Somewhere along the Long Island Expressway in a sedan full of 30-year-old women, the question of motherhood was posed. One of us had just had a baby with her partner of 10 years. The others were a mix of very single and very dating. As someone who practices ethical non-monogamy, I felt like a curious mix of all of the above.
“Do you want to have kids?” one woman asked me.
“How would that… work?” asked another.
TL;DR: I’m dating a person who is married to another person. We all date other people. We also all love each other and are committed to each other and our poly fam, whatever shape it takes.
At that moment on the LIE, it seemed possible my boyfriend and his wife might get pregnant and that sooner than I had anticipated, I might have to confront whether I wanted to be a mom, or at least motherhood-adjacent.
My friends’ queries about how, exactly, that would work for me were fine questions. Fair questions. I had faced questions like this many times before in conversations about my relationship structure. But in some ways, having kids is a thing that scratches at the limits of the architecture of non-monogamy (perhaps unsurprisingly since having kids can also serve as the ultimate benchmark of any “real” heterosexual relationship). How could I have kids in my situation? If I want kids but don’t get to have them in my current relationship, what then?
It wasn’t that I had never asked myself these questions; I’d been asking them of myself long before I began practicing polyamory. It was just that when it came to motherhood — that day on the LIE, as ever — I just didn’t really know the answer. For much of my life, I have been a member of that closeted club: parenting-agnostic women.
So, for the time being, I suggested the only reasonable response.
My friend in the front seat produced her phone and held the microphone to her mouth. “Hey, Siri, should Acacia have a baby with her boyfriend and his wife?”
The car erupted with laughter and then hushed as we waited for the phone’s proclamation.
“I’m sorry. Only Acacia can answer that question.”
Siri, robot therapist.
Parenting had come up early in my relationship in hypothetical terms. My boyfriend and I were plotting our “relationship map,” prodding its probable expansions into uncharted territory.
My boyfriend’s wife and I also freely fantasized about being pregnant at the same time. We joked about being sent off to a farm together to complete our gassy and hormonal expansions in remote privacy. Once, she fawned out loud about how goddamn adorable his and my child would be, and my heart thudded with a combination of gratitude and love. Other times, we lamented that she and I couldn’t have a kid together, the two of us. (Biology admits less than the imagination.)
My boyfriend and I joked too, but the question of co-parenting also felt weighty, with real implications. One day, a theoretical conversation about public schools became concrete. “I can never give you a stigma-free kid,” he said, and we talked about what that would mean. The choose-your-own-adventure quality of our relationship emboldened me to ask questions I might not have had the courage to ask a monogamous partner. It also built a rock-solid foundation of communication and trust that has made everything else in our relationship possible.
We established early that it would be hypothetically possible for us all to co-parent happily and successfully. But questions hung in the air: questions of whether we would authentically choose to go down that path together — the two of us and the three of us — and when and on what terms.
All relationships are like a buffet where certain items are off-limits. Sexual exclusivity is only one possible item. What about holidays? What about sharing finances? Cohabitation? Shared hobbies? People draw their own boundaries through communication and imagination. In monogamy and marriage, there’s a certain menu already (which you could admittedly disregard, as many do); in polyamory, it’s à la carte. This quality ultimately empowered me to think about whether I wanted to be a parent in general and whether I wanted to parent here, with these wonderful people.
In the past, the idea of parenting — mothering, in particular — felt daunting to me. That life, its details, felt suffocating and mutually exclusive of many of the selfish privileges I enjoy.
Maybe I’ve grown and changed. Maybe it took finding radical, feminist partners who I trusted and who I knew could understand the burdens of women’s labor. Part of me thinks this is a benefit of polyamory. It’s a dynamic relationship structure in which change is inevitable, fears are confronted (certainly not an easy task) and there’s no real road map. It’s strange, but by living in this atypical way, I became more accepting of the parts of myself that were drawn to perhaps the most typical human impulse: procreation.
I’m still ambivalent about motherhood. Some days, I want to have a family together with my polycule (polyamorous molecule); I want to watch little us-shaped humans confront the world and help them grapple with its mysteries. I want to laugh at their silly faces and comfort them through their pain. Other days, I imagine a totally different life path, one that takes me around the world unencumbered. One that sees me devoting all my free time to my passions in a way that isn’t conducive to parenthood. In these scenarios, I direct my parenting energy toward being an aunt, and I feel no regret.
Here’s what I do know: My decisions will be my own, and I am privileged to be able to make them with little regard for what tradition dictates or what society prefers.