of the word.

 

Even within poly circles, though, there’s often a reluctance to encourage others to be “out.” The topic of being openly poly is treated with extreme caution, as if coming out is an incredibly perilous endeavor. While I respect the personal choice of whether to be out or not, and wouldn’t advocate any kind of tactics of forced outings, I’d like to go on the record here as saying that I am encouraging others to come out of the poly closet, and I think it’s vital to our future that as many of us as possible do so. And in that spirit, I’d like to offer a little deconstruction of the arguments most often given against coming out.

 

If you’re a parent, you will risk losing custody of your children.

I have heard this one more times than I can possibly count, and it is repeated with such gravity that one can practically be made to feel like the very act of coming out itself is a reckless and irresponsible parenting choice. But the reality? No one in the U.S. has ever had their children removed from the home by government agencies as a result of being polyamorous. Polyamory certainly has factored into decisions made in custody battles between parents (and once in a case of a grandmother suing for custody, though polyamorous relationships were one factor of many behind the suit). But family custody-cases are simply a whole other animal; many aspects of parents’ personal lives and behavior are scrutinized in family court, and many things can skip the scales in a custody battle that would never be used as grounds for placing a child in state custody. In Oregon, there has even been a case of third-parent adoption by a poly family, where two men and one women are all recognized as the legal parents of their children. Of course, the majority of the country is not as progressive as Oregon. But if nothing else, this case sets a precedent that would make it very unlikely for a judge to rule that a child must be removed from a home on the basis of polyamorous relationships alone. To summarize: if you’re facing a divorce and a custody battle with a non-poly-approving spouse, you might be better off keeping your relationships under wraps. But otherwise, you can probably feel secure that you are not endangering your children by coming out.

 

People don’t need to know about “what happens in the bedroom.”

This one seems to come up every time someone asks if folks are out or not on a poly message board or discussion list, and I always find it puzzling. I guess if one’s polyamory is strictly about sexual relationships, there’s no need to broadcast that to the world. But to me, being out doesn’t have anything to do with what goes on between the sheets. It’s about recognizing and validating both of my partners as just that: my partners. The important thing is that these are both men I’m sharing my life with, and I want them both to be seen that way by my friends and family. Yes, I have sex with both of them, but if people want to fixate on that aspect of our rela tionships, then that’s their hang-up, not mine. I can’t imagine a monogamous person in a long-term, serious relationship saying “I’m just going to tell everyone she’s my friend, not my girlfriend, because they don’t need to know what happens in the bedroom.” People have an unfortunate tendency to hyper-focus on sex when they’re confronted with alternative relationships. That doesn’t mean that being openly poly means you’re oversharing personal sexual detail.

 

You’ll face social stigma, and risk being ostracized by your family and peers.

This one, unfortunately, is in fact a real concern. But the whole point is that coming out and being visible and standing up for ourselves and our relationships is perhaps the only real hope we have of changing that. Don’t get me wrong, being judged and disrespected, having your treasured personal relationships–that you know to be happy and healthy–labeled as meaningless and morally depraved, really sucks, to put it bluntly. And it sucks even more when it comes from people you care deeply about. And I’d be lying if I said you aren’t risking those experiences by coming out. In fact, I’d be surprised if there are many people who are openly poly who don’t have at least a hand full of those frustrating, painful experiences with family and friends. But deep down, do you really want approval that comes only from hiding who you are and who you love? People, after all, can only become more comfortable with the idea of polyamory if they know that it exists. And sometimes, realizing that a loved one is living this “horrible” way is exactly what it takes for someone to realize that it might not be so horrible after all.

 

Being visible is only the first tiny step on a long road toward wide-spread recognition of alternatives to monogamy. But I believe it’s a vital step, one we can’t conceivably move forward without. I hope we can start dispelling some of the fear about coming out as poly. And I hope, if you’re in the poly closet and reading this, it feels like a pep talk of sorts. Dealing with the confines of the society we currently live in can certainly be unpleasant, to put it lightly. But that’s exactly why a different society is worth speaking out and fighting for. Join me, won’t you?

Will Poly Marriage Ever Be on the Agenda?

Over at The Stranger recently, Mistress Matisse wrote a piece about why poly marriage is never going to happen. She began by discussing the legal complications of poly marriage, and then went on to talk about her own personal feelings about whether poly marriage is desirable. I found plenty to agree with there; I’ve written about my own uncertain feelings about poly marriage–and whether or not we want it–in the past. And in fact, I have rather complicated feelings about the institution of marriage in general. Honestly, I would rather see marriage completely de-institutionalized. But it’s impossible to deny the fact that marriage does currently offer a tremendous number of benefits to those who enter into it, and equally impossible to fault anyone for wanting the legal protections for their relationships that marriage provides. I’ve read some really excellent critiques of the fight for same-sex marriage equality written by radical queer folks, and there’s so much I respect and relate to within those critiques. But personally, I always come back to the idea that it should–unless we do away with legal marriage entirely–be a matter of personal choice. I agree wholeheartedly with critics who argue that same-sex marriage needn’t be such a central issue for LGBTQ activism, and that fighting for things like housing, employment, and health care equalities for queer folks belong on the center-stage. But I still can’t bring myself to say that marriage equality is meaningless.

It is in that frame of mind, then, that I consider the possibilities of polyamorous marriage equality. Mistress Matisse is probably correct that there will never be a strong enough push for it from the poly community, and she’s certainly right that it would bring up a new set of legal questions about how such marriages are defined. But I have to say that I disagree with her personal reasoning for concluding that poly marriage will never happen. I respect and can empathize the reasons why she would never choose marriage. But that doesn’t have to translate to making that choice for everyone else. Myself, as someone who is in more than one “for the long haul” relationship, who will soon be cohabiting with both of my partners, I’d be lying if I said I never feel frustrated by the fact that one of my relationships is granted more legal rights and protections than the other. I don’t know for certain that I would make the choice to legally marry my other partner, but I do know I would rather that choice was mine to make (at least, in the context of the current system of marriage we live with). And I know other poly families who would definitely choose legal marriage if they had the option. As long as at least some folks want it, I think it’s unreasonable to completely rule out the possibility that poly marriage might at some point be worth fighting for.

At the moment, I think we’ve got enough work to do just trying to be recognized and de-stigmatized in our communities; poly-marriage, if it’s ever an issue we take seriously, is many years away. But the same could have been said in the not so distant past about the status of gay and lesbian folks in our society. We have a long way to go before there’s even a remote possibility of poly-marriage achieving the necessary public support, and I’d honestly prefer to see the rights and privileges of all legal marriage stripped away before that day comes. But I do want to someday live in a world where relationships like mine are seen as equally real and valid as monogamous ones, regardless of where we all stand in the legal sense.

In closing her piece, Mistress Matisse states: “To be polyamorous is to let your heart grow to hold many loving relationships that come in different shapes and sizes. Once you’ve learned to do that, why would you try to squeeze it back down into a pattern built for two?” I think that’s a really meaningful sentiment, and I also think we have to resist the temptation to “water down” our relationships, to try to make them more palatable to a society that’s more ready and willing to accept the relationships that more closely resemble the accepted norm. But I think there will always be some of us who legitimately desire relationships that look a little more “normal,” even when we’re outside the bounds of monogamy. Personally, my goal isn’t to deviate as much as possible from the normative. My goal is just to live and form relationships in a way that’s authentically right for me and my partners, and to try to create a world where others are free to do the same. Real marriage equality, to me, would mean that all consenting adults had access to the same kinds of recognition and protections for their families–however they choose to form them, however they choose to define them, and however many people they include. Anything short of that will, in my opinion, never be “equal” enough.

“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.