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Backer question: What do polyamorous children want to hear from their parents?

October 3, 2013

This post answers another $500 backer question for the More Than Two crowdfunding campaign (over in four days!), but it’s a little special–because it’s for my mom.

Marilou asks:

What do openly polyamorous children most want to hear from their parents?

Franklin and I thought this was a really good one, and likely something a lot of people would have opinions on, so we decided to crowdsource the answer via the campaign page and our social media feeds. We got lots of great answers, which I will share with you in a moment, but first I’m going to give my answer–and I know my answer isn’t everyone’s.

I think what an openly polyamorous child wants to hear from their parents is much the same as what any child who is openly different in some way that is not well-understood or socially accepted–whether the social norms in question belong society at large or your particular family. We want to know that you love us, that you accept our choices even if you don’t quite understand them, that you’ll continue to be there for us, that you want us to be happy, and that fundamentally our relationship with you won’t change because of this new, different thing you’ve learned about us.

There’s more, though.

We’ve probably always done things you didn’t quite understand. How did you respond when your son, at six, decided he wanted to wear dresses and play with Barbies? How about when your daughter decided when she was 11 that she was going to change her name and wear nothing but black? When your nine-year-old got kept in at recess because he wouldn’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school? Because we noticed. We didn’t just notice because you let us get away with it or turned a blind eye. We noticed how you responded when other adults would make condescending comments over our heads, thinking we didn’t hear. We noticed whether you defended us, or spoke of us with pride–or when you lowered your voice and said, “well, it’s just a phase, you know, kids”–barely concealing your embarrassment.

We could tell when the weird things we did, maybe the weird things we were, made you feel ashamed. And if you felt ashamed, so did we. We learned from you whether to hide who we were or whether to be who we were, whether our real selves belonged in this world or whether we needed to pretend to be something else to fit in, or worse, to be loved and accepted by the people whose love we needed most.

Know what? That hasn’t really changed. We hear it when you call one of our partners our “friend” in conversation. We notice it when only one partner is welcome at family gatherings. We feel it when we find your close friends only know about one of our partners. Each of these things can be a subtle message that deep down, whatever you may have said, you still feel something’s wrong. Maybe even that you’re ashamed of us, or of the people we love.

We know that this thing we do, this thing we are, is kind of weird, and we know it’s going to be hard for you to understand. But part of us is still that six-year-old boy or that 11-year-old girl, learning from the way you react to us–and our partners–whether our authentic selves belong in this world, or not. It’s true that many people whose parents shamed them (or were ashamed of them) or rejected them, at least in part, for who they were, or consistently made it known that they weren’t good enough, or normal enough, or just not enough, have gotten over it. With supportive friends and self-work and a few years of therapy, they’ve developed a sense of self-worth so resilient that they can brush off even the most cruel, consistent parental undermining.

But that’s a hard thing to do, and it takes a lot of work. And anyway… don’t be that parent. Let us save that strength for other battles.

Cause believe me, we have them. The question specified openly polyamorous children, which means we’ve faced a lot of those same struggles you might be facing right now. Struggles with disclosure: whom do I tell? How do I tell them? Do I just mention all my partners normally in casual conversation, the way a monogamous person would? With social acceptance: what will people think? With visibility: we’ve probably been asked to keep it quiet–just as you’ve probably wanted to keep quiet–told something along the lines of, “Well, I guess it’s okay, but why do you have to talk about it?” “Why can’t you just keep it in the bedroom?” (Shame, again: this is something I am supposed to hide.) And we have to shake that off. Every day. Learn to trust ourselves and believe that what we are doing is okay, that we are okay.

So (maybe) the best thing you can do for your polyamorous children isn’t just to love us and accept us. It’s to own us. Be proud of us. When your friend is talking about her son’s talented opera singer girlfriend, boast about your daughter’s brilliant software engineer girlfriend and her postdoc boyfriend who does research in the jungles of Ecuador. Ask how all your son’s partners are doing. Remember their names. Invite them to Christmas dinner–no matter what the grandparents think.

But the question was about what a parent might say, not do. So maybe the thing we most want to hear is, “I’m proud of you.”

And now, our readers weigh in on the subject:

  • “We support you, even if we don’t particularly understand it.”
  • “If you’re happy, we’re happy.”
  • Like all children they want love, support and acceptance from their parents.
  • “I’m glad you have such a big family to be there for you.”
  • “How are [lists all the names w/o leaving someone out] doing?”
  • “I’m so glad our lessons in love, communication, & intentional family sunk in!”
  • “How many of you will be coming to our house for dinner? Your whole tribe is welcome.”
  • “Your partners are all valid, acknowledged, respected, welcome.”
  • “If you’re happy then we are happy for you. How many chairs will we need at Thanksgiving?”
  • “How are your partners?”
  • “I am so glad that you are happy!”
  • “I trust you to know what makes you happy, and I will make an effort to know the important people in your life.”
  • “Good for you! I hope they’re all treating you right.”
  • “Wow! We won the lottery and we have so much money we don’t know what do with ourselves! Want some?”
  • “Let me buy you a house.”

(I have to admit, those last two are pretty tempting answers, all things considered…)

Thanks to everyone who offered their input!

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  1. Eccaba permalink
    October 3, 2013 3:19 pm

    I would also add that it’s really important not just to support your child’s lifestyle choice, but also to be open to the partner(s) and not to make bigoted snap judgements. I am in a polyamorous relationship with a man. I came out to them and explained that he had another partner. When they first heard about him they were all excited and now he’s a cad who has “another woman in every city”. (I’m the one who introduced him to polyamory and I’ve been doing it for years while this is his first open relationship.) They’ve made a sexist assumption about how men are and assume that I’m going along with it because I like him and not because I want it. I realized you touched on this a bit but I think self educating- I’m not in fundamentalist polygamist marriage and I’m not a “mistress”, is really important. I’ve known other polyamorous women to battle these same sexist assumptions with their parents as well.

  2. mist permalink
    October 4, 2013 8:08 pm

    Oh what I would give to be simply “not enough”.
    If I don’t follow my parents wishes, in life, in love, in business then because I’m willing to be strong enough to be myself and live my own life I’m “a bully”.

    Yes, I’m 45 yrs old. Own 2 businesses and because I won’t give in to my parents demands they’ve declared me “a bully” and “the worst child ever”. And those are quotes from the last fortnight.

  3. January 22, 2015 11:11 am

    Great and timely post!

    One thing about the “I support you even if I don’t understand it/Whatever makes you happy” messages… it’s important that those be sincere, and that they be backed up with actions. When a parent or sibling says “I support you” and then ignores all but one of your partners, or tries to change the subject when you talk about them, or otherwise tries to avoid acknowledging the reality of your poly life, what it says is, “I want to feel like a good person, so I will say that I support them, even though it makes me acutely uncomfortable and I refuse to deal with that.” I’d much rather a family member acknowledge their discomfort and try to work with it, than give me lip-service support.

  4. Bei permalink
    December 27, 2017 5:28 pm

    “I love you but don’t understand this at all” is the most I have to offer. And every blog and article I’ve read has done a pretty good job of telling me what a shitty parent I am if that’s my response. Do I get any credit or grace for trying my very best to always make sure you knew you were loved and accepted? This feels like a litmus test for being the good parent of a millennial. I’m flunking, my heart is broken, and you have the power, because if I don’t buy extra placemats for the next holiday dinner, then I am not supportive of you living your truth. Mom’s apparently ought not to have truths.

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