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Otherfathering and Men in Polyamorous Families

How polyamorous relationships can expand men’s involvement in families.

Conventional Masculinity Constricting

In the last 50 years, women’s social choices have expanded dramatically. Men’s choices, in sharp contrast, have barely budged, and the confines of what scholars call hegemonic masculinity remain suffocatingly small. Women can work for pay, serve in military combat, and lead a range of religious services because they have doggedly sought entrance to what used to be men’s world of professional, financial, and legal status. Men, on the other hand, have generally avoided the wide world of cleaning, laundry, cooking, care for children and elders, and other low-status, unpaid labor that remains almost wholly women’s domain.

Even though eluding women’s work has been to men’s personal and professional advantage, it has not been without cost. The constraints of masculinity can be costly indeed. Pants, jeans, dresses, or skirts – women can wear anything in any color or print that they want to. Men can wear pants, pants, jeans, occasionally shorts, but mostly pants in any hue of brown, black, tan, navy, gray, or khaki their little hearts desire because any other color or print (other than pinstripe or plaid if flannel) might make them look feminine. It is OK for women to seek what men have – it is the higher status and the more socially valuable position so it makes sense for women to aim for those goodies. Conversely, men are not encouraged to seek female traits and in fact are humiliated when they are likened to women – being a labeled a pussy or bitch is something to be avoided like the plague, and no boy wants to hear he throws like a girl. Far worse than their paltry range of wardrobe options, most men remain less connected to families and children than are women: The vast majority of single-parent families are headed by women, and women in dual parent families still tend to do the bulk of the daily child-care.

Public Domain Images
Source: Public Domain Images

Polyaffective Relationships

Unlike polyamorous relationships that generally have a sexual or romantic component, polyaffective relationships are the platonic relationships between people who are socially connected via polyamorous relationship but are not sexually involved themselves. While I have discussed polyaffective relationships in other blog posts, most relevant to this post are the platonic relationships among men who both love the same woman but are not lovers themselves. In my 15 years of researching polyamorous families, I have noticed a pattern of men becoming attached to children in poly families and remaining attached to those children, even if the men no longer have a sexual relationship with the kids’ mother. In that and many other ways, polyaffective relationships are the glue that keeps polyamorous families together.


Scholars such as Patricia Hill Collins have used the term othermothering to describe the ways in which women take care of children to whom the women are not biologically or legally related. Especially important among African and African American communities, othermothering happens when women break up a scuffle on the playground, step in to stop bullying, feed a child lunch, or bandage a skinned knee for children to whom the women are not biologically or legally related. While men can theoretically take the same actions to care for children, their greater social distance from children and concerns about child molestation mean that, in practice, it is generally women performing the care for children and especially for unrelated children.

Men in polyamorous families develop close relationships with kids and some of them stay involved in the kids’ lives even after the men’s relationship with the mom breaks up. These men take on the role of otherfather, a social dad offering emotional, practical, and even financial support for children they love as their own but have no legal claim to. In my own research there are several cases where the children’s biological father routinely helps the social father spend time with the children. Generally, the social father and the children’s mother (social father’s ex-lover) are cordial or cool towards each other and would prefer not to spend much time together. The biological fathers, however, have usually established a friendship with the social father by that point and do not have the emotional baggage of a romantic breakup weighing their relationship down, so spending time together is more appealing. In one instance the dads have lunch with the daughter every Saturday, and in another the dads meet to see a movie or play miniature golf with the kids every other Sunday. In both cases, adults and kids alike mention how nice it is to see each other and what fun they have together, even though it is not enough for some of the kids who would like more time with the social dad.

Public Domain Images
Source: Public Domain Images

Kids do well with a lot of caring attention, and the more adults helping to raise, guide, and contribute to the wellbeing of a child the better. Most men are disconnected from families to a far greater degree than women, and finding ways for men to stay connected to families and continue to care for children is good for everyone. Continued contact is good for the kids who have more people they can count on for help and advice, and good for the men who tell me their lives are enriched by watching the children they love grow up and participating in their lives.

In polyamorous and other families, men’s relationships with children should not depend on whether or not the men are having sex with the kids’ mother – it is irrelevant to the bond between the men and the kids, and far too fickle a basis for parenthood. The kids don’t care, don’t think about it, and would rather not know anything about their mothers’ sex lives – kids in poly families (like kids in many families) try not to think about their parents as sexual people at all. The stiflingly small box of conventional masculinity needs to open a bit to let men have more varied and diverse relationships not only with children, but with women and each other. Polyaffectivity offers men a breath of fresh air, a little more room to expand in to new and more connected versions of masculinity.

More from Elisabeth A. Sheff Ph.D., CSE
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