Originally posted on
This is the talk I had written for the Poly Living Conference in the Wyndam Franklin Plaza in Philadelphia, PA on February 20, 2005. If you attended the talk, you’ll notice that this does not match up exactly. It turned into something of a question/answer discussion quite early. Still, most points were covered!
Being a poly parent can be lots of fun. Shoot, being a parent can be, too. But it is a challenge under any circumstance. The first thing almost anyone will ask when approaching the subject of poly parenting is, “But what about the children?” I’ve said this before many times and I re-iterate that it is a very valid question. What about them? How do you handle it? Will being poly screw the kids up if they know about it?
Well, the last question is the easiest. Poly or not has little to do with how well one parents. In the end, it is your own parenting skill that makes the most difference. So, no, if they know you’re poly, it isn’t going to screw them up.
If you’re going to let the kids know that you are poly, then they need a decent sexual education. This does not mean you have to tell them what you do. In my own personal opinion, the specifics of what I do in bed with whom is none of the kids’ damned business. Do they know grownups who are in love have sex sometimes? Yes.
Let the kids be the guide in the sex education department. Trust me on this one, they do ask age appropriate questions. Don’t go into too much detail. Just answer questions truthfully without making a production of it. If they want more info, they’ll ask. If you bring up too much, you’re going to step over bounds, and probably yuck them out. A member of my clan has a joke about this. He’ll go into this routine where he’s making gestures like a football referee, and say, “Oversharing. Roughing the listener. Two drink penalty!”
I do think it is better if the kids have a fairly clear idea of the relationships. I also think it is quite okay for the kids to meet your loves. While it is not a guarantee, it is often the case that the adult will be a positive figure in the child’s life. My kids have a lot of adults in their lives that love them and interact with them on a regular basis. I think it is good for them, because instead of having only parents as an example of The Way Adults Are, they get a much wider view from having close relationships with lots of them. I see no reason why loves should not be different. If you think your loves are not a good influence on the kids, why the hell are you having a relationship with them in the first place?
If you are the otherlove, you are in a unique position. Don’t be too eager to get into the kids’ affections. Kids are people and making friends with them is like making friends with anyone else. While no, there’s no romantic aspect, there is something of a “courting process” in earning a child’s trust and affection. Notice my use of the word “earn”. It’s a process and the older the child, the longer the process. That’s okay. My daughter was calling me Mama within a month (she was two). My son, who is older, did not start using parental titles with his other parents for a couple of years. We had decided to let the kids be the guide in this and not push. It worked out well, and the kids do see all the parents as their parents now. I think that being too eager would have ruined it. This is true even if you are not intending to be an actual parent to the child.
If you’re forming a multi adult household, watch the people you’re going to move in with like a hawk! Watch how they treat their children. Watch how they treat your children. If they have no kids, watch how they treat your kids. Is it significantly different from how they treat children who do not belong to loves? What about parenting philosophies? All of this is important information. We did this with each other when my family got together, and I am glad we did.
If you’re going to have multiple parents in the household, you’re going to need to do a lot of talking things out. Remember how all the parenting books talk about the necessity for the kids to have firm and clear boundaries in the household? Before those boundaries get set it’s important to decide on them! This is going to be a constant process, as children are not static. They change and grow and necessary boundaries change and grow with them. I find it very helpful to have fairly set household rules and expectations as well as consequences when the boundaries are broken. If everyone is on the same page, then it works out better and the kids cannot play parents against each other.
With that in mind, I also find it is a good idea not to countermand the other parents, even if you disagree. Unless you’re dealing with an issue of direct physical safety, it really is better, in my opinion, to let the situation slide, then go ahead and discuss the matter away from the kids. In my own household, it’s a rather serious issue if a child goes from a parent who said “no” to something to another parent to try to get a “yes”. That works well for us.
One of the things many parents are going to have to guard against in multi-parent households, especially women, is the “I’m Da Mama!” syndrome. You know, you see something you don’t like and all your Mama Bear instincts go full force. If you’re going to have all adults all be parents, that means you’re willing to give up some authority there and allow for a balance. Do your very very best to decide if you can handle this or not before you all move in together. It really is okay to say, “Look, we’re all going to live together and certainly you can enforce household rules, but I’m the parent!” You need to choose one or the other and stick to it. It is bad for the kids if you go back and forth on this, so make your decision carefully.
I re-iterate that you must earn the trust of the kids. When you all move in together, it really is going to be a process. It might very well take a few years, so be patient.
When you move in together and become a multi-parent household, one of the things you’re going to need to decide about is whether or not you are going to be in or out about being poly to the community. Now, if you’ve read my writings, you know that I think it is safer to be out in the long run. Here is a detailed discussion of my opinion one the subject, which is a bit far ranging. But as you talk about this, there are things to consider: the age of the kids, the reaction of the extended family, and how comfortable the kids are with the whole situation. As a parent you know your children far better than I do and I am going to presume you give a lot of thought to what might be best for them, so I won’t go any further into the subject.
However, one of the most common questions one gets when one decides to go poly — whether a group marriage is formed or not, is “Can I lose my children doing this?”
Unfortunately, there are no absolutes. This is the breakdown of the risks as best as I have been able to ascertain from observing the poly community and the few legal cases that have crossed my inbox or in talking to people. I’ve discussed this info with a couple of lawyers, and they’ve not disagreed with most of these points. I do welcome information on this subject, especially if you have been through or can cite court cases in which decisions have been different from the information I give here. In reading all of this, please keep in mind that I am not a lawyer. Check out the laws for your state, and
You are safest if you live in a state where nothing you do is illegal. This means you are in slightly more danger in terms of your kids if adultery, co-habitation, fornication, sodomy or any other sexual practice that you are into is illegal. I highly recommend that if you want to live in a multi-adult, multi-parent household that you move if you live in a state where what you do has laws against it. As I have often commented, I am a 14th generation Virginian, and loved my home very very much, and have roots that go so deep they rival a vineyard. But Virginia’s sex laws are appalling. So my family and I moved.
The basic reason I had moved from Virginia was a case in which a young woman with a son moved in with a female lover. The woman’s mother objected to the relationship and took the young woman to court to get custody of the son. The judge ruled that because the young woman was a practicing lesbian (it’s not illegal to be gay in Virginia, but it is illegal to have sex with someone of the same sex), that she was a criminal, and by definition and unfit mother. So while sex laws of this nature are almost never enforced, they can be used against you.
So… let’s have a breakdown of the dangers
The chances of any sort of child protective agency yanking a child out of a home “so fast it would make your head spin” is slim. This might happen if there is an accusation of abuse of any sort. Even then, you’re much more likely to have someone investigate your house first. I’m going to assume your children are well-fed, your house has food, they’re clean, have appropriate medical care and proper access to education — in other words, I am assuming you’re taking good care of the kids. (If you’re not taking good care of the kids, I have scant sympathy!)If you’re a decent parent, you’re unlikely to have them yanked immediately. That will only happen if there seems to be immediate evidence of abuse. Oh… As far as “adult” materials? Put ’em somewhere where a child cannot have access. A nice locked chest at the foot of the bed works, or in a box in the top of a closet — anything like that.
A biological parent — especially one who has been consistently involved in the child’s rearing and has provided considerable support either in the form of child support or child care time could and would be able to sue for custody and might very well win. However, it must be done in the home state of the child, unless the custody agreement is silent on this subject. I’ve been warned by the way, by a member of the PolyFamilies mailing list who has been through a divorce that this is very important to put into any custody agreement. If you’re poly and have kids and have someone who is a legal parent of the child who disapproves and will take action, there’s a fair chance that person will win. It’s not set, but this is a big deal and you’re at quite a lot of risk.
A grandparent is less able to cause legal trouble that will actually succeed. Again, charges of abuse are the biggest a-bomb. As far as custody suits? The only ones that I know of that have been won are instances in which the families have been accepting considerable financial support from said grandparents, either in terms of money or the equivalent in the form of low rent (and you’re nuts to be living on the property of someone who disapproves of poly if you have kids!), tuition, help with bills, low cost loans for a down payment on a house, cars, tuition, or most especially significant child care. No, the occasional babysitting while you take a night out is no big deal, but if there is a regular schedule of more than 20 hours a week, and the grandparent disapproves, look out. Don’t accept support from your parents if they disapprove of your lifestyle. The morality of it aside (I consider it extremely unethical. You might feel differently about it).
Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and cousins are less of a concern. Mostly this is going to have to do with how much financial support you might be getting, but they’re damned near in the category of stranger.
Strangers? You only have to worry if there are allegations of abuse. A stranger cannot take your kids. Yes, school teachers and other child care professionals are legally required to report cases of suspected abuse. But hell, I can’t think of many poly parents who don’t support coming down like a ton of bricks on abusers… Whether or not you’re going to be out to your school is up to you. My family is, but we don’t discuss our sex lives. We just all four show up at parent teacher conferences, and are all involved in the kids’ education. The teachers and school administration all know that they can contact any one of the four of us for any issue.
It is also a good idea to know the peeves of your local child protective agencies. There is a poly family one the West coast who decided to be very proactive about this and made an anynomous call from a pay phone to describe their family situation and ask if the agency would consider this a dangerous situation in which to rear a child. This particular agency responded that as long as the child was not directly exposed to the sexual activities of the adults, that it was not a concern for them. If you are concerned, this might be a good way to get more information. Another route, albeit more expensive, is to get a lawyer who specializes in family issues and take that advice. This is not dangerous due to professional ethics of lawyer-client priviledge.
The value of being involved in your kids lives aside, I do recommend that if you are going to be out, be involved. If you’re visible and people see you being involved with the kids, they’re less likely to worry that there’s some deep dark secret that you’re ashamed of and needs to be hidden. Volunteer to coach soccer, join the PTA, volunteer to be a “room mother”, be a Girl Scout troop leader — whatever you can in whatever spare time you have. Yeah, I know, as a poly person, that’s usually limited.
Which brings up another subject. There was a talk show once on which a group of poly people forming a group marriage appeared. One of the couples involved had a twelve year old child. A child psychologist expressed concern that the child might fall through the cracks because of the copious adult processing going on. Poly prejudice?
I want you to listen closely. Lean in and make sure you understand Mama Java really well.
That shrink was right!!!!
Got that? That psychologist had an excellent point! I know I’ve said it before, but adult processing takes time, focus and energy. Children most certainly are effected by tension in the house. In fact, lemme tell on myself here. The children are allowed to have hot lunch from the cafeteria one day a week. They are responsible for making their own lunches for school on the other days. One day, Muscle Boy chose to have hot lunch on a day on which there was a field trip. No-one caught this. Fortunately the cafeteria made him a peanut butter sandwich, so he did not go hungry, but you wanna talk Mommy Guilt? Oh my lord! In a busy group household things can slip through the cracks if you don’t pay attention. Have a system to take care of routine physical matters, for goodness sake! Make sure you spend time with the kids so you’re up on the emotional stuff. I consider the lunch incident a cheap lesson for my household.
I also strongly recommend that you all have wills and those wills clearly outline guardianships for the children. If you do not do this, legal relatives will be favored. In my own household, I hate to think of my children not only losing one or two parents, but losing all of them due to a legal snafu because a parent died intestate. At least have a holographic (hand written) will as a stopgap until you can see a lawyer.
In this vein, if you have not made your family a family corporation or LLC, I strongly recommend that the family home and major assets be put in a living trust. This will avoid probate and keep inheritance taxes from causing your family to lose your home if you die. This is something that will really effect the children, so think ahead.
Also, for any children you have that do not have a legal relationship to you, please do have a child care authorization form. I have not done so, but think it would be a good idea to make this card sized, and have it laminated to keep in my wallet. You’ll be glad you did if there is an emergency. It is also something you can file with the schools in case it’s needed for more routine matters.
So what if relationships don’t go well and the family breaks up? The simple truth is that the average length of a group marriage is four to eight years. It’s a bad idea to gloss over this, and it’s worse to think it can’t happen to you. I know in the throes of NRE, you might think everything is going to be perfect, and there is nothing you and your partners cannot work through. Yes, that could be the case, but what if it is not? You need to think in advance about what will happen if the family breaks up. Parenting commitments are just that. They’re more important than other relationship commitments. Talk to your partners and decide what you think will be best if the family breaks up. Many families decide that if the children have been reared together for significant time, that it is a bad idea to separate them, no matter what biological or legal ties are involved. I approve of this myself. I recognize that extreme situations alter cases, but do keep this in mind as you get your family together. If you’re going to become a parent, it’s a huge commitment, no matter what.
I know this is a lot to load on you all at once, but it was meant to be an hour and a half discussion. The funny part is that this is really only an overview. You’ll notice that throughout the article, I do suggest you go and do your own research on several things. <grin> But even with all of this, parenting is fun and poly parenting is no exception!