One of the most frequent comments polyamorous folks get (and one of the things I suggested you maybe not say to your polyamorous friends) is some variation of “BUT WHAT ABOUT THE CHILDREN?!?” Rather than address that exact strawman for monogamous people’s discomfort - which is what that question is, studies and anecdotes show - we’re going to proceed to talk about the ways in which parenting when polyamorous is the same and different as parenting when monogamous, through some FAQs.
Is everyone you date going to be a parent to your kids?
Probably not, but that’s determined by a bunch of negotiation in advance, and shouldn’t be assumed. As with most things in polyamory, the standard social script doesn’t have to apply anymore, so if the first two parents of the children in question want to incorporate more parents, there are always options. Much as with separated parents dating, there’s no requirement that any person you begin to see do any parenting at all - not a light scolding of a misbehaving young child, not counseling a teen with an issue, nothing - but if everyone has interest in it, there’s space for everything from “well, when you’re here you can reinforce rules the parents have set” to “we’re going to integrate you as a full parent.” Like so many things in polyamory, it takes deliberate examination and application of opinions - falling into something by accident often works less well and causes more issues down the line when it turns out different people had different bases for their idea of how parenting would work. It’s something that may be renegotiated as relationships grow, or may have dramatically different answers for different partners.
How should you tell your kids that you’re polyamorous?
That will depend on how old they are, how open you are with the world about polyamory, and your own preferences about how to talk to them. Anything you tell your kids should be explained in an age-appropriate way - you’re not going to tell a three year old about sex, you’re going to talk about affection and support and caring about more than one person - but honesty is essentially important. You can tell a teenager who is old enough to know that sex is a thing adults do that your relationships involve sex (maybe use it as a teachable moment about safer sex, if you’re comfortable with that!) but that how much and with whom is private; you thereby model good boundaries and honesty at the same time. You can use media or journalism about polyamory to talk about it with older kids, or books like A Color Named Love to introduce the topic to small children. If you’ve been polyamorous since your kids were very small, as I was and am, it’s a matter of talking about how families look many ways. In a sense, because divorce and remarriage are now so common, kids are exposed to families that look plenty of different ways anyway and adding “and maybe an extra parent in the same house” to the list at an early age doesn’t seem to phase the children at all - in my experience it was only other parents who are ever bothered.
Won’t there be issues with schools or doctors if multiple people coparent?
Short answer: Mostly not. Long answer: If you walk in and say “these are the caretaking adults in this child’s life, you’ll be interacting with all of us, these are the names the child uses for us,” most teachers will just be glad the child has adults who care about them. If you get a prejudiced teacher one year, it will be annoying, but they most likely won’t take it out on the kid, they’ll be rude to you the adults, and it’ll be ok. School administration are more scared of being sued than anything else and if you walk in confidently and assert that you have a right to be there for your student(s) no one will deny you. Doctors, you may need to shop around for one who is compatible with your family and worldview, but honestly, doctor shopping is a fact of life due to multiple factors, so I don’t consider that a loss, really. (As a fat, chronically ill, kinky, polyam person, I have a bunch of things I’m screening for in a doctor and the polyamory is the least of it in terms of practice and manner.) If you’re lucky enough to live in a relatively liberal area you may not even need to shop around much because they’ll just add additional coparents as caretaking adults (because thanks to stepparents, etc, doctor’s intake forms have space for several now) and it won’t matter - if you don’t you might need to call around a little before you settle on a practice for your kids where the family feels welcome.
Are there legal questions polyamory and parenting brings up?
Sort of. Like non-married partners, non-biological children are in a grey area where depending what state you’re in your legal rights and recourse vary. Some towns in Massachusetts have legalized domestic partnerships that allow rights to partners’ children in case of schooling or medical emergency; Connecticut’s new parentage act going into effect in 2022 can in theory be used to put additional parents on a child’s birth certificate for greater ease of proving parentage for medical and legal purposes; there’s a California child with three parents on their birth certificate; other states have different medical or emergency powers paperwork that can be done or adoption options available in different scenarios. See an attorney in your state if you’d like to know your family’s options.
Forget coparenting, when do you introduce partners to kids? How will meeting parents’ partners affect them?
From Elisabeth Sheff’s 20 year study of polyamorous parents, it either will affect kids positively to have more adults who care about them around, or it won’t affect them at all. When to introduce kids to partners depends on your life and your kids (and your personal approach) but generally taking some care to introduce kids to parents’ partners as more than friends once you expect they’ll be around a while to minimize upheaval and uncertainty is a positive. Letting your kids know you’re dating in general and not lying about your relationship to people but also not insisting they form a particular or affectionate relationship with your partners gives space for you to have whatever relationships you will without creating instability. Advice frequently given to separated or divorced parents can be applied in this area for polyamorous parents as well.
What about when there are breakups?
Much as with introductions (and as with monogamous parents having breakups!) the priority is the children’s well-being - polyam parents can do things like make sure kids keep seeing former partners and their children or create transitions to slowly see those people less rather than have “hard stops” if people were deeply integrated in kids’ lives; people can either preemptively or as part of breakups make agreements about how to handle continuing to see each others’ children or getting kids together for playdates even if the adults are no longer involved. Many of these issues apply less when relationships are shorter, when children are older, or when people have carefully negotiated boundaries around interactions with each others’ kids in the first place - but every individual situation has its own challenges. Most of the time, you will struggle much more with a given breakup than any child in either of your lives will, and this question will be nearly as much of a strawman as the generic “what about the children?!” and you can brush it off with “We also have friends who they see more often and less often sometimes.” When it’s harder, it will be the biggest challenge about polyamory and parenting, and one that deserves more attention at a later date.
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