“I’ve had lots of different kinds of relationships with lots of different people and all of those experiences taught me how to be the best mom I can be.”
In my early 20s, I was passionate about polyamory, or “the practice of having multiple intimate relationships, whether sexual or just romantic, with the full knowledge and consent of all parties involved,” as Psychology Today puts it. There were times I had one “primary” partner and other more casual, “secondary” relationships. I was in a triad relationship where the three of us went on dates together and slept in the same bed. There was a year during which I maintained three serious relationships at once, where all people involved knew about each other, and two of them were also dating each other. It was like a self-studied master’s course in human dynamics.
At the time, it was the most liberating lifestyle I could imagine. But five years later, after navigating my fair share of dramatic break ups and having a time-intensive, full-time job, I found monogamy to be the approach to my romantic, sexual and family life that worked and felt best for me.
I am now in a committed, monogamous relationship and a full-time parent with a 10-year-old daughter, 2 1/2-year-old son, and another baby on the way. Even though I am no longer practicing polyamory, I look back happily at that part of my life, and, what’s more, I’ve come to realize that being polyamorous actually prepared me to successfully be a parent.
Here’s what it taught me.
1. How to balance (and schedule) multiple people’s needs at a time.
Being polyamorous taught me how to navigate the complex web of needs of multiple romantic partners. My partners and I spent countless hours discussing what we wanted ― more one-on-one time, a sleepover once a week, etc. ― and how to make it happen within the confines of our schedules.
Everything went smoother when we were clear with what we needed for our relationships to thrive.
In my family now, I have conversations with my partner and 10-year-old daughter that are similar to those I had with my romantic partners a decade ago. We’ve learned that my daughter needs a daily routine to feel calm and grounded, so we write her a list beginning with “brush your teeth” and ending with “get in bed.” My partner, the free spirit, appreciates having one full day per week when we don’t have anything scheduled so that we can do whatever we want as a family (and, ironically, we plan when that day will be). Our toddler needs to play outside every day or else it’s impossible to put him to sleep. And I need regular alone time to maintain my sanity.
The process of distilling our needs into practical, schedule-able pieces helps each person get what they need, and overall increases our family harmony.
2. How to be in touch with my own feelings and prioritize them
Growing up, I — like many people who are socialized as female in our society — didn’t learn how to express and prioritize what I needed. I defaulted to making everybody around me happy first, then attending to my needs when everyone else’s were taken care of. Through practicing polyamory, it quickly became clear that that was not a workable way to exist in mutual relationships. If I wasn’t clear about my own boundaries around, say, safe-sex practices, all of my relationships suffered the consequences. Through trial and error, I developed the self-assuredness necessary to articulate what I felt and what I wanted.
I don’t want to be the kind of mother who sacrifices herself for her kids. I want my children to learn to value and express their own feelings and needs. I believe that modeling prioritizing myself is the best way to do that.
When I feel overwhelmed or exasperated with motherhood (especially during the parenting-intensive experience that is living through a pandemic), I take care of myself. I turn on the TV for the kids so that they’ll leave me alone for 30 minutes so I can write my frustrations down in my journal or take a hot Epsom salt bath. I’ll ask my partner to step in so I can go on a walk through redwood trees, or call my best friend who is always open to hearing me kvetch about something.
I’ve learned that my primary relationship is with myself ― when I am taken care of, I can take care of others, and everyone in my family benefits.
3. It’s OK to have different feelings for different people.
It’s not possible to feel exactly the same way about different people. While in many cases, I loved and valued my partners to an equal degree, the quality of our connections and what I appreciated about each relationship varied immensely. With one partner I loved to go out dancing until 2 a.m., and she always knew how to make me laugh. With another, my favorite thing to do was drink tea and read poetry.
I feel differently about my 10-year-old daughter, whom I met when she was 5, than I do about my 2 1/2-year-old son, whom I’ve known since he was conceived. It’s not that I love him more — it’s just a different relationship. My son wants to cuddle with me all night and enthusiastically jumps into my arms after only an hour apart. My daughter wants to do science experiments and explain the complexities of the Harry Potter series to me.
There have been times that I’ve felt concerned about the different quality of connection I feel with each of my children, and mourned the loss of those first cuddly, oxytocin-rich years with my daughter. But I also know that our unique relationship has strengths that help me understand her and who she is becoming now, with fewer ties to the younger self she is growing out of. When we don’t expect to feel the exact same qualities of love and connection with our kids, we are free to see them as unique individuals and allow the authenticity of each relationship to thrive.
4. How to communicate effectively
Knowing how you feel is not always enough. During my years of polyamory, I practiced the art of communication with studious rigor. Healthy communication is not monolithic. Each of us carries traumas and stories from our past, and we often filter our experience through our baggage. For some, saying “I need a little space” feels like a clearly stated need. For others, it feels like a heartbreaking rejection.
Learning about my different partners’ expectations for communication helped me practice how to get my needs and emotions across without tripping over trigger words and falling into quagmires of misunderstanding.
The same skills apply to my relationships with my partner and children. They are all different people with varied ways of taking in information. I am learning to use measured, clear tones with my daughter that will help her keep her nervous system calm and won’t make her feel like I am criticizing her. I am learning to talk to my son in simple toddler language, and how to communicate with my partner in ways that remind us that we are romantic partners and lovers, not just co-parents.
5. Jealousy is an onion
While navigating various relationships at the same time, I learned that jealousy is a many-layered emotion. In order to understand our own feelings of jealousy, we must peel off the tear-provoking layers and examine what’s underneath. For me, often, the first layer under a heart-piercing feeling of jealousy was an unmet need for time or intimacy with a partner, and their connection with someone else was exacerbating my pain of wanting. Often under that feeling of unmet need was some deep-seated insecurity that dated back to my childhood and had nothing whatsoever to do with the present moment.
Understanding jealousy as an onion is enormously helpful in navigating sibling dynamics. I recognize that when my daughter gets jealous of the attention we give to our toddler that it’s not about him or about us as parents. I try to help her peel off the layers of the onion so we can get to the core of her pain and work to heal what’s motivating her feelings of jealousy in the first place.
6. The need to understand oppression dynamics
Race, class and gender dynamics matter. They affect each of us and have profound effects on our relationships. In my experience, relationships don’t work well in the long run if we make oppression dynamics invisible. In my polyamory days, my partners and I practiced acknowledging each other’s intersectional identities and tried our best to always keep these power dynamics top of mind.
As a white mother to Chicano children, I am constantly trying not to let racist ideas I absorbed from growing up in our society negatively impact my partner and children. I also try to remember that as a parent, I am in a position of power over my children. While it is often appropriate that I make decisions for them, it can also be oppressive (and infuriating to my increasingly independent tween). We acknowledge these disparate power dynamics in my family and always aim to proceed with justice and compassion.
7. How to navigate different love languages
Dr. Gary Chapman wrote a book called “The 5 Love Languages” which describes five fundamental ways that people in Western societies give and receive love. These love languages include: words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time and physical touch. While there are many variations and nuances to how we love, I’ve found this framework profoundly helpful in both polyamory and parenting.
I love words of affirmation. The card my partner wrote me for our third anniversary is one of my most precious possessions, and when we argue, I read it and it reminds me how much we love each other. Knowing how I most easily receive love helps me stay grounded in my connection to her.
I’ve learned that my daughter needs regular one-on-one attention to feel connected. So we schedule 10 minutes a day where she can have focused time with each of us and her brother won’t come in and distract us. When one of us cuddles our toddler for 10 minutes after he wakes up, he then feels ready to peacefully engage with all of us. When we keep these love languages top of mind, the kids get more of what they need, the family dynamic becomes more peaceful, and we parents have a little more room to breathe.
Navigating multiple relationships is like trying to complete an infinite puzzle where all of the pieces are constantly moving. In polyamory and in parenting, people grow, needs change, and relationships continually evolve. This is especially true for children, who grow physically and emotionally at super-speed. Humans are not static beings ― and I love us for it. I used to think polyamory was the greatest adventure in intimacy. Now I understand that it was, for me, a training ground for the 24-7, full-contact sport of parenting.
We speak to our 10-year-old about different relationship dynamics including polyamory. With two moms and a sperm donor, she already knows that families look all kinds of ways. When my kids are ready, I will encourage them to explore whatever kinds of relationships they are called to. My only goal for them is that they engage in conscious, equitable and kind relationships ― romantic and otherwise ― throughout the rest of their lives.