Ben*, 39, is no longer involved with his child's mother. Yet he has more than enough help raising his daughter — not only from his former partner, but also from the 16 other members of the wellness-focused group home that he runs.
Ben is polyamorous. At one point, he said, two partners were raising his daughter alongside him.
"I feel like she got more love and attention because she was getting it from three people instead of just me," he said in a phone interview.
In recent years, Americans have become more accepting of parental units consisting of two men or two women. But the operative word there is "two," as the concept of parenting as a partnership is still deeply ingrained in our consciousness. For this reason, parents with multiple partners have yet to receive such acceptance.
Polyamory might seem like a new and cutting-edge parenting method, but some poly parents feel their families actually represent a return to the past. As Ben pointed out, it's common in other cultures for people other than parents — such as members of extended families — to help raise children, and multi-generational households have made a resurgence in the United States.
"We're returning back to our roots," he said. "It's great for the child because they get so much exposure to so many different gifts people have that they can share with them."
"It's great for the child because they get so much exposure to so many different gifts."
While research on polyamory is limited, the population of "poly" people is growing, as is the number of children with more than two parents. That shift is altering what parenting means, both to poly people and the rest of us — and it can also serve something of a practical function.
"We wanted to have additional people included in raising the kids," explained Ifah, 38, in a phone interview. Ifah and her husband have a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old and use the site OpenMinded to meet additional partners, who sometimes end up helping with the children.
"It's especially hard when everybody's working, so that way, instead of coming home, making dinner, doing homework, doing the bedtime routine, and everything, it gets divided," she said.
While some people have expressed concern that a polyamorous lifestyle can be detrimental to children, Ifah said that's far from the case. In fact, having partners and cohabitants with kids of their own has given her children built-in friends and helped them see polyamorous households as normal.
"They know we have other relationships," Ifah explained. "Just like if you grow up with two moms or two dads. It's like, 'Yeah, my dad and my other dad.' We don't try to say it like 'This is what's right, this is what's wrong.'"
Tyler, a 30-year-old polyamorous father of three children, agreed.
"[My oldest son] doesn't understand the concept of 'normal' because all of his friends have families that are different in some way," he said in a phone interview. "They might be single parents or they might be gay or lesbian couples or they might be poly or they might be raised by their grandparents. ... All they've ever known is that a family is a group of people who love each other."
Those outside the poly community, however, are not always so accepting of parenting methods that differ from their own. Tyler said his husband often skips work events because his coworkers wouldn't like their co-parent there with them. "My husband has to fear for his job if anybody finds out [that he's poly]," he said.
There are also legal complications associated with polyamorous co-parenting. Kathleen Hunt, a lawyer who counsels polyamorous parents, said in a phone interview that administrators from her clients' children's schools have gotten angry when they've called looking to speak with parents and found there were more than two. "When they find out one of the parents of the child isn't the spouse, they have issues," she said.
The legal complications of polyamory are exacerbated by the fact that most states only allow two legal parents (typically defined as a biological or adoptive parent) per family. (California is the only state with explicit legislation allowing a child to have more than two parents.) Poly parents who are not considered their children's legal guardians can come up against a host of legal issues, such as the ability to visit partners or children in the hospital.
"It's the kind of stuff that, a dozen years ago, when I was new in estate-planning, I heard a lot more from same-sex couples," Hunt said.
Ifah is concerned that, in the case of an emergency — or even if she and her husband simply went out of town — she wouldn't be able to legally entrust their partners with their kids.
Jason, a 42-year-old divorced father who is one of Ifah's partners, has avoided bringing another parent into his household because his ex-wife is uncomfortable with it, and he wouldn't want her to try to deny him custody. "I would be at the mercy of whatever judge we wound up with," he told Mic over email.
While the law may not consider polyamorous parents on par with monogamous ones, poly people themselves find that their families are just as strong, if not stronger, for having more than two caretakers.
"I know there are a lot of [poly] people who kind of shy away from it, either choosing not to have children or putting children off because they're not sure about the logistics and the dynamics," said Tyler. "[But] when kids grow up in it, it's not weird, it's not different, and if anything, it gives them a healthy perspective on how to communicate."
The only non-legal obstacles the poly parents mentioned involve negotiating more than two parenting styles and supporting their children through their parents' breakups. Once, for example, a partner of Ifah's reprimanded her daughter for taking off her shoes in a restaurant. Ifah acted like she supported that decision in the moment to appear consistent, but she really didn't view that behavior as a problem. She eventually broke up with this partner because disciplining her children in ways she didn't agree with had become an ongoing issue.
Because they don't want messy fallouts or co-parents with conflicting parenting styles, Jason, Tyler, Ifah and Ben all said they're very selective about which partners they let into their kids' lives. But they also said breakups don't seem to have harmed their children the way divorce is often said to have surprisingly been a non-issue. Tyler's ex-girlfriend still takes his kids to amusement parks, and he and his oldest child supported each other through the breakup.
As for Jason and Ifah, they've already agreed to remain friends and stay in each other's children's lives if their romance ends. After all, they're more than romantic partners — they're family.
"My kiddo has a cool aunt she can ask questions she would be uncomfortable asking her parents," Jason said. "Who knows? Maybe I can perform something similar for Ifah's kids when they are older as well."
Ifah is hopeful that the future is bright for polyamorous parents. "Maybe we'll still be alive when marriage between more than two individuals will be available," she said. "That would be nice, if you could actually commit emotionally and legally to more than one person. I think that would be a big day for poly people just like it was for gay people."
*Names have been changed to allow people to speak freely on private matters.