AskMiriam

Relationship Advice and Columns

Archive for the tag “family”

AskMiriam about Poly and Young Children

Question: Hello Miriam, I was wondering about my children. Myself and my boyfriend recently have taken on a girlfriend, so we have formed a triad. My question is how do I explain to my young children that this is not a normal lifestyle choice and that it is not expected out of them when they grow older? My mother has expressed concern to me about this because she thinks that me having not only a boyfriend or a girlfriend but having both could be damaging to my children’s mental health. I do not desire to harm my children in any way so I am asking for advice on this subject.

Answer: I asked Elisabeth Sheff, the author of The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families, to weigh in on this because I’m less familiar with issues regarding children. She responded with the following:

The short answer is: Yes, polyamorous families can be healthy. Just like other families, the way having poly parents affects children depends in large part on how the adults conduct themselves in their relationships. There is nothing inherently pathological about polyamorous families, and they are not destined to damage the children who grow up in them. Polyamorous families can create healthy, stable, loving environments for children when the adults provide that kind of environment. Poly families are not perfect, and their kids experience some of the same problems common in other blended families. For those poly folks who can find the right balance in their relationships, however, multiple-adult families can be extremely advantageous for children and adults.

The medium answer includes: Multiple adults provide lots of attention, greater life experience, copious support, and abundant role models for children. Pooling their resources also allows adults to have more personal time, work more flexible hours, and get more sleep because there are multiple people around to take care of the children. Poly parents said that they felt more patient and had more energy for their children when they were well rested and had sufficient income – all of which benefitted their children.

The long answer is also that: It depends a lot on how the adults talk to the kids and how old the kids are. How poly parents talk to their kids about it makes a big difference to how the kids will think or feel about the parents’ poly relationships. For kids of all ages, the best strategy seems to be an age-appropriate and honest response to kids’ questions. Divorce is so common today that almost all children know peers with multiple parents already – dad and his new wife, mom and her new girlfriend – so the presence of additional adults is not nearly as socially outlandish as it would have been 50 years ago. It also makes it very easy for kids from poly families to blend in with kids from divorced families, so the poly family kids hardly ever have to explain their families to teachers, coaches, or casual acquaintances.

How old the children are also makes a big difference in what they think of the adults in their environments. Small kids eight or under generally do not have a sophisticated understanding of adult romantic relationships, and so might not need an explanation at all. Little kids take their family form for granted because it is all they know, and until they learn that other peoples’ families are different they will not think that their family is unusual. Parents’ partners are likely to blend in with all of the other caring adults in kids’ lives, and there is no need for parents to make a big deal out of what happens after the kids are in bed.

Tweens from nine to 12 have a more sophisticated understanding of adults’ relationships and might notice looks or touches between adults the way their younger siblings do not. When kids notice something happening and appear uncomfortable about it, they might be concerned that the parents are cheating and the kid knows a terrible secret that will hurt the other parent. In those cases, it is important for parents to let kids know that the parents are being honest with each other, it is not a secret from the other parent, and the kids can ask whatever questions they have. Kids in these settings often do not want detailed explanation of the romantic side, and using phrases like “hanging out” or “spending special time together” can be honest answers appropriate to smaller children.

As kids grow up, their understandings of adult interactions become more sophisticated and they have more points of reference to compare their families to their peers’ families. Generally they will become aware that their family is unconventional by the time they are late in elementary school, at which point they might begin wondering more about the adults in their lives. Creating a family atmosphere where children feel confident their questions will be met with thoughtful, honest answers allows kids to take the lead and ask questions not only about their family dynamics, but everything else too. Poly parents report that free ability to think and talk helps the children trust them and creates emotional intimacy for the whole family.

Finally, just because you are polyamorous does not mean your children will be polyamorous when they grow up. Kids in my study had a range of attitudes towards polyamory: some would under no circumstances consider doing it themselves, and others could see no other way to live a free and authentic life. Most of them, however, were not sure, and were still trying to figure out how to kiss or who they liked. They were going to leave any decision about polyamory to the future when they were older and it was more germane to their lives. Not one single child in my study said that they would be polyamorous because their parents were, and instead all of them thought about their own boundaries and considered their options.

I want to say thank you to Elisabeth for such a thoughtful answer and I will provide my own 2 cents. As each generation passes, many people are becoming more and more progressive. I think that people around my age and younger either accept polyamory or don’t really care how people choose to conduct their relationships. The person who wrote in said that their mother thought poly would harm the mental health of the children; that could very well be a generational belief. I always thought that my parents would understand poly more because of the free love ethos of the late 60s and early 70s. On the contrary, that ethos often got a bad name and polyamory is much different. I would advise the person who wrote in to say to their kids, depending on their ages, in simple language that the all of the adults care for each other and that they will always be there for the kids. I think that’s mainly what the kids want to know. I myself have been involved with people who had children. In one case, I was introduced as a friend. I didn’t mind that too much because the kids were so young and as Elisabeth said, they probably wouldn’t have understood. This situation is different because the adults are living in a triad. Personally, I think that no matter how old the kids are, they will know at least a bit about what’s going on, but they may not understand it. I think it’s better to explain things to the kids sooner rather than later.

On a personal note, many of my readers know that my dad is gay. He came out when I was 6. I’m pretty sure I told some people at school about it and I was made fun of. There may be some concern in this case about telling kids at school that their parents have an unusual relationship. I would have an honest discussion with the children and see if they are concerned about this issue. There may be a local PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) chapter that could help, if you are seeking it, as they may be able to provide some support. As Elisabeth said, many children have parents who are divorced and they may live in blended families; knowing that a classmate has 3 parents isn’t really a stretch. I would also agree that polyamory is not harmful to children’s mental health. Imagine living in a house where at least 1 parent is always available and everyone is committed to each other – that sounds pretty ideal to me.

For more of Elisabeth Sheff’s writings, check out http://elisabethsheff.com/

On Not Caring What Others Think

Ben is now with me in Vancouver and we’re quite happy about that. It’s nice for us to get to be domestic together again. Aside from that, I’ve unfortunately had to deal with some family nonsense. Last weekend, Ben and I went to visit my grandmother, who has moved to BC from Quebec. She moved to the same city as 2 other family members of mine, whose identity I will keep secret. Until recently, she was living with them and that was difficult at times because one of them can be a rather taciturn individual. I will call that individual R and use the pronouns ‘they’ and ‘them’ in order to keep the gender a secret. R discovered my blog about 8 months ago and sent me a very disgruntled email. I had written about my interest in doing a PhD in order to study polyamory more in-depth. R wrote to me saying that I might as well do a PhD in being a couch potato because that would make just as much sense. R also wrote that I was disgracing the family because I use my name on the blog – forget the fact that I don’t use our last name, so people who don’t know me personally can’t trace my family through my blog. I sent R a rather diplomatic email back, but never heard back. I don’t really care what R thinks because we’re not close, but I was concerned because my grandmother was living with R and R definitely shared how they felt with my grandmother. When I visited my grandmother 2 years ago, I had tried to explain poly to her, but she didn’t really get it. After the nonsense with R, I was very happily surprised when my sister actually stood up for me and explained to my grandmother that I wasn’t cheating on Ben. When Ben and I actually saw my grandmother last weekend, she said she doesn’t care about how I live my life; she’ll always love me. Before going to see her, I sent a cordial email to R saying that Ben and I would be visiting that city and I asked R if they would like to meet Ben. R wrote back saying, not interested. I’m disappointed that R doesn’t really want to be involved in my life, but ultimately, it doesn’t really matter.

What does matter is the fact that another family member of mine isn’t talking to me and I’m close to them. I will call that family member S and use the pronouns they and them. S is someone I’ve grown very close to over the last few years. S is actually the only person in my family to have met the American, who got me into poly. I thought the 2 of them would get along, so I introduced them when the American visited me and that did go well. In terms of more recent events, S was going to contribute money to the wedding, but has decided not to because they think Ben and I shouldn’t be getting married right now due to our unstable financial situation. S also thinks that I should not be doing a PhD; I should focus on making myself employable in Canada. The irony is, one reason why I want to study in the US is because that will make me more employable in Canada. Universities tend to like it when you’ve studied in a different country because they want to have different perspectives contributing to the field. Also, PhDs in the US tend to be funded and there are people I want to work with there. I would very seriously consider doing my PhD at UBC because I really like Vancouver and I don’t have a huge desire to move yet again, but I need to know that it would lead to employment afterward and that I would be funded. Regardless, the situation with S is difficult because we are close. I care about what S thinks, but I’m not going to modify my life to suit S’s concerns. There is a part of me that thinks that S is afraid of being abandoned. They don’t like the fact that I keep moving and would prefer if I was in Toronto. The truth is, Toronto doesn’t feel like my home anymore.

In general, I think society often expects that women are going to adjust their lives to suit others around them. Women follow their partners to other countries because their partner has found a job there. Women give up a career they love to raise children while their partner continues working. Women may even modify their reactions to suit their partners. As a feminist, I refuse to change my life significantly to suit someone else unless I feel comfortable with it. I like pleasing people, but I also want to please myself. I was talking to a slightly older friend who told me that all of this gets easier with age. Women are respected more and taken more seriously as we get more grey hair. Thankfully, I’ve already started getting those…

If you have any relationship questions, email me at miriam@askmiriam.ca  Thank you as always for reading! I hope to blog more regularly from now on.

Goodbye China; Good Morning Vietnam

Ben and I are now in Vietnam, visiting Eve. Yesterday, he and I flew out of Zhengzhou. Unfortunately, our departure was somewhat unpleasant. Ben and I have been teaching at a university and were provided with an apartment just after we arrived. Yesterday, the apartment was checked to make sure everything that was given to us was still there. The woman who checked our apartment was supposed to arrive at 10:30am. She had also booked us a taxi to the airport for 11am. However, she didn’t arrive at the apartment until just before 11 and discovered that one of the items (a sheet) we were given was missing. Now, it is quite difficult to lose a sheet. We wouldn’t have taken it out of the apartment, so it couldn’t have disappeared. Regardless, we had to pay the equivalent of about $12 to replace it; not a big deal at least, but everything was so rushed. Thankfully, the traffic on the way to the airport wasn’t too bad and we went there with a very good friend, which was nice.

Ben and I flew through Guangzhou to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). Our baggage was sent through to Saigon, but one piece didn’t arrive there. We had to spend a lot of time describing the luggage and filling out a form. Right before I wrote this post, the luggage did arrive, so we’re happy about that. Ben and I are also quite happy to be out of China. As soon as we left Zhengzhou, I could sense a change in Ben; he was suddenly much happier than when we were in Zhengzhou. I am very generous when I say that Zhengzhou is not the nicest place. At times, our relationship was strained just because we weren’t living in the place we’d like to. Ben and I are a bit sad to be leaving China though because it was the first place we really had a home together. After we return to Canada, it is quite likely that we’ll be living in different places. That being said, we’re still committed to each other. Recently, Ben’s mom has been helping us make arrangements for our wedding next year and we’re getting excited about that.

Here in Saigon, Ben, Eve, and I are all staying in a hotel together. I feel a bit sad because Ben gets to meet some of Eve’s family and I can’t attend. Poly isn’t really known in Vietnam and Eve’s family would not approve if they met me. I am happy that Ben gets to meet Eve’s family and that they get to have quality time together. At this point, the future of Ben and Eve’s relationship is so unknown; the time they get to spend together could be limited. Just over the last day, things have been good between the 3 of us and I anticipate that will continue. In a few days, we 3 are travelling to an island off the southwest coast of Vietnam. We shall all see what this vacation brings.

If you have any relationship questions, please email me at miriam@askmiriam.ca Cheers!

All in the Family

The past week has seen Ben and I attending to things going on in my family. I found out about 2 weeks ago that my paternal stepgrandfather will most likely pass away within a few months due to lymphoma that has spread to his lungs. All of my grandparents live in Montreal, where my parents grew up, so we decided to make a trip. We also passed through Ben’s hometown near Ottawa and visited some people he knows. Last week we arrived in Montreal at the home of my maternal grandparents where we were going to stay. As a note, Ben was meeting everyone for the first time. Everyone liked him, which pleased me. My maternal grandparents are mostly in good health; I have always admired them because they look much younger than their early 80s lets on. They go to the gym, they continue to travel, and they make amazing food like their own bread and jam.

My mother knows about my poly life but has told me not to tell her parents. They are much more traditional than my mother and I don’t think they would understand it. However, I still feel like I have to hide a part of myself. Last year, I visited Montreal with someone I was dating at the time, but we just pretended to be friends, since we were not in a primary relationship. Of course, since Ben and I are in a primary relationship, we can be affectionate toward each other, but I would still like to tell my grandparents that we date other people and it’s okay. However, I feel okay about not telling them because I only see them a few times a year and I don’t want to ruffle any feathers.

On my father’s side, it’s a somewhat different story. My grandfather died many years ago and then almost 20 years ago, my grandmother remarried. My stepgrandfather is a very lovely man and we consider him part of our family. My father is gay and is accepted. My stepgrandfather also has a gay granddaughter and he is very accepting of her. When I visited them last year, they also met the person I was dating at the time. 2 days after they met, I was visiting my grandmother alone. I told her about the poly arrangement and she didn’t quite understand it, but didn’t object. On this visit, Ben and I visited her; my aunt from Victoria was visiting as well. We drove them to the hospital to see my stepgrandfather. My grandmother is of course very anxious and nervous because they are very close.  The gay granddaughter was there as well and informed me she has been reading this blog, so I’m glad at least someone in the family knows. I would love to tell my grandmother about the fact that Ben and I also date other people, but I’m not sure if it’s wise at this point. She is dealing with a lot.

After Ben and I returned to Toronto, we attended the Passover seder at my mom’s house. I am not a religious Jew, but there are things I like doing like Passover, Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Hanukah. It’s important for me to be connected to my family in that way because it does allow us to come together, talk, and eat good food. The seder was a bit baffling to Ben. Since I am atheist, my singing of songs that glorify god was understandably confusing. However, I do feel that it’s important to preserve some elements of Jewish culture. It’s a part of my past that I’m not willing to let go of. I do understand that for some people without a religious tradition, religion can seem a bit oppressive. Ben looked uncomfortable while we were reading blessings before the meal however, he relaxed once I explained some things to him and we had a very nice meal and discussion with my family. The day after the seder, my dad reminded me that Passover is very much a metaphor. Jews have had to survive a lot and we use Passover to remember that we can overcome oppression.

It can be very difficult to “come out” to one’s family, whether you are poly, gay, or otherwise. I feel lucky because my parents are progressive and I tell them almost everything anyway, so I didn’t want to hide it from them; they have known almost since the beginning of my being poly. At the moment, Ben and I are not dating anyone else, so I feel it is somewhat irrelevant to tell my grandparents about it. However, what if either of us had another serious relationship? It’s a bit of a conundrum. If I went with someone else to Montreal, what would I tell them? I like having everything out in the open, but I like maintaining peace in my family as well.

If you have any questions, send me an email to miriam@askmiriam.ca  Thanks as always for reading and commenting!

Post Navigation