Polyamory is All Good Fun Until Someone Puts an Eye Out

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By Maria Padhila

That is the age-old warning, from parents to children, from grandparents to parents, from parents to other parents. We’re in a time and place where parent-on-parent judging is a contact sport, if not a blood one. In my neighborhood, if your toddler isn’t spilling the organic version of goldfish crackers into the sandbox, you may get child protective services called on you.

Poly Paradise at Burning Man. Photo by Eric.

Which is the other big threat levied at parents who don’t toe the line. Do one thing wrong, and Judgy McHolier over there will drop a dime, and They Will Come Take Your Kids Away.

It probably happens about as often as someone putting an eye out on a playground. I don’t know about where you live, but where I live, social services are stretched pretty thin and those workers can barely keep up with the obvious cases of abuse and neglect, to sometimes tragic results.

But it still lingers in the back of my mind: If they find out I have a husband and a lover, that’s it. They’ll take her away. Or my husband, if he gets angry or jealous, will be the one making the call. Or his parents, or mine, or our siblings. All in the name of doing what’s right for the child.

One funny thing is that Isaac’s mother — for whom I have a lot of respect and admiration, but no, no, no, she does not know our deep secret! — has a master’s in a family service field and believes from experience and observations that families are best kept together unless there’s a clear danger. She is a kitchen-scrubbing fanatic and can barely stand to visit our place — she even thinks my hundreds of books, which are mostly on shelves, are just “clutter.” But she had no trouble with messy moms in her professional capacity, if kids are safe and fed.

So I know firsthand that even the judgy-est of social workers probably wouldn’t Take Her Away. Yet that fear in the back of my mind was enough for me to put the lid on my non-monogamous nature for years. It was even part of what shut down my own sexual expression and enjoyment with my legal husband for a while. It kept me from going out with friends, dancing, having a drink, traveling even. I was insane with trying for New Urban Mom perfection the first five years of my daughter’s life. Somewhere inside I just knew I was a Bad Mommy and They were going to grab her if I didn’t obey.

That’s why I was so moved when I read Poly Mom’s story at her blog. Her lover moved in with her and her husband and their three children. When a set of grandparents became invasive, abusive and destructive, her family went to the law to keep them away. They didn’t sit back and figure they had to take it just so they wouldn’t get busted for living in a triad. And when her lover, who had been treated badly by his wife, decided on a divorce, the triad asked to be primary caretakers of his child.

And she let child services into the house.

And here’s what she said happened:

As I have mentioned in previous posts, our family has been dealing with a Child and Family Investigator (CFI) in our home. This has involved home visits and interrogations (the CFI called them interviews) and social history investigations and all manner of invasive questioning not only of us, but also our family and friends, to assess whether Gabe or Alison should be awarded primary physical custody of their son, Junior…

Our family was described in positive terms. I was described as strong, confident, and family-oriented, and our home was described as structured and loving. The CFI had nice things to say about our three girls too: that they are good students, and welcoming of their ‘stepbrother.’

While I would not call the CFI particularly pro-polyamory (she even said that she predicted that our current relationships would not necessarily last, which I found quite insulting), she did not let her stodgy biases keep her from recommending in Gabe’s favor. It is obvious that she does not understand polyamory well, but she ended up favoring a triad over a couple for the best family configuration for Junior, and her reasons for being less happy about Alison do not seem to involve Alison’s openness about sex, which we appreciated, too. (Rather, the CFI focused on Alison’s over-reliance on others, her lack of plans or goals, that she is a very angry and depressed person, and that she has not responded appropriately to attempts to negotiate or co-parent. Basically, the CFI said that Gabe was and is the more functional and facilitative parent, and the one most likely to provide Junior with long-term developmental support.)…

The CFI began the process essentially ignorant of polyamory, and ended by saying some nice things about our family in her report, so I see that as a good overall outcome…

It feels good to know that we are likely to remain a whole family, and that our family has been recognized for being strong and good. I hope that this is good news for other polyamorous families, too – being poly does not automatically mean you are disadvantaged in child custody disputes.

I think we’re going to make it.

Now, I’m a skeptical woman, and usually anyone with this much drama would set off all my bells. And who the hell knows whether anyone blogging away is telling the truth nowadays. But after a lot of years of reading people, I can just say that her voice sounds reasonable and consistent, but not overly so; that we exchanged emails; that the details of her job and day-to-day life ring true; and that her family was asked to be on a major TV show and decided to turn it down (didn’t need the drama).

She’s not the least lukewarm and has no love lost for her lover’s ex-wife. There’s some snarking there for sure, and that strikes me as honest, too. I don’t like people who hurt the ones I love (more on that next week: How Not to be Poly). And now, my judgy part is over, and I’m just going to enjoy knowing — or at least thinking — that this kind of thing can work, and can be understood, or at least not actively destroyed by the state.

And that maybe I’m not destroying my child.

Here’s how we handle it: Our child doesn’t have to know everything about our personal life. She knows Chris, and knows he’s my friend, and knows he has a couple girlfriends. But we don’t believe she needs to know anything more than that. I have a lot of friends I love and care about. So does Isaac, though he isn’t as huggy with his friends as I am. But she doesn’t see more physical interaction between Chris and me than she would with any of my other friends. Isaac and I are semi-attachment parents — Tobi even sleeps in our bed every couple of weeks; we all consider it a treat to read and cuddle together. I’m sensitive that she’s an only, so I program in some time on playdates and sleepovers so she gets time with her friends and time to practice not being the center, the Sun, the little Leo.

But I’d rather have her with me than with sitters, so we do a lot of the daily stuff together — going to the garden, shopping — even if she complains, as kids do. Consequently, she spends some time with Chris, because we do the same kinds of things together — gardening, occasional museums, outdoor concerts, the pool. They like each other and like to talk. She’s a good companion and good to talk to, but I have no problem telling her no — I know she’s a child. She knows damn well who her daddy is, and he is the center of her universe, and Chris would never interfere with that. I don’t think I could love him if he were the kind of person who did. And if Chris weren’t the kind of person who puts our child as first priority, as she is for us, Isaac would, well, he’d take him out. And that would be that.

The other night, Isaac and I were talking, and I was complaining about not feeling supported, at work or something such. Issac said that made him feel bad, because it’s like I don’t know that he’s got my back. And, he added, “there’s another guy who lives across the river who will always have your back, too, and you shouldn’t forget that.”

That’s when I pretty much melted.

Tonight, I was taking care of Tobi’s toenails as we talked. We’d been talking about looking back on when I was her age. I asked her what she would remember about this time when she grew up, what she would tell people.

“I would talk about how I had worries, and how fourth grade was so hard,” she said. (She’d had her first Mean Girl experiences during the year and we’d spent a lot of evenings crying and talking, first because she was upset about joining in on some meanness, then because she stopped doing it, and the meanness got directed at her. Magically, when she got tapped for a dance company performance and started spending hours in rehearsal, it all went away.)

“What do you think you’d say about your parents?” I asked, fishing. I don’t usually get so leading, but she was heading for a new camp soon, and I wanted to test the waters.

“How you helped me through things,” she said, checking out her toes.

“Does it bother you that I’m always going off to hippie festivals and hula-hooping and stuff like that?” I asked.

“No. You’re a cool mom,” she said.

“Yeah, but do I spend too much time being a cool mom? Do you feel like you’re getting what you need?” (I have no idea if it’s wrong to talk to her this way — but it feels natural for us, so that’s what I have to go by.)

“The only thing you spend too much time on is work,” she said. “If we get a mani-pedi, do I have to pay for mine out of my own money?”

“Maybe you can sew something to pay me back,” I said. She just started learning to sew at day camp. Uh oh. Child labor. Call social services.

I am pushing past the conviction laid on me in some ghetto/village/tribal ancestral memory that talking about your happiness, actually enjoying it visibly, invites the evil eye, and we should live downcast so as not to attract envy. I may yet get to the point where I can invite people into the reality of my life more easily. Hearing about others who made it happen makes that fear soften.

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2 Responses to Polyamory is All Good Fun Until Someone Puts an Eye Out

  1. Layne says:

    Great post, Maria. I think all parents are terrified that they’re destroying their children, no matter what choices they make.

    From my (of course super-biased) perspective, polyamory can be a great thing for the kids. I just came back from vacation with my boyfriend, his wife, his other girlfriend, the wife’s boyfriend, and the two kids (ages 2 and 5). I’m the only adult that doesn’t live in the house full-time, and the kids are as aware of the relationships as any 2 and 5 year-old can be- we’re all pretty sex-positive, openly flirtatious people, and the kids are perfectly used to coming in to mommy or daddy’s bedroom in the morning to find only one parent in bed with a different adult.

    But, as the poly stereotype goes, it’s not like this is all about sex. Instead, two loud, hyper kids get three extra adults paying attention to them. They’re much more likely to actually have someone with the patience to draw 17 pictures of buses and trains on the back of their kid menu at a restaurant, or chase them halfway across a zoo, or find the energy for one last tickle-fight before bed. I can’t imagine how anyone raises kids with just 2 parents- and the fact that these kids know that they’re loved by more people can’t possibly be doing them any harm. And your daughter is just as lucky that her parents are bringing more loving people into her life, no matter if she thinks they’re “just” friends or not.

  2. Judith Gayle Judith Gayle says:

    Great read, Maria. You know how to turn a phrase, which pleases my writers heart. Thank you for your candor and humor and your generous spirit.

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