My daughter is turning six years old this week, and I've been struggling with what exactly to tell her about our relationships, if anything. Alex and I have been dating Julian and Hanne for a little more than two years now. My daughter has known them since she was just about to turn four years old. We all spend time together as a group with the kids once every month or two. We go on camping trips together. My daughter frequently sees me kiss Julian and has heard me refer to him as my boyfriend. She's seen her daddy kiss Hanne and talk about her as his girlfriend. She knows that they sometimes stay over at our house, and sometimes her mommy or her daddy may go and stay over at their house. However, to my knowledge she's never asked about or referred to my boyfriend or his girlfriend. When I ask her how she talks about them to others, she says she refers to them as her friends. The question is: Do I sit her down and have a little chat about the situation? Something like, “You know that Julian is my boyfriend and Hanne is daddy's girlfriend. I want to tell you that this is unusual – most people who are married don't also have a boyfriend or girlfriend. They only have their husband or wife. Most of your friends and their families would think it was strange. You might want to be cautious when mentioning it to them.”
I think it's clear that what children need in their lives is a stable home life with loving, encouraging adults. My daughter and my three-year old son have a wonderful home with parents who adore them and help them learn about life. They are both smart, funny, healthy, happy, well-cared-for children. I don't think that my having a boyfriend in addition to being married to their daddy by itself affects them in any negative way. Nor does their daddy having a girlfriend. In fact, I think having additional loving adults in their lives who care about them and nurture them is a benefit to them. In modern society where we no longer have a village around to contribute to the raising of children, our other partners can fill some of that space. I'm also not concerned about putting my children in a position where they have to deal with being part of a non-traditional, weird family. In my opinion being non-mainstream definitely presents challenges – but overall it is a positive thing. It allows my children to see that you can choose paths outside the traditional choices and be happy. They will be empowered to make their own decision, even if it falls outside of the conventional options. Learning to deal with being different than others is a character-building experience. Many of the people I like or admire most had to deal with societal opprobrium of one form or another in their youth. I think it made them stronger people. My children are already in a family outside the norm in other ways – we're vegetarian and atheist – so they will have strong skills for learning to manage being different.
However, there are three things that concern me with regard to the potential impact to my children. The first is that the conflict level in our household has risen substantially in the past two years. I won't go into all of the details here – I have a future post planned on the topic of poly drama – but suffice it to say that my children have been witness to more arguments in the past couple years than in the rest of their lives put together. Things have been better in the last few months and there is promise of it continuing to taper off. Alex and I have learned better skills for resolving issues. However, if the additional relationships in our lives prove to be a cause of or just a catalyst for a higher level of conflict at home in my children's lives indefinitely, then we'll have to do something to remove that catalyst, even if it makes us sad.
The second way the relationships we have could affect my children is if the conflict level rises to the point that it causes irreparable damage and Alex and I separate or divorce. I don't think this outcome is likely – Alex and I love each other very much and are very committed to each other – but it could happen. If the relationships we have cause more conflict, they also increase the chance of this outcome. And that would affect my children very negatively.
The third way I am concerned the kids could be impacted is by backlash from acquaintances and neighbors. I live in a suburb that is very child-friendly but quite religious and conservative. Sometimes I have this nightmare fantasy where my neighbors see something that lead them to conclude that Alex and I are either cheating on each other or swinging or doing something else they would consider immoral. One day my daughter runs home crying because none of the other children in the neighborhood are allowed to play with her because, she says, her friends' parents think we are bad. Every day for two weeks she tries to go out and play or invite friends over to her house … but every day she comes home crying. Finally, she stops trying to go out and play with friends, because it never works. Soon word gets out and she's teased at school. People start telling her they don't want to play with her. Naturally, my daughter is distraught. At the end of this nightmare, we end up moving to a new neighborhood where nobody knows us because of all the trauma it causes her. So, naturally, that's an outcome I want to avoid. Alex and I have rules about not kissing or doing anything else that indicates our other partners are more than friends outside the house where neighbors could see – “Don't do anything with them that you wouldn't do to your sister or brother” is my guideline.
I will do whatever is necessary to protect my children, but I have to admit it rankles that I have to hide someone I love when I'm in my neighborhood for fear of my neighbors taking their disapproval out on my children. I don't approve of all of their Christian Republican omnivore values either, but I would never stop my daughter from spending time with their children solely because of that. And they don't live with a fear that that will happen. Have you ever heard of a meat eater hiding their lifestyle because they were concerned vegetarian families would find it morally repugnant and shun their child?
One concern I don't have to struggle with is fear of losing custody of my children. However, I wanted to mention this issue because I know many poly people who do have to deal with this issue. I am still partnered with my children's father and we are in agreement about having poly relationships. I have no fear that he would ever try to take custody from me over this issue. However, other people aren't as fortunate. People who are no longer with the father or mother of their children often live in fear that their former partner might use their romantic and sexual choices against them in a custody battle. In my opinion, the issue of child custody is one of the biggest the poly movement has to address. We need to make people feel safe to express themselves romantically and sexually without fearing that their parenting abilities will be called into question. At this time, the way that child services treats non-monogamous parents varies considerably – they certainly can and have take children from a parent because of their non-traditional sexual and romantic lifestyle. In custody battles, a non-traditional relationship structure is often used to argue that the child would be exposed to something that would be harmful – without evidence that non-traditional relationships are inherently harmful at all. The poly movement needs to work with social services and child courts to ensure that choices about their romantic and sexual lifestyle can never be used as the sole evidence to claim someone is an unfit parent.