Published on November 4th, 2015 | by Meg Lemke0
POLY-MUTHA—An Interview with A, on Parenting While Polyamorous
This good friend of mine, called A here to be Anonymous, and I, we had babies around the same time, a couple of years ago. Incidentally, she practices polyamory, which was true before and after the baby situation. (I invite you to google if you are at this moment confused by terminology, or even better just read below—A explains it all well.)
A and I were close as adventuring, romantic, lovesick, excitable teenagers turning grown-ups in Seattle’s recently post-grunge / still riot grrrl era. We did theater together and we went to the Rocky Horror Picture Show together and (especially all dressed up / undressed up for such a night) we were pretty sexy, I think it’s fair to say (certainly she was/is, and I’m going to boldly claim it for at least the me of then)—we certainly talked about sex and love and sex constantly. Now, here we are: we still do talk about sex lots. Plus more baby stuff. But I’m going to say primarily sex.
As two married ladies go, my marriage is closed (for the record) and hers is actively, happily open. She is like success academy poly. (That is a joke perhaps only funny to me, regarding the hype naming of charter schools in my neighborhood (Success! Academy!). It is kind of a mom joke.) She’s also a role-model MUTHA.
We both like to talk about the people we love. Recently, she graciously let me tape a conversation for MUTHA. Maybe it’s being from Sea-town but I think of poly as a usual thing. Though, I don’t hear about it much in Park Slope (ha!), despite (or rather likely related to) its Ashley Madison reputation. Poly is in fact fundamentally about not keeping extracurricular sex a secret from your partner(s). In the wake of the hoopla around AM users outed and outraged, etcetera, I hope this interview contributes to the discussion ongoing about how for some families, their home-life can be supported rather than “wrecked” by openness about sex, for some including sex outside a primary partnership. As A says, practicing poly for her “allows a release of pressure, that one partner has to fulfill all the needs of the other.” It’s more complicated, of course, so read on… And huge thanks, A, who would have used her real name but did not given the awfulness of the Internet, and so to protect her child.
MUTHA: You have one son, correct?
A: One son. He just turned two.
MUTHA: You are polyamorous—that’s how you define it?
MUTHA: Tell me about your love life and your living situation.
A: There are conventional and unconventional aspects of both of them. My husband and I are poly, which can mean a whole spectrum of “stuff.” For us, it’s the most heteronormative version of it. We are primary partners, we have committed, first-priority for resources and addressing each others’ needs. We also both date outside our relationship, and those relationships are sometimes intense and sometimes casual. We move in a polyamorous friendly community. People often become lovers and then that fades, but the distinctions between relationship types are not as sharp.
MUTHA: You have a lot of friends you make out with sometimes, is what you mean.
A: Yep. And so do my friends. It’s a bonded social group in the sense that if you drew lines between people who had sexual interactions with each other, it would be a big tangled net.
MUTHA: How long have you considered yourself polyamorous?
A: Basically since breaking up with my last long-term [monogamous] boyfriend. We broke up when I was about 25. Then I had several brief relationships that overlapped, explicitly polyamorous, “I’m seeing you and two other people, are you cool with that?” — the contracts were drawn up with that stated. I met my husband in that phase. Now we have been together seven years. Seven years! We’ve been married three and a half. He was not poly when he met me, but he gave it a try.
MUTHA: To clarify, you recognized in yourself a desire or a tendency to want to be polyamorous, but your partners weren’t agreeing before you were 25.
A: Right. My high school boyfriend and I talked about becoming a “tripod” relationship, but it never came to pass. From that age, I had heard about it, it made sense to me. Whenever I am in love, I don’t stop having crushes. I don’t stop being in love with other people. The more I am in love with my partner, the more open I am to love generally. The more my feelings for my current partner would intensify, the more attracted I would become to other people. My libido would echo whatever my state was, independent of the person it was attached to.
MUTHA: Was it because you felt more desired and desirable?
A: It was less eros and more agape. The bliss of love, of being totally enthralled with someone, made everything beautiful, not just people—I would walk through the grass thinking how the city I lived in was beautiful. It was the lens that I saw the world through.
This is the longest poly relationship I’ve been in, and certainly we’re well past the honeymoon stage, where we want each others’ bodies all the time. But what I’ve noticed is that when of us gets a new outside partner, the in-marriage sex life heats up for a while. There’s the stimulation of libido, all of those hormones, the oxytocin that goes up when you’re lusting for someone—that can apply, for me, in whatever direction I’m pointing. I’m getting it from one place and spewing it in others. Then there’s the scarcity mentality, “Oooh, someone else wants my husband!” That’s exciting for the partner of the person whose recently got a new love.
Right now we’re mellow, he has a girlfriend he sees once or twice a month, I similarly have been seeing someone on and off for 4-5 years. I haven’t had the bandwidth to seek out more. Though, actually, I have a date in a couple weeks with a new guy…
MUTHA: Did you decide with your husband before you got married that you wanted to have children together?
A: Yes, we both wanted to have a family.
MUTHA: And you live in a community house, and it happens to include other poly couples.
A: Our household represents several families; some of them are currently poly, some are monogamous, and some of our unmarried adults switch from one to the other depending on the relationship circumstances they’re in at the moment. I could also switch, actually, though I felt I could never come around to marrying one person and never sleeping with someone else again.
MUTHA: Before either of us had kids, I remember you had a romper room downstairs that you told me was used for sex parties.
A: Well, we threw one sex party. We often attended sex parties but only hosted one.
Now we all have kids. I don’t think we’ll ever host another sex party here; at least until the kids grow up. Because that would be inappropriate. We’re not interested in introducing our toddlers to sex parties.
MUTHA: That’s a good teaser line for this article.
A: Just put: “Very clear boundaries.” Also, polyamory doesn’t mean “sex parties.” That is often assumed but the two are not definition-ally linked. Lots of poly people don’t go to sex parties, and lots of swingers don’t consider themselves polyamorous.
MUTHA: Sorry, I hope that wasn’t offensive to ask!
A: The assumption isn’t offensive, it’s just inaccurate.
MUTHA: Do you have models of other parents who practice poly?
A: As our community grows, there are more instances of social norms that people tend to follow. But because a polyamorous relationship is not a mainstream standard, there’s not a default contract. Everyone’s doing it their own way, right now. But, even in the last five years, as we talk to each other, we develop a culture as a group. It’s probably localized, like I have no idea how they do it in San Francisco versus here in Seattle.
MUTHA: Seattle has some well-known poly spokespersons, with Dan Savage who promotes “monogamish” and Mistresse Matisse who answers many technical questions about poly life on her column. Though it seems like part of the definition is still each couple coming up with its own rules?
A: As poly gains acceptance, and becomes more common and mainstream, we’ll get more of the unfortunate “default contract” issue that gets people into problems, where everyone assumes that everyone else is doing it the same way. That’s not even true in monogamy. Two people coming to a marriage almost always have different mental models about what that means. But if you’re monogamous, you don’t have that conversation as often, you assume everybody is on the same page. But poly is new, you get to talk about it a lot more. It’s a requirement.
MUTHA: How did you define or adjust rules around your relationship when you were trying to conceive and pregnant?
A: As soon as I went off the pill, I stopped having intercourse with outside partners (I had two at the time). We continued to go out and mess around, but there was no “penis in vagina action” because we just wanted it to be utterly unambiguous who the father of our kid was, right? Then, when I was pregnant, I had protected sex, they both had to get their STD tests done again, we were double careful. But then, I actually broke up with both my boyfriends. I didn’t have much energy and had the strong urge to focus on keeping home fires burning. I’ve since reconnected with one of them.
My husband also broke up with the girl he was seeing, when I was pregnant. We both had the urge to turn inward for a little while.
MUTHA: What happened to your sex life after you had a child?
A: Like most couples, we had a lessening of the amount of sex after we had a baby. We were tired all the time. The fact we were poly didn’t have much effect on that! In fact, I made a friend laugh the other day by saying my husband and I were “both single” in that period. Except for our marriage, we were single. We had sex about once a month during that first year. It’s gotten better. It’s about energy, time, grad school, anxiety and exhaustion–like most new parents.
Now we’re both each back with one outside partner.
MUTHA: Do either of them have children?
A: No. And interestingly enough, neither have other partners–but they used to be each other’s primary partner.
A: It’s complicated!
MUTHA: Do you use childcare when you go out on dates with other people?
A: Usually I stay home when my husband goes on a date and vice versa.
MUTHA: So like how in monogamous marriages, it’s understood that the other partner is going to help out when you need a break with a friend one night. But the level of trust and love here to say, I’ll stay home and watch the kid while you go out and fuck around…
A: There have been times in our relationship when poly has been challenging. Recently, there was someone that my husband was dating when my son was a baby, who I did find threatening. They went out together with my son and I was really jealous. We had to have that conversation: do you get to bring our kid on a date, even if it’s a date to the zoo?
My ideal is to be always honest with our son about what we’re doing and who we are. I don’t want him to feel like we are lying; it’s not illegal so he has no reason to keep anything secret. We’re white [and otherwise privileged] and that means we’re unlikely to get into trouble about it. But there’s a difference between we’re going to be honest with our kid about what we do—and there’s lots of different ways to have relationships–and our kid actually coming along. Even with divorced parents, there’s popular culture advice about not introducing the kid to a new person you’re dating.
MUTHA: Not right away…
A: The kid might see them as a substitute parent, or if you break up, it will be hard for the child to have that separation process. I’m not sure that applies to poly–our child is not lacking any parental figures, so may not get attached to one of our boyfriends/girlfriends any more than to one of our other friends or someone who lives in the house with us…
MUTHA: It brings up the question of how does a child get attached to a new adult, and how what does it have to do to that adult’s relationship to his parent? Presumably my daughter has a closer relationship to some of my close friends because of my demonstrated affection for them.
Also, as children grow up, societal norms start sweeping in and into their understanding of the world. But children more regularly accept a difference that is part of their upbringing from the start, right? You’re plan is to tell your son openly as he asks?
A: Yes, just “Mommy is going on a date,” and let that discussion mature with him.
MUTHA: So the fact that you live in a communal house is coincidental to you also being poly—but I’d love to hear more about the benefits of communal living.
A: Around parenting, it’s kind of amazing. We use the house like a family—we share all the food, tools, cars (not formally, I still own my car, but we share through informal key drawers/text messaging and google docs… we have a ridiculous number of google docs). We have monthly house meetings and discuss maintenance. We have a cooking rotation. My husband and I cook on Monday and get a home-cooked meal every other night of the week, except Saturday, though often Saturday we all get together, too. Sunday nights, we try to all make it for a house dinner together. Add child-rearing to that – my son has several adults in the house who he trusts, who know him, who can pick him up if he needs.
When my husband went back to work, I can’t imagine how I would have coped without my housemates. How could I have taken a shower? I was able to ask someone I trusted, who lived with me, to hold him for twenty minutes.
I’m watching all the children in the house grow up well socialized, familiar talking to adults. Communal living is open, sharing, warm, and it feels good raising children in this atmosphere. More love equals better parenting.
MUTHA: A standing criticism or fear is of instability in poly marriages.
A: I’ve been to two poly 10th-year anniversary parties. Take that.
I don’t know the current statistics, but a decade ago, it was often quoted that of all marriages in the US, about 50% of couples broke up. I doubt it’s different in poly marriages.
In our case, I believe poly has strengthened our relationship. We are still around because of poly. My husband was not ready for a committed, monogamous relationship because of a recent break-up (with his first love) when we first met. He was ready to see the world. But our relationship didn’t threaten that need; we survived that. Because we had to work through all the issues that come with poly—there’s a lot, jealousy, fear, needing the courage to do this thing that’s not acceptable to your family or the culture at large… you have to explicitly hammer out all the agreements about how to run your relationship and deal with the scary emotions. That work has to be done up front. We did a good job. In the first year, we spent so much time talking about the structure of our relationship, how to respond to each other’s emotions, about how to express our jealousy rather than hide it. I think that is what ends many poly relationships—pretending “it’s fine” and being all cool about it, then running away.
MUTHA: You think there is a certain fronting that happens.
A: Yes, successful poly requires an acknowledgment that jealousy happens, and you have to confront that directly, rather than trying to make rules that prevent it from ever arising. Which, I think is the monogamous response—I feel jealous, it’s not ok for me to feel jealous, so you can never talk to/sleep with another woman.
Our rule list is short: if you are feeling uncomfortable or jealous, you are required to mention it to the other partner. We are required to check in with each other before engaging with intercourse with a new person (but not other things). Oh, and always practice safe sex. And be good to each other. Accept each others’ negative emotions and work towards compromise.
A lot of poly couples have a veto rule—we don’t have that. If I’m feeling jealous, it’s usually founded in fear. He’s going to leave me for this other person, or he’s going to think this other person is better than me, in some way. If I bring my jealousy to my husband and say, listen, I’m scared. He has an opportunity to address where that might be coming from in our relationship. When we’re really solid, I don’t feel that jealous. But there have been times when we’ve gone through a hard period and outside relationships become more threatening. The jealousy becomes a flag—pay attention to me, something is off. If you are forced to address it, you get to a deeper understanding of what you mean to each other and how to reassure each other.
MUTHA: You’re very close to your own parents. But your mother has had a lot of concerns, correct? I know that’s been hard.
A: Yes. Coming out to family is a thing in poly community. Some people do and others don’t. It’s kind of like coming out as gay, but maybe it’s harder to explain, I think, because it is a choice to be poly. My parents just said, “Oh, we tried that already in the 70s and it didn’t work!” I try and explain to them that we’re doing it differently. My dad buys it, but my mother is nervous.
MUTHA: Did that increase when you had a child?
A: Her dismay increased. Recently I mentioned my husband going out on a date, and she said “I just can’t talk about it.” She is hurt.
MUTHA: I’m sorry.
A: Sometimes it goes well coming out to your parents—and sometimes not. Generally families adjust. One friend came out and her mother was so angry, furious because her point of view was that this was wounding her granddaughter. It was a family rift. But over years, the family noticed that the marriage stayed stable—it was one of the 10th year anniversary couples I know. That their grandchild was happy. The wounds are healing.
MUTHA: What makes it worth it to you?
A: Of the many benefits of poly, one is how it allows a release of pressure, that one partner has to fulfill all the needs of the other. There is a lot of overlap in my and my husband’s sexual interest. But, because we’re poly, I don’t have to feel stressed out if I’m not doing “a thing” that my husband likes. He can go find it somewhere else. I can also—I can find whoever I need to “tie my socks” or whatever. Even if it’s not something kinky, when if I know my husband is getting sex somewhere else, it lets me have sex when I want to (with him or someone else!) and not feel pressured. I don’t think anyone should be obliged to do something they don’t want to in bed; women in particular have been put in that position too long.
Note: minor changes were made post-publication at the request of the interviewee, to maintain anonymity