“Why do some kids have three parents?”
A group of our friends were spending a weekend at a cabin in the mountains, and our hosts’ not-quite-three-year-old was starting to do the math. Over the squalls of nap-resisting toddlers, her mom responded without missing a beat: “Because they’re lucky.”
Living in a committed multiple-adult household always takes some explaining. In a nutshell: My wife and I were college girlfriends and had a commitment ceremony more than ten years ago. Our husband joined our family in 2001, and we had a three-way wedding in 2005. We own a house and car together and are equal co-parents (or as equal as you can be when one person is breastfeeding) to our one-and-a-half-year-old daughter.
It used to be that the most common questions we got when we explained our relationship involved jealousy (not a problem, but an understandable question) or sleeping arrangements (why this is so often the first thing people think of is beyond me).
But once I became pregnant, things changed. No matter how traditional the person or how new the idea was to them, we’d most often get a pause, a misty-eyed look, and then, “That sounds like a good idea. I could have used an extra parent.”
I’ve definitely been known to describe our current set-up as having my cake and eating it too: I work from home, my husband works out-of-the-home, and my wife stays with my daughter. We get to have two incomes, neither of which would support the family on its own, and a stay-at-home parent. I get to do work I love and continue to breastfeed, without even pumping.
Of course, about the time last December when the flu was cycling through the house and my daughter was on a nebulizer and holiday presents needed wrapping and we were calling my mother-in-law to help us with overnight shifts because she’s comfortable sleeping upright in a chair like the baby needed, we certainly all shook our heads and wondered how anyone does this with only two parents.
I won’t pretend a multi-adult family is without its challenges. Trilateral decision making, whether about chores or dental care, can take at least three times as long. There are more individual pair bonds that need attending to. Around the holidays, the calendar fills up even faster when there are three sets of grandparents to visit. When I liberate myself from the computer, I have been mistaken for the nanny of my own child by local shopkeepers. (Okay, that’s actually just funny.)
Still, in my world and in the worlds of the other polyamorous parents I know, all these challenges generally just mean more time is focused on family and parenting. So it always brings me up a little short to see people trotting out the “clearly bad for children” argument about my family. “Much as I might like to add a sexual partner or two to my married life, I just can’t see how it could be in my children’s interest to follow that fantasy,” wrote one man in a letter to Salon.com responding to an article on polyamory. “Someone will get pissed off eventually. Someone will move out. Some child will be sleeping at two houses . . . You just know it.”
Hmmm, sounds a lot like the state of monogamous marriage today, doesn’t it? Cheating, stagnation, abuse, fights over money, new loves breaking up old loves, a fifty percent divorce rate.
I mean, yes, lovers/step-parents constantly coming and going and families falling apart and reforming at the drop of a hat certainly sounds like an unideal environment for children to me. But this is just what monogamous people imagine polyamory must be, just like straight people for so long imagined that gay people did nothing but have sex. It has very little to do with the lives of real poly families. I do know, however, where they’ve seen such scenarios actually happening: in families with insecure single or divorced, serially or theoretically monogamous parents.
There’s no question in my family about who is a parent. All three of us went to every prenatal appointment. My wife cut the cord at the birth and is on the birth certificate as the witness. We took the same last name so as to share a family name with our children. We paid way too much money to a lawyer to draw up a co-parenting agreement so that our intentions are crystal clear, even though the state of New York would consider it an unenforceable contract. My daughter just learned to pronounce “Mommy” and “Mama” differently, and every morning the first thing she does when she wakes up is take inventory: “Daddy!” “Mama!” “Mommy!” If someone’s left the house already it requires repeated explanations. There’s certainly no question in her mind who her parents are.
Like preschoolers everywhere who point out sets of big, medium, and small things as the daddy, the mommy, and the baby, the daughter of another three-parent family I know identifies three-parent groupings wherever she goes, finding mama, daddy, and papa in what look to our untrained eyes like the oddest places. In a nativity scene, for example, with Mary, one of the three kings, and the shepherd who happens to be standing nearest by.
Even when relationships do end, having an additional person intimately involved can be a real strength. When both biological parents of another former triad I know were having mental health issues and going through a painful breakup, their daughter was able to go live with her other dad – a man who had never been related to her by blood or marriage, but who had been a part of her family since she was born and whom she knew as Dad.
On the other end of the spectrum, the kids I know whose parents just have open marriages don’t even really register it, and why should they? There’s no reason it has to be any different to them if mom gets an evening out to see her lover or to play cribbage.
This is the point where I give you some cute story about the quirkiness of non-monogamous parenting. But I have to say, all the stories I have right now are things you don’t need to hear from me: snot from fall colds, the wonder of four brand-new words in a single day, trying to gauge what size boots those tiny feet will need come January.
All kinds of things about my life are complicated. My daughter having three parents just isn’t one of them.