Lack of polyamorous family role models?

Hi there! I am a 31 year old that identifies as female, bisexual, and kinky. I have a primary partner, as well as a secondary partner and a play partner that I see very occasionally.
My dilemma is this — I really want to start a family in the next 1–2 years. As in, make babies and raise them into adult humans. I get mad anxiety and uncomfortable feels around my primary partner and his other partners. I don’t get this with my secondary. I’ve been puzzling over why.
One thing I am starting to suspect is that, well, I go to future mind often re: my primary — I can see raising humans with him, building a home and a family with him. When I imagine this, I feel good — we can be amazing parents. At the same time — how the actual fuck does family building work in a non-monogamous/polyamorous context?
I have no role models, and a lot of folks in our local polyamorous community are in the childfree camp and so haven’t considered this challenge before. When I’ve asked folk I know, they often say, well, I’m childfree and don’t want kids, so I’ll leave the answering of that to people that have done it. So far, I can’t find people that have done it, unless they were mono — married — made babies and then opened things up.
In my case, my primary and I have been open from the beginning. I think this might be fuelling some of my discomfort — I have no idea, no blueprint of how family building happens in the non-mono world. In mono life, I know what kind of steps I’d take to progress in that direction.
Also — I guess I worry a little as I think there are some power imbalances inherent in the non-mono world — my primary is a white cis male with more money than me. I’ve read what you’ve written, about how in the non-mono community there’s such a focus on total independence, not needing anyone, and how this favours those that have more privilege, money, and time.
It’s like, if we have kids, well, I’d need to know that there was a commitment to the family building and that the time and resources needed for raising humans would be available, and that I wouldn’t be seen as ‘dramatic’ for these needs, especially if I were at home with the children for a while, or doing a larger share of the emotional labour that gets done in the home (I know how these things work — women almost always wind up with the largest share of this labour, not matter the best of intentions or how feminist a cis hetero male partner aspires to be).
So, short version — any advice about family building as a non-mono person — resources, things to watch out for, how to negotiate family building without the help of all of the inbuilt assumptions that come along with cis hetero relationship escalator relationship?

There are a few things I want to address with this question:

  • The ‘lack’ of role models
  • Imbalances of power
  • Anxiety about other partners

All three of these are kind of combining to create this issue.

‘Lack’ of polyamorous role models

Honestly, the belief that there are no ‘role models’ for polyamorous families isn’t accurate. I’m going to make the assumption from what you’ve written that the below information might either be new or something you’ve not thought of before and if I’m wrong about that, I apologise.

Blended and differing families are not new, it’s just that white middle class polyamorous people are looking for models in the places they look for models of other white middle class people. Loads of people have lived in families made up of aunts, uncles, and other people who contribute to childcare in ways that are ‘non-traditional’, they just either tend not to be middle class or wealthy or tend not to be white.

The 50s in the US reignited this focus on getting women out of the factories and back into the home so that men returning from war would have their own jobs back. And with it came this mis-comprehension of the ‘nuclear’ family as a ‘tradition’. But it’s not traditional at all. It’s good for capitalism, no doubt. If two people families are struggling among/against one another to each own their house with a picket fence and 2.5 children and pet, then it’s good for capitalism because people aren’t sharing resources. In fact, the rise of the idea of the nuclear family was not always seen as positive:

Not so long ago, family scholars labored under the assumption, half-Marxist, half-“functionalist,” that before the Industrial Revolution, the extended family was the norm in the Western world. There was more than a little romanticism associated with this view: extended families were imagined to have lived in warm, cohesive rural communities where men and women worked together on farms or in small cottage industries. That way of life, went the thinking, ended when industrialization wrenched rural folk away from their cottages and villages into the teeming, anonymous city, sent men into the factories, and consigned women to domestic drudgery. Worse, by upending the household economy, the Industrial Revolution seriously weakened the family. The nuclear family, it was believed, was evidence of family decline. — The Real Roots of the Nuclear Family

But actually, the two parent ‘traditional’ family is not traditional. Human beings have been raising children as groups for ages. I would encourage you to look beyond the current circles you’re in because the white middle class is really where this ‘traditional’ model has sold and taken effect — because those people have had the privilege of being able to actually do ‘nuclear’ to the effect that it’s become their norm. And thanks to a combination of factors even the nuclear family ideal is in decline. If you look at the World Family Map from 2015, a good deal of children around the world may have two parents (adoptive, step, and biological) but also live with extended family members and others.

I grew up in a ‘non-traditional’ family at times. I did have the two parents and despite the fact that neither of them had high school diplomas (my mother had a GED and a 2 year degree), thanks to the privilege of my father’s wealthy mother, we had somewhere to stay and didn’t have to live in low income housing. But at times my aunts lived with us. And many of my mother’s relatives have had grandparents living with them at certain points because people can’t afford nursing homes and other solutions. In many families, elders rejoining the household is normal and expected.

So, this ‘problem’ isn’t actually a problem. It’s just that polyamory communities tend to be dominated by white middle class people who have only witnessed one type of family due to their privilege and assume this is not only a default (due to their whiteness) but also that it’s ‘normal’ because of what society tells them.

I’d encourage you to expand your social circle, find polyamorous communities that aren’t dominated by white middle class people and find those connections, if you haven’t already.

Addressing the other issue, I do know of a few polyamorous people who have kids but… truthfully, what I have witnessed are very few men stepping up. A lot of the childcare I see is done by either women or folks read as women. Or most of the discussions about childcare in polyamorous communities is dominated by women or folks read as women discussing strategies. Men tend to be very, very silent.

Initially, I wanted children very much. In fact, I chose non-monogamy because having more than one parent is beneficial, but I was wary. I grew up knowing my parents dated other people and assumed they dated each other and I knew that wasn’t an issue for me as a child — the issue was when people would come into my life and pretend to care for me and be a parent figure to me and then leave and never speak to me again. That was painful.

So I wanted to find multiple co-parents who were ready to give a child what it needs. Especially since as a disabled person, I don’t have very many spoons to give a child. And I thought, given all of the polyamory rhetoric about how commitment is SO important to polyamorous people, I’d surely find multiple people willing to co-parent. Right? Right?

Wrong. To be honest, I can barely find polyamorous people willing to commit to what I consider a relationship. I want to see people more than once a month or at a party when they just want to have sex with me. I want them to speak to me and take an interest in my life. Sure, I can find many ‘partner’s who will gladly have sex with me once in awhile and maybe go out on a date, but no one willing to actually be in what I consider a relationship — let alone raise a child.

Siderants aside, I think you should do three things: look at models of co-parenting that aren’t white and middle class and also consider a model of co-parenting that isn’t centred around romantic relationships. Another avenue I considered before changing my mind about having children was raising a child with a friend I knew I could trust. And many people are doing this. Non-binary and awesome chef Jack Monroe recently shared this article about friends co-parenting.

And the last thing? Trust your gut. If you can’t trust someone you’re in a relationship to follow through on basic things, don’t have a child with that person. I feel like if someone I’m with can’t put forth 100% towards me and is selfish about their own needs, I don’t trust them to be able to put aside their needs to devote to a child. Which leads me to the next issue.

Natural imbalance of power

One of the reasons ‘relationship anarchy’ never seemed like a model I could go with was because, when I did want kids, there was no way in hell my relationships would all be ‘equal’. Fundamentally, there is and SHOULD be a hierarchy when there is a child involved. Barring some extreme circumstances, if you commit to being a parent, your child is your new ‘primary’. Period.

So I firmly believe if you decide to have a child with anyone regardless, that child and their needs must become the primary focus of all of the people choosing to be parents. I don’t believe people can be decent or good parents if they do not put their child first in their life.

That said, life is full of natural imbalances of power. I’m a disabled person. This doesn’t make me inherently less than anyone else in terms of my intrinsic value as a human, but point blank it does mean there are things other people can do that I can’t do. I have a degenerative eye disorder which may cause blindness eventually. Most people with my disorder are blind. When and if I do go blind, my relationships will change. I will become more reliable and dependent upon partners, most likely my primary the most, and that will inherently affect the balance of power across all of our relationships.

Of course, this can be addressed in other ways, but inherently I will have different and more time consuming needs than other people. Approaching having a disability with this ‘relationship anarchy’ style is not going to work for me because I’m going to have feelings about how some people care for me with my disability versus others. To be blunt, what if I develop a problem where I can’t wipe my own butt without help. Soz, but I’m not going to see a random acquaintance as someone who I want to help me wipe my butt as I would someone I have an established relationship with.

Having a child is going to create an imbalance of power and that’s the way it is, and almost the way it should be. And people have to respect that if they’re going to not only be parents but also be involved with you. Not to mention, children are a lot of work, to put it mildly. And all of the people parenting involved can lessen that work and make it possible for folks like me with disabilities to parent without exhausting myself. But that’s only if other people pick up the slack.

Children are exhausting, expensive, and are basically another full time job you won’t get paid for. You don’t get privacy. You might barely get sleep let alone sex. And there are all sorts of situations that could end up happening if the people you co-parent with aren’t ready to pick up that slack. I think that if you want to have a family with your primary and you trust he will pick up the slack and understand and respect the readjustment of power and focus, you need to think and talk about:

  • The role of ‘secondaries’ when it comes to the child
  • How childcare will be distributed
  • If there are co-parents
  • How co-parents are involved
  • How disciplining the child works
  • How you are going to handle legalities
  • How you will handle one co-parent leaving
  • When someone new can become a co-parent
  • Financial responsibilities and how they’re divided
  • How you will handle emergencies
  • How you will handle burn-out
  • How you will handle sex drives and lack thereof

and most importantly:

  • How you are going to handle someone not picking up the slack
  • What happens if you break up

Understand as well that things like breastfeeding or legal adoption can sometimes create a natural imbalance of power that can’t be helped, so think about how you’re going to address. Things happen and all of this may go down the gutter. Life, especially when it comes to having a brand new person thrown into the mix, is going to suddenly change. You can make all of the plans you like, but you never know what might happen.

Try your best to identify what assumptions might be made if it were just you and your partner — but don’t kick yourself if you miss something obvious because, again, sometimes you don’t know your boundaries and issues until they’re crossed.

Anxiety around other partners

When you mentioned you have a lot of anxiety around your primary partner and his other partners, but you don’t get this with your secondary partners, you assumed that it’s because you don’t have these models. But you’re not really thinking or at least talking here about what it is about other partners that makes you uncomfortable.

Is it that you are worrying about what role other partners are going to play in your family unit? Or is there something your primary is doing that is making you feel insecure about this situation? You’re talking a lot about your own feelings but not very much about your partner’s actions. You talk about being worried about your needs being seen as ‘dramatic’, doing emotional labour, as well as the fact that your primary has a significant more amount of privilege and thus, freedom, than you do.

It makes me wonder where this primary is in all this. I feel like there’s discussions you’re not having together. All of these anxieties are things he should be able to directly address. Sometimes, as I mentioned in “Thirteen things I wish I’d learned before choosing non-monogamy”, telling someone your wants and fears is terrifying in and of itself. It’s possible you’ve not had this conversation with him because you’re afraid it won’t go well.

But at this point, especially if you’re looking to bring a child into the mix, you’re only delaying the inevitable. Even though you don’t know if someone’s going to have your back sometimes until the fit hits the shan, you still need to have people step up and re-assure you. It’s different to have anxieties that stem from the way we’re treated by the world vs. having anxiety that stems from the way we’re treated by our partners. If your partner has given you any reason to believe asking for what you want is ‘dramatic’… my guess is it wouldn’t be a good idea to have a co-parenting situation with this one.

Getting to the root of your anxiety around your primary partner is going to be crucial. It’s not that you have to have a perfect relationship before you have a child, but it’s that, like adding anything new and stressful to the mix, it’s going to cause stress. And when stress is applied to situations where things aren’t stable, things might break.

In summation

To summarise things, I think you should expand your mind as to different models of co-parenting and family building and look in other places. You should try your best to address the potential pitfalls and ‘what ifs’ and how you’re going to address this as a co-parenting unit, as well as address the source of this anxiety.

When you address all of these, your anxiety and what you plan to do might be a lot easier to see.

I hope this helps and good luck!

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