What Child Is This?¹
Six years ago, when my wife and I opened our marriage for the concept of Polyamory, more precisely: because I fell in love with another woman with whom I wanted to have a full-value relationship too (see Entry 1), I shared this decision as well with our children – who were then 7 and 9 years old. Thereby I wanted to contribute to my all-round transparency, and anyone who has read my previous bLog-Entry on the subject knows how I would like to approach it: “absolutely honest” and “immediately” are the keywords.
Since my children were and are part of my life, they are part of my (domestic) community after all. And by that, they are in fact entitled to receive new information, which will somehow affect the life of their community, as quickly as possible.
In more conventional social networks you’ll hear by now something like: “Oh no, when children are concerned it is going beyond a joke…!” – probably from people who imagine that “Polyamory” is something like a restless orgy in the bedroom. And – more the pity – I must confess what some people try to pretend as “Polyamory”, unfortunately, is also often predominantly sexually accentuated (my criticism see Entry 2); accordingly I’m talking about “Oligoamory” from now on, because this is what it’s all about on this site.
As far as my children were concerned at the time, I considered child-friendly information to be necessary in any case; so I told the two of them that from now on Ms. Z. would regularly live with us, then we would be more people and that would have a lot of advantages. As far as relationships were concerned, I went on to explain, it would be great if nobody would have to go away before someone else would be allowed to join in, and how much nicer it would be if something like family and community would be able to grow.
My children conferred briefly before my son announced: “Dad is now like an oriental sultan…!”, whereupon he was interrupted immediately by my (always very correct) daughter: “Well, then he should have now rather more than a hundred women…” – and I cried tragicomical down the stairs to my loved ones: “I think I’ve messed it up…!”.
But more importantly, the relationship to our children has virtually remained like that unto this day: From the very first second, they looked at our network of relationships with a lot of subtle, benevolent humour – and by that gradually accepted the overall situation as their own.
No matter whether they said to me during another infatuation: “Well, daddy has a little girlfriend again…”, whether they instinctively judged a couple we met after the first date at home “They’re strange…” (indeed we weren’t able to establish a relationship after that), or whether they began to call all adults in verbal speech for themselves instead of “Mum and Dad” with the collective term “the parents” á la: “The parents want to go shopping, wanna join?” (and that term stuck to the present day, patchworking be praised!).
From a child’s point of view, they did what was most natural for them – and modern educational research is in complete agreement with that. Because they chose from the new constellation what gave them stability and reliability and what they needed most for their optimal development: The maximum of emotional security, comfort and reassurance and the widest possible variety of different motivations and challenges that they could handle alone or with the help of adults².
And the adult’s view?
Well, contrary to superficial official assumptions and projections, ethical non-monogamy consists much less of the above-mentioned restless orgies rather than of day-to-day work, profane household organisation and very worldly social interaction. And most of it is pretty boring for children, which makes it irrelevant in these areas whether you live as a single, monogamous or with five lovers – during all of that you won’t see much of your children anyway, or maybe you will only see them from a distance. Well, maybe it’s not completely irrelevant, because with more adults you start to benefit from the incredible advantage that now there is often someone who still has enough energy to admire the latest crayon-picture, to answer the same question for the 63rd time, or to come up with a creative answer to an entirely new question (e.g. “Is it possible to fall asleep during sexual intercourse?”).
By the way, mentioning sexuality, which is always called “highly problematically” when having children in the house: For children is all that normality what adults do with habitual sovereignty. So it’s pre-eminently important how we approach that topic ourselves.
In our polyamorous beginnings we lived in a very small terraced house, where the children during their night walk to the bathroom, for example, had to pass our bedroom door. Well, then one stops any potential X-rated actions just as long, until the little ones are back in their own room. And in the morning? Well, then the kids now visited the three of us in the grown-ups bed (as they had done with two of us in the years before) and distributed their compliments: “Oh, Z.”, my little son on one occasion said to my new partner, “you are so wonderfully wobbly…”. Who wouldn’t blush, astonished by so much affectionately expressed sincerity?
I could come up with a thousand – but usually less spectacular – examples we experienced during the following years, but what is important is that in the end children will subdue their world in the most sophisticated manner. However, in their respect, a lot, probably most of what we adults do or say or arrange among each other, is of minor concern to them.
Once I even worried about that. We had spent a weekend in a medieval castle during summer-vacation, which the kids found great, especially because the five of us could all be there together. After the holidays my children had to tackle at school the traditional theme “My best holiday experience” and in the corresponding essays I finally read that both children had treated the issue concerning the castle almost subsidiary. I talked about it to the school’s social worker, explained her our somewhat unconventional domestic situation, and the very open-minded lady said to me: “You know, Oligotropos, children have a very good sense regarding their own piece of normality. Of course, children also compare with each other and also experience other families living differently – but they do not take that half as serious as we adults believe. For children, conducive attachment figures are much more significant, they want response and dependable structures. And I can see that all this is present.”
And in respect of this “good sense regarding the own piece of normality” I would like to present in the second part of this article, what I have learned from our children about it referring to my ideas of Oligoamory:
For as far as the actual identification with the relationships we take up is concerned, hardly anything is a more distinct litmus test than how we arrange these relationships towards our children.
In Entry 35, which speaks of the “right time” for the official acknowledgement of a new love, I point out that a common argument against this acknowledgement would be that “while flirting/hooking up/getting together one would be rather uncertain for a very long time, whether the new person would be somebody “serious”, which would make it so very difficult to estimate, if any “existing partners” should be taken into consideration – especially if ‘nothing tangible’ would result in the attempt…”
Since our children are indefiasible commitments, who belong to our lives with the moment of their emergence, at this point they have the same rights as all the other aleady existing partners and loved ones – and now the question is: Will I accept a newly emerged relationship as a full-fledged part of that life – or will I falter?
If I falter or try to elude that acceptance then perhaps I am having a fling, a romance, an amour – but I do not conduct anything, which according to oligoamorous standards can be evaluated as ethical (multiple) relationship of integrity.
Because what is the alternative? To keep the fling/romance/amour out of my usual life, to hide it, to compartmentalise it, to split it off.
But concerning your children, even more than concerning existing partners, this will not work. Because maybe we are jaded enough that we would leave an adult partner in the dark about our true motivations for a while, concerning our children this behaviour is disastrous anyway. For, above all, infantile brains react exorbitantly sensitive regarding every deviation between reality and pretence: After all, it is vital for children who are absolutely dependent on adult care to pay attention to our signs of coherence (consistency/ confirmability) or incoherence (inconsistency / contrariness). Precisely because we are their caregivers – so the whole infantile mind is totally adjusted to our signals regarding attention, security, meaning, enthusiasm, affection, motivation, (self)awareness and commitment. Accordingly, if we try to attempt this with a hidden agenda, sooner or later we will conjure up the first hallmarks of educational and developmental issues, whether as retreat, aggression, or as a turn towards external “bearers of meaning”.
Which is quite evident, if we do not do justice to our role as adults by such a behaviour, if we do not behave like grown-ups, because true adulthood definitely involves a certain desire to assume (self)responsibility.
Such peculiar secrecy and reluctance in the face of our children displays a somewhat distorted attitude towards one’s relationships in general, which in my view also has a further socio-political dimension.
Though we are bravely stepping forward into the 21st century, there are still dogmas and beliefs like the following abroad: “A child belongs to his mother!” or “A family consists of a father, a mother and their children.” ³
Anyone who actually still adheres to these traditional ideas, I urgently ask to overthink her*his activities concerning multiple relationships, whether in the context of BDSM, swinging, casual dating or ostensible Polyamory. Don’t you think that’s rather “queer”?
Because ethical non-monogamy (such as Poly- and Oligoamory) are full-fledged lifestyles and relationship philosophies, as are e.g. conscious vegetarianism or veganism regarding nutrition: And in respect of that, one is either fairly unswerving in the matter and is convinced because of good reasons – or one is not.
I choose this example because regarding nutrition we usually try to display consistency towards our children. We wouldn’t eat tofu and salad secretly on the weekend, then share beef roulade with our child on Monday to convince the poor thing – contrary to our own beliefs – what a “normal” child should eat. Or do you practice such ambivalence when you visit grandmother?: At home you are already vegan – but at Granny’s we praise the chicken fricassee and loudly ask for a second helping to show that we are all still “in line”. Of course, then we also wouldn’t tell grandma that there are Katja and Frank at home, with whom we live together since two years – no, that wouldn’t be convenient… But will we be able to be a good role model for our children that way?
To someone who really wants to reply to me now: “Oligotropos, what I do privately is of no one’s concern…!”, I answer: “That may be – but with that attitude nobody is capable of maintaining a true relationship or even any kind of community”. In a context of multiple relationships such a kind of insular thinking is no longer sustainable, because all of our decisions will always directly affect somehow all parties in our relationship-network,community or family.
And no, I consider it not at all pleasant or “cool” to have to act in my own house or in my family like a secret agent. The people who surround me should be those to whom I can completely entrust myself, where I truly can be “myself”.
Therefore, it is simply not possible to exclude any existing partners or children from our “second identity” by means of the twisted argument of their potential “vulnerability”. Because “vulnerable” we are in these cases most likely ourselves: because we ourselves haven’t resolved the reasons for our wish regarding multiple relationships yet, or are secretly ashamed of ourselves (see Entries 26, 27 and 28).
But with this inner ambivalence we would renounce some truly brilliant allies – our children. Because they apply very different standards to us than we do ourselves in our self-reflection: To them, we are not only “wonderfully wobbly”, but we are also the most competent guides to the world. In this case, to our world, in which we can show that tofu tastes good and that Frank and Katja are trustwothy “parents” too.
But grandma? Well, either grandma proves that she is still able to adjust, or we will have to look for someone else who is taking care of the kids on Thursday afternoon. But we can not allow to be blackmailed on the way to the new world – conscience against chicken fricassee, no deal, no Madam!
And what are you saying, Oligotropos, Frank and Katja now count among “the parents”? I wouldn’t entrust the education of my children to strangers… Oops!
Regarding that, two remarks:
On the one hand – if Frank and Katja are your loved ones in an ethical multiple relationship, then you should gradually gain enough confidence that you can let them interact with the other parts of your community, i.e. your children. By the way, Frank and Katja are probably also being considerate of you an your needs when you are interacting with your children. And anyway – I already said that it actually gets easier with more people (at least in that respect).
On the other hand, Frank and Katja, for their part, will have to entrust themselves to the strictest judges when it comes to “interference in education”, they will have to entrust themseves to your children! And children, I know that from my own point of view, distribute this privilege very purposefully: By balancing competence, coherence and, not least, a huge dose of mutual sympathy, as they are doing with their biological parents as well. Therefore, hand on heart, I can confirm: If your child has decided to bestow its love and trust, then you can certainly do it too.
Well. And then a small patchwork universe actually arises, where “yours”, “mine”, “his”, “hers” and “theirs” becomes “ours” in the best oligoamorous sense.
My daughter, of course, recently expressed it a little differently (by now she’s 15 years old). In the week before Christmas we visited a hardware store, and as we were all standing at the cash register, we were offered some small trinkets and giveaways.
Cashier: “Look here, young lady, there I have a great family calendar for you ..!”
Daughter: “Nah, we don’t need that. We’re no family. We only live together because we don’t want it any other way!”
When we passed the exit a few moments later she giggled: “Whether the cashier is afraid of me now …?!”
It’s like I told you: The kids will subdue their world in the most sophisticated manner.
So let’s involve them straight away if we want them to be on our side.
¹ Christmas carol whose lyrics were written by William Chatterton Dix in 1865.
² Karl Gebauer & Gerald Hüther “Children are looking for orientation“, walter / Patmos, 2002
³ e.g.: “European Citizens’ Initiative ‘Father, mother, child – for the protection of marriage and family’ 2016/17” (petition failed)
Thanks to Ben Wicks on Unsplash for the photo.