Many people assume that it's harmful for children to have more than two parents. Of course, multiple parents are common in stepfamilies, where a child may have as many as four parents from two blended families. In the many cultures where polygyny is permitted, children often grow up with several mothers who cooperate in caring for each other's children. And from time immemorial, older brothers and sisters, as well as extended families of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins, have shared family compounds and taken on significant roles as caretakers. One of the most indelible images from all my travels is a slender elderly man with a wizened face squatting beside a toddler just after dawn in the outskirts of a village in central India. This man looked at the little one, who I imagined to be his grandchild, with a look of such love and devotion that I literally stopped in my tracks, unable to shift my gaze.
As extended families who live together become increasingly rare, especially in the affluent West, polyamorous families are one way that some people are counteracting the isolation of the lone nuclear family and finding ways to provide at-home caretakers for children. Others gravitate toward cohousing or intentional communities that may or may not be monogamously oriented but where adults share some responsibility for child rearing.
Several studies have been done on stepfamilies and children reared communally, but there is still a dearth of research investigating the important question of how polyamory affects children. At the same time, the impact on children is one of the most commonly asked questions whenever the subject of polyamory is raised. Dr. Elisabeth Sheff is an assistant professor of sociology at Georgia State University. She conducted her doctoral research on polyamorous families with children in the mid-1990s and later decided to attempt a longitudinal study of these and other poly families. So far, she's following about thirty families with three or more adults living together who have children between the ages of six and twenty. She'd like to double that and include an ethnically and culturally more diversified group before publishing her findings but says that funding for research on polyamory is scarce.
Dr. Sheff's research focuses on families where three or more adults in committed relationships jointly share responsibility for child rearing. However, open marriages are far more common than group marriages and consequently are impacting many more children. Single parents with intimate networks also are increasingly common and present a similar milieu for children in many respects. All these types of multipartner relationships may shape children's experiences in a variety of ways that have not even begun to be considered, except by theorists and the parents themselves, let alone researched.
As a parent who has raised two children of my own in a variety of nonmonogamous contexts and watched many friends and clients do the same over the years, I have thought deeply about these issues. Over the years, I've socialized with, coached, or spoken at length with at least several hundred other polyamorous families with children and a few dozen middle-aged adults who were raised in families where their parents had open or group marriages or where patriarchal-style polygamy was practiced. While I've made no attempt to "collect data," I've probably observed more modern polyamorous childrearing than anyone on the planet.
In an open marriage or single-parent household, it's quite common for secondary partners to visit regularly, stay over on weekends, or stay for weeks at a time and perhaps for them to become housemates or to move in for a trial period as a prelude to a more permanent arrangement. In situations like this, lovers often take on roles similar to those of aunts and uncles rather than coparents. Parents must decide how and when to integrate these visitors into the family and what, if anything, to say to the children about the new lover who is now sharing Mommy and/or Daddy's bed.
All the recent surveys of polyamorous people find that about half of them are parents. However, at least half of these attempt to hide their extramarital relationships from their children or have teens or adult children whose lives are mainly independent of their parents or utilize polyamorous gatherings, other social occasions, or coaching sessions as a vacation from parenting. As a result, in the course of everyday life, I've had far less opportunity to interact with the children of polys than with their parents, except in the case of personal friends where spending time with the entire family was a natural part of our interactions. Consequently, while I believe my observations can be generalized to a wider population, this may not be the case. It's possible that the children of poly parents I have not met are different from those that I have met.
Dr. Sheff's sample is also skewed in that virtually all her participants thus far come from the network of people who strongly identify as polyamorous and who attend various polyamorous conferences, potluck dinners, or other social events. Dr. Sheff has found that some polyamorous parents are reluctant to talk to anyone "official" because they are concerned about losing custody of their children. The common perception that children in poly (and nonheterosexual) families are at higher risk for sexual abuse than those in monogamous families, which appears to be completely unfounded according to Dr. Sheff, also makes people nervous about talking to her. Her focus has been to rely on unstructured interviews to determine what kinds of experiences children in polyamorous families have, what the internal dynamics of the family are, and what kinds of things these families do that help them survive. Further, she's included nonbiological parents who she says are sometimes more involved in the day-to-day parenting than the biological parents, perhaps because they have more time and inclination for it. Nevertheless, as I spoke with my own contacts and heard what she had found thus far, a cohesive picture began to emerge.
In the absence of existing research on polyamorous families, Dr. Sheff has looked to the research on children of gays and lesbians for clues. There's a fair amount of this research, she says, because much of it is funded from within the gay and lesbian communities themselves who have a "we are family" campaign that funds research as well as political activity. The lion's share of sexuality research money is also going to the study of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) issues, and the little funding that exists for family research comes mostly from conservative groups for whom polyamory is not of interest. The GLBT research has found that essentially all the pressure the children of homosexual parents face is from outside the family. In other words, nothing has been found in the families themselves that's a problem for the children, but they do encounter judgments, prejudice, and negative attitudes from outsiders, such as teachers or neighbors, or are concerned about appearing different. The same appears to be somewhat true for children in polyamorous families, although one bisexual poly parent told me that his teenage son's perception was that polyamory was more acceptable than bisexuality among his peers.
Geography, as well as individual differences, no doubt plays a role in the extent to which children of polyamorous families encounter prejudice or feel different. I've been told by people in Europe and Australia that this is definitely an issue, while for many of the children in Dr. Sheff's study who live in the San Francisco Bay Area, it's not.
Australian researcher and educator Dr. Maria Palotta-Chiarolli points to the need for addressing the ways in which children in polyamorous families may experience discrimination, prejudice, and misunderstanding both from "the wider heteronormative society and from within the gay and lesbian community."
Dr. Pallotta-Chiarolli decided that writing a novel for young adults would be one way to support teens who are struggling to reconcile the realities of their bisexual and/or polyamorous families with the heteronormative mainstream culture. The result was Love You Two, which is the tale of a Pina, a young Australian woman who accidentally discovers that her mother loves two men. Then, when she turns to her uncle for help, she learns that he's bisexual. It's all very confusing for Pina, who loves her mother but has trouble integrating the realization that there are different ways to love.
What's interesting to me is that most of the young adults I know who were raised in child-centered polyamorous families seem to end up giving a higher priority to bonding and sustained intimacy than to freedom, whether they are male or female. While they often attempt both, they seem willing to go for serial monogamy because its continued cultural dominance provides greater ease in intimate connections with partners raised to believe in monogamy. Those who are more determined to pursue radical multipartner lifestyles whatever the cost or who are hungry for sexual variety to make up for a sexually repressed adolescence seem to have a greater need to rebel against the culture norms than the children of the last generation of polyamorous pioneers. This pattern also seems to hold true for the children of more mainstream families who are open with their children about their polyamorous relationships.
As I often joke, if you want your children to be monogamous, practice polyamory!
Excerpted from Polyamory in the 21st Century, by Deborah Anapol, published by Rowman & Littlefield, July 2010, appears by permission of the publisher. This material is protected by copyright. All rights reserved. Please contact the publisher for permission to copy, distribute or reprint.