In our society, we have countless examples of parenting in a monogamous, nuclear family. But what does parenting in a polyamorous family look like? We spoke with Ambrosio and Ellen*, a polyamorous family in Washtenaw County, on their journey from monogamy to polyamory as a couple, and now as a family.
What Initially Drew You to Polyamory?
Ellen — a witchy musician — was introduced to polyamory in college when she came out to her boyfriend as bisexual, and he responded by encouraging her to start dating women to explore that area but was not open to her dating other men. “My first foray into polyamory wasn’t terribly ethical,” she noted with a laugh, referring to the ethical concerns in polyamory communities of couples being fine with opening up their relationship to women but not to men, which both undermines the validity of relationships between two women as well as maintaining negative patriarchal influences. But in volunteering at her college’s LGBTQ+ center, Ellen was exposed to many more forms of polyamory.
Ambrosio — an automotive manufacturing engineer — also learned about polyamory in college: he dated a girl who had a girlfriend, and he began dating multiple people as well. He observed, “Me being with someone else didn’t diminish the original relationship. I was already spending time with multiple people and wanted the opportunity to deepen relationships in emotional, intellectual, or sexual ways. Monogamy didn’t allow for that in the same way as polyamory.”
Both Ambrosio and Ellen touched on the waxing and waning of romantic feelings in a romantic relationship, which is common to all romantic relationships. Ellen felt that polyamory allowed her to actively maintain her current relationships and commitments. “At some point, I may develop a crush, feelings, or fall in love with someone else, and that doesn’t mean I need to fall out of love with whomever I’m with.” Ambrosio agrees. “Many people think if I’m feeling these feelings for someone else, my current relationship must be dead,” says Ambrosio. “That’s not true! The seven-year-itch is natural. It doesn’t mean your current relationship has to die. But if you’ve trained yourself to believe you can only love one person at a time, then you do have to sever that tie.” Polyam created a space for Ellen and Ambrosio to honestly communicate around new feelings while maintaining their current commitments to each other.
What Elements of Polyam Have Contributed Positively to Your Family? What Elements Have Been Challenging?
Ambrosio and Ellen didn’t take raising a child in a polyamorous family lightly. They went to polyamory parenting panels, did research, and had discussions with other polyam parents on how they raised their children. They even looked into legal considerations, such as CPS concerns (note: it seems that, unless someone is dating a person who is actively unsafe, CPS would not be called on a polyam family in Michigan for polyam reasons alone).
It was interesting to both Ellen and Ambrosio that not much seemed different between polyam parenting and monogamous parenting. “If Ellen watches B* (their kiddo) while I go bowling with friends on Wednesday, it doesn’t change the time away if I instead spend a date night with a partner.”
Ellen felt similarly. “Because of the pandemic, I haven’t spent much time with partners, or people in general. There’s also not a clear line between who is a ‘partner’ and who is a ‘friend’ — it feels like many people in our circle are potential future partners, or have been partners, or are a partner of a partner. We have a large polyam and poly-adjacent community.”
Are You Worried About the Negative Effects of Polyamory as Your Children Grow?
Ambrosio points out that polyam encourages a strong focus on intentional relationships and community. “We have better, deeper friendships, and are highly likely to have continuous friendships with past partners. It’s not like there’s a string of women or lovers or boyfriends coming through, and B doesn’t bond with people — or bonds and they leave. Even if the relationship shifts or the romantic aspect breaks up, the people often stick around.”
Curious about any concerns regarding stigma surrounding polyamory, I asked if they were worried about bullying or harmful remarks for B. Ellen noted, “Not more so than any other issue! Polyamory is becoming more mainstream. I’m seeing it in the news, there are conventions on it, even boomers are becoming aware of it!”
Ambrosio agrees. “Babies, kindergarteners, even elementary students don’t care about adult stuff. At one of the polyam conventions, an anecdote was shared of a six-year-old trying to find their mom during the night, and they just went to each bedroom and asked, ‘Is Mommy in this room?’ and kept going till they found her. What they cared about was finding Mommy, they didn’t care what bed she was in.”
Ellen says, “B might get teased in school about it, but that would mean other kids would need to take an active interest in her parents’ love lives, and who does that? Not until high school for sure. And by then B will have been grounded in the experience, so there won’t be any surprises, and she will be educated about different ethical relationship choices and styles.”
What Suggestions Do You Have for Monogamous/More Traditional Families?
Both Ellen and Ambrosio stressed the emphasis on having additional adults in the same house or nearby. Creating an intentional community of multiple adults in the same home was “a huge asset” during the pandemic. Ellen says, “Everyone needs roommates, and it seems a lot of my monogamous friends don’t have them because they’re worried their spouse will sleep with their roommate. But our roommates were the difference between my going insane versus being able to make it in this pandemic. Having other partners around to lean on is huge but it’s not always a child-help guarantee. In our case, the people who are our child supports aren’t always our partners.”
The focus on intentional, honest, and kind communication is also vital. Whether polyamorous or monogamous, couples need to be able to authentically talk about hard feelings and hard things. Cultivating an atmosphere where anything can be discussed was a make-or-break for Ambrosio and Ellen.
I spent time before and after our interview interacting with B — and if a plethora of delighted two-year-old giggles, a love of stories and games, and a happy and secure barrage of “why” questions to the new person in the house (me) are any indication, the alternative lifestyle that Ellen and Ambrosio are creating for their family seems to be working out just fine.
*Names altered for privacy