Part 2: Child Custody While Poly: a Disentangling of Danger and Discomfort
Welcome to my three-part series on lessons I learned from the Future of Monogamy and Non-Monogamy Conference at Berkeley. As a relationship coach of passionate, outlier clients, I have found that some of the soundest voices in the research and healing of modern relationships are from those who dare to look beyond the assumptions of heteronormative, nuclear families. Many of the people I work with are heterosexuals desiring monogamous relationships resulting in child birth, and yet I find that some of the most helpful models for them comes from those that study and practice other relationship structures.
All in the Family Court
The presentation Children in Polyamorous Families: Grounds for Concern (spoiler alert: no grounds for concern were presented at this non- monogamy conference) by Elisabeth Sheff outlined a longitudinal study of polyamorous families initiated in 1996. The children in Sheff's study were pre-schoolers when she started and are now in college and her findings show that they were are well-adjusted kids.
The main area of concern was child custody battles when one stakeholder in a child's life opposed the non-monogamous behavior of one or more of the child's parents. The two most common situations were when a couple splits up, one spouse will accuse the other one of being non-monogamous, or grandparents will challenge the parenting abilities of their non-monogamous adult children. This is when things get ugly.
In family court, the judge is allowed more autonomy in how they interpret the best interest of the child, as opposed to other types of court systems with narrower sentencing guidelines. If that judge is from a sexually conservative background and one parent is found to have multiple sexual partners, the judge can deny that parent the right to have unsupervised visits because they don't think it would be in the best interest of the child. Judges can make these decisions without any evidence of negligence or harm on the part of the non-monogamous parent. Shef outlined several cases in which polyamorous parents lost custody, but were not found to be abusive or negligent.
Housing Discrimination that is Legal
Currently it is legal to discriminate against people who are non-monogamous in terms of child custody laws, housing and employment*. Non-monogamous people don't have legal protection from discrimination the way LGBTQ people, and religious and ethnic minorities have legal protection.
Instances of discrimination toward non-monogamous people in the workplace take on a variety of forms. One anecdote shared at the conference was a man being asked by a co-workers to share about his romantic partnerships, and then the co-worker claimed sexual harassment after hearing him share about his polyamorous life style. A couple who presented at the workshop has been leading children's theater workshops in Washington for years, and faced threats and defamation against their business, and an expensive investigation of well-being of the woman's children after the couple came out as non-monogamous to their community.
*Dr. Doleshal's ordinance to extend anti-discrimination to protect polyamorous people, swingers, and others involved in consensually non-monogamous relationships was passed by the Berkeley City Council on December 19, 2017.
"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." --Dr. Martin Luther King
Our society's freedom is threatened when it is legal to discriminate against people for harmless, consensual behavior among adults, such as living with multiple romantic partners or parenting children with multiple romantic partners. While it might be easy to allow our emotional experience of being cheated upon, or neglected by a parent absorbed in dating instead of caring for us as children, it's vital to disentangle non-monogamy from bad parenting and bad partnering.
Nearly everyone interested in dating is either A. a woman, B. a person who dates women or C. Queer. Women and Queer people have faced legal and social discrimination for much of modern history and still face discrimination today. It is only because of increased pressure to disentangle being female from being ill equipped for independence, and being queer from being mentally unsound, that countries such as the United States have widely increased laws protecting these groups.
If you enjoy being a woman who is considered mentally capable of making your own dating choices, dating women who are free to make their own choices, or a queer person who enjoys knowing there are havens for public queer expression and child rearing, you can hopefully appreciate the need for extending legal protection and social acceptance to polyamorous parents.
How Stereotyping Decreased Our Well-Being
Why do judges deny parental rights to non-monogamous parents? Likely they are misinformed about what it means to be consensually non-monogamous. Religious texts supporting marriage between a man and a woman and cultural narratives idealizing the monogamous, heterosexual, nuclear family cloud the judgement of professionals who deem non-monogamous people unfit to parent.
In (the American) cultures with both puritanical roots and flimsy support systems for children (costly childcare, poorly funded school programs, limited parental leave), aberrant sexual behaviors and poor parenting are often lumped together. Sexual promiscuity while being a parent, gets lumped in with irresponsibility. While it is true that sexual promiscuity can lead to people getting diseases or pregnant, and having little support for their children, there are myriad ways to prevent these outcomes and mitigate them as they occur. Intentional, community-oriented polyamorists*, such as Tamera often thoroughly discuss child rearing responsibilities and allocate parental duty to more than the meager number of one or two working parents that is more common in Western nuclear families.
How can non-monogamous people have time to parent when they are busy dating? This question is as valid as asking how ambitious, career-driven men and women will have time to be adequate parents. They are good questions that uncover priorities about time management and resource allocation. Career-driven people who are excellent at managing their energy and have support systems in the form of partners and co-guardians of their children are as capable of good parenting as polyamorous people who devote attention to these same areas.
*To be clear, Tamerans say they do free love, not polyamory, and many of their community members are also celibate and/or monogamous.
Giving Ourself the Gift of Discernment
Learning to notice our stereotypes about sexual behavior and family structure and discern between harmful behavior and behavior that makes us uncomfortable is a life skill that serves both our personal well-being and the well-being of our community. I hear many unpartnered people dismiss a new person they are dating because they discover they are divorced, or they realize they have a close friendship with someone of the opposite sex (for hetero couples) and interpret that closeness as a threat to their connection with that person. We need to learn to to see divorce and opposite sex friendships as invitations for questions instead of walls. The same must be done for the polyamorous, especially when it come to housing and parental rights.
We use these shorthand stereotypes (divorce and closeness to an ex partner) because there are dominant narratives about what they mean, and we worry they mean something bad. We want to protect ourselves from the person who did something so terrible they had to get divorced and we don't want to get invested in a relationship with someone who does not have time or energy for us. Yet both divorce and closeness with a former partner can be signs of emotional maturity and growth.
I hope the work of people advocating for the rights and visibility of non-monogamous families results in sensible laws, broader non-monogamy acceptance and a broadening of healthy relationship options. Attending this conference inspired me to expand the horizons of how I see that healthy relationships can take shape, and it has also prompted me to exercise caution in recommending non-monogamy. In the conference Shef's research showed that the chances of retaining child custody while poly was highest in California and Massachusetts and lowest in Southern States. I hope that attaching my name to an article shedding light on the inner-workings of polyamory and parenting helps people balance their need for self-expression with the need for child protection, and that one day these two needs will no longer be in opposition.