Navigating Parenting and Non-Monogamy

Non-monogamous family systems can be complicated to navigate, especially with ongoing social stigma, but communication and a solid community help you pursue relationships with intention and love.

Child holding hand with co-parents
Photo: Madelyn Goodnight

When my partner and I decided to open our relationship to non-monogamy and start seeing additional partners, I was overwhelmed with the guilt of placing my energy into anything other than my child. For nearly two years, I had spent every day and night with them as their primary care provider. I was also overwhelmed by the guilt of not listening to my own need for non-monogamy.

I communicated this to my partner, and they excitedly agreed to test it out, but weren't sure how to go about keeping our child prioritized. I wondered about other families who had already figured out what this looks like, and started to scour the internet for representation.

I found a small booklet by Elisabeth Sheff, Ph.D., CSE titled Children in Polyamorous Families where she states, "As public awareness of polyamorous families has risen over the past 20 years, so has concern over their impact on children." But through reading their work, which demystifies what it means to be in a polyamorous family, listening to non-monogamous podcasts, and talking to other non-monogamous parents, I realized that there are many people out there who are breaking the compulsory monogamous norms of society and providing home environments for their children filled with adults who love and care about them.

"General perception of non-monogamy is improving and becoming more normalized especially the younger you go, demographic wise" says Laura Boyle, author of Ready For Polyamory. "Reality TV shows joke about throuples as a standard now. Non-monogamy has entered the lexicon. It's just not hit the critical mass of 'acceptance' yet."

Consider Your Non-Monogamy Dynamic

There are many ways to do non-monogamy. In queer circles, non-monogamy is especially prevalent more than ever, but non-monogamy is not a queer specific identity or way to include multiple loving partners into your life. My co-parent and I were in a monogamous relationship for five years before exploring non-monogamy, but many parents already have multiple established relationships when they bring a child into their lives.

For most parents, non-monogamy can serve as a way to get their life back after giving so much of themselves to raising a child. Maile Manliguis, who opened her relationship three years ago, says, "exploring non-monogamy helped me center myself and my own pleasure after getting lost in motherhood for years…Once I started dating other people and exploring my own interests and sexuality outside of my family life, I found so much joy and I felt more complete, which in turn helped me to be a more present, well-balanced person for my kids and husband when I'm with them."

Regardless of your parenting dynamic, however unique it will inevitably be, non-monogamy is always an option. Jessica Levity Daylover, who has been openly polyamorous for nine years and offers workshops and has an upcoming book to be titled Polyamory & Parenthood, says, "You do not have to wait until your kids are grown to explore polyamory. You do not have to choose between polyamory and becoming a parent."

Plan a Schedule That Works For Your Family

If you're someone who loves scheduling, you're going to love non-monogamy. If not, get ready for a rough transition. Each age has different obstacles to overcome, from childcare and nap routines, to basketball practice and Girl Scouts. In parenting dynamics with more than two parents, the schedule might become an even easier thing to navigate. In Dr. Sheff's research, they note, "Pooling resources 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."

In dynamics where you may be the primary caretaker, your time may be stretched thin and require more financial resources to find childcare to go on dates. "In many ways, polyamory relieves some of the burdens of parenthood, but in other ways polyamory and parenthood can make each other more difficult," says Levity Daylover. "You deserve an awesome, fulfilling love life, no matter what."

The last thing you want is to get into a groove of taking on more parenting responsibilities so your co-parent(s) can have more time with other partnerships. Communicating your capacity for caring for your child and sitting down to make a clear schedule for everyone to follow can help mitigate those weird gut feelings when you may be burdened with more parenting responsibilities than others if that's not something you want or have the energy for.

"It has always been important to me to date people who understand that my kids and family always come first," says Manliguis, "which means sometimes I have to make last-minute plans or adjustments."

Talking To Your Kids About Your Non-Monogamy Relationships

I feel fortunate to be on this journey with a toddler who is still learning the vast complexities of human connection. It can be difficult to gauge what conversations your children are developmentally ready for. "As with many children, the kids growing up in polyamorous families understand their families in the context of their own experiences, and those experiences are largely age-dependent," says Dr. Sheff.

Andi Marie*, who has been practicing solo polyamory for 13 years, waited until her two kids were teenagers before introducing them to partners. "My sons have the same biting sarcasm their mother has, so they tease me about being a player, while at the same time understanding the difference between cheating and ethical polyamory."

That's not to say younger kids won't also understand their parents having more than one partner, or having more than two parents. "Understand that kids care if their parents are happy," says Andi Marie. "Keep it age-appropriate, and don't do things that would have made you feel uncomfortable as a child."

"Don't ask children to keep secrets for you," says Boyle. "Either be open and create an open environment they're part of, or don't, and be aware that when you do tell them they may be upset you weren't honest with them, but don't expect kids of any age, but especially young kids, to not tell family or school or teachers things that you are making everyday and common for them."

According to Dr. Sheff's research, "Kids in the age group between 9-12 years of age may begin to develop an inkling that something beyond friendship is happening among some of the adults in their lives, but they generally do not fully understand or want any details." It's not until they become teens that they have a more sophisticated understanding of social life and awareness of their parents' romantic relationships.

Communication is essential in making sure your child is comfortable and aware of their family dynamics, but the amount of details you choose to share is still up to you and your own comfort and parenting style.

Introducing Partners to Your Kids

It's no surprise that relationships with more than one person involve all the more communication, and taking time to have the conversation with your new partner before meeting your child is crucial.

It all depends on how much you want your new partner to be in your kid's life, and how much your partner wants to be in their life. Some folks introduce their partners as a friend that they have sleepovers with. Though this may be an age-dependent description and it's likely your teenagers will need further explanation. Some folks are introduced as a relative, like a fun uncle. Or, if you and your partner are considering a co-parenting role, take it slow and let the relationship evolve on its own with lots of communication and consideration for everyone involved. Similar to divorced parents introducing a new partner, there can be a lot of hesitation from your child to allow a new adult into their lives.

Take time to really get to know your new relationship before bringing your child into it. Andi Marie says, "Your instincts on picking partners are not the same instincts needed to keep kids safe." This is an important consideration to remember when the excitement of a new relationship is the main thing on your mind.

You Don't Have to Feel Guilty for Pursing Non-Monogamy

Parenthood is full of guilty feelings, and non-monogamy is no exception. You may feel like you are taking away quality time with your kids to go on dates and pursue new relationships. When my partner is out late or sleeping over at another partner's house, and I am curled up with our kiddo at home, my insecurities start to creep in. Did I make a huge mistake by bringing non-monogamy into our lives? Is our kid missing out on quality parent time?

In these moments it can be easy to go down a path of guilt that feels endless and messy. So much about this experience has forced me to reframe my mindset and unlearn social conditioning around how parenting and relationships are "supposed" to work. You know what your children need most. Journaling, non-monogamy affirming therapy, and any other method of sorting through your own feelings can give you a healthy mindset to bring ease into parenting and alleviate hard feelings.

Find Community for You and Your Kids

It all comes down to having a solid community to rely on. It can be isolating to navigate all of this without examples of success, especially with the misconceptions most of western society has around non-monogamy. Finding community not just for you, but also your kids, can normalize unique family dynamics and support all of your growth and acceptance.

The biggest worry that I hear from others about being a non-monogamous parent is that my kid will have to grow up ashamed that their family isn't like their peers'. If this is a concern of yours as well, I urge you to consider what those families look like. For me, I grew up with divorced parents who had many additional monogamous partners in and out of our lives. Many of my friends were raised by grandparents or in and out of foster care.

As we collectively begin to accept unique and diverse family experiences, more parents will be able to explore what it can look like to pursue love in abundance.

*Name has been changed for privacy.

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