Polyamorous parents Sue (with baby Fionn), Ryan, Liane and Sean (with baby Parker) may look chic and glam, but that's all stylists and art directors. In real life, they're just a normal— albeit untraditional—family. Photo: Carmen Cheung
It was supposed to be a simple induction. Toronto’s Sue Wilson Munro was a week past her due date with her first child when she headed into the hospital with her husband, Sean Munro, at her side. They broke her water. They loaded her up with labour-inducing Pitocin. Ten long, agonizing hours passed.
Then the baby’s heart rate dropped suddenly.
He had ingested meconium, and that was it: The doctors had to do a C-section. When they pulled out her son, Fionn, he didn’t make a sound. “Why isn’t he crying?” Sue wept, as they bundled him off to the resuscitation room. “Go with him! Go with him!” she wailed at Sean. And so he left.
But Sue wasn’t left alone. Grasping her hand was Liane Daiter, another partner in Sue’s “quadrupod” relationship, who happened to be eight months pregnant herself. “I was a mess,” Sue says. “It was invaluable having Liane there with me.”
“We didn’t have to choose between someone going with the baby or staying with Sue,” adds Sean. “We got to do both.” As they sewed Sue up, Liane never let go of her hand.
Once Sue was wheeled to the recovery room, Liane headed out into the hallway to check in with her husband, Ryan Ram, the fourth member of the relationship. Ninety minutes later, Sean finally returned to Sue’s side, baby Fionn happy and healthy in his arms. The foursome spent the next few hours cradling the newborn, the whole family together at last. Later, Fionn would receive his birth certificate, printed with each of his parents’ names—all four of them.
Liane, Ryan, Sean and Sue are among the growing number of Canadian parents who identify as polyamorous or “poly”—that is, openly and responsibly non-monogamous and receptive to multiple relationships at a time. According to sexuality educator Jacki Yovanoff’s 2015 report on poly parenting studies, called What About the Children?! Children in Polyamorous Families: Stigma, Myths, and Realities, four to five percent of Canadians identify as poly—and half of them are parents.
While this family style may seem odd or even scandalous to some, the available research suggests that being raised by multiple parents or parents with multiple partners can, in fact, enrich the lives of these children. “[They] can benefit from having multiple loving parents who can offer not only more quality time, but a greater range of interests and energy levels to match the child’s own unique and growing personality,” says a 2013 study, Children of Polyamorous Families: A First Empirical Look. And parents benefit, too. For example, the report points out that whereas a single adult or even two adults with little or no time to themselves can burn out, multiple adults can meet children’s endless needs without becoming frustrated or insensitive.
Families with this non-traditional set-up do encounter their own unique challenges and difficulties. But, arguably, poly parents and their kids have some enviable advantages over their monogamous counterparts.
Parenting was once much more of a community effort, with neighbours, elders and extended family all pitching in on child rearing. Now this system has eroded.
“The way we expect parents to raise kids now doesn’t make sense—all the stress is on two people, and there’s no real help. If you look at other societies or at ancient cultures, a village would raise the kids,” says Sheila Migneron. The Montreal mom of two—Alisanne, 3, and Maxime, four months—is married to Richard Migneron; she also has a boyfriend she’s been dating for a few months, while Richard has been seeing a woman named Melanie for a year (she has four kids of her own). “My ideal would be to have a household with many parents and many kids, and everybody just parents everybody’s kids,” Sheila says.
Additional partners aid parents in everything from child care to emotional support—or even being able to have a family in the first place. Liane, Ryan, Sean and Sue all live together in a big, cozy house, filled with books and musical instruments. It’s 9 p.m., and the babies—Fionn, and Sue’s daughter, Parker—have finally gone down for the night. The four parents are seated around the dining room table; Sean fidgets with a houseplant, playfully trailing the tendrils along the arm of Liane, who occasionally rubs Sue’s shoulders. Liane is involved, on and off, with Sean and Sue, and is dating someone, Dave Loewen, on the side. Ryan isn’t seeing anyone else at the moment. But having so many parents under one roof, he says, was what gave him the green light to become a father. “I feel very fortunate that [poly] works so well for us,” says Ryan. “It’s almost impossible to imagine how hard it would be without it.”
Recovering from that emergency C-section was tough for Sue—but having Liane around made it a whole lot easier. Liane delivered Parker one month later. Now, home with the babies every day, amid all the crying and spitting up, they’re able to look at each other and cackle at the absurdity of co-parenting two infants. “If I were dealing with those things by myself, I probably would be crying in the living room, alone,” Liane says.
Toronto’s Jenny Yuen, author of Polyamorous: Living and Loving More, also found her recovery sped along because she had more hands around the house. She gave birth to her daughter, Louise*, four months ago; her husband, Charlie*, is the father. She’s also in a relationship with Adam*, whom she describes as her life partner. “When it came time to give birth, Charlie and I each had a leg: I had the left and he had the right,” remembers Adam. “Later, when they wheeled her and the baby into the recovery room, I just completely went to tears. I wasn’t ready for that. I am already so in love with this little child and so bonded to her, it’s unbelievable,” he says. Adam doesn’t work—he retired early—so he’s been able to chauffeur Jenny around to postpartum appointments, and Jenny heads to Adam’s condo, just up the street, one or two nights a week, alone or with the baby. If Charlie needs a night off to get some sleep, he’ll sometimes bunk at Adam’s. And Charlie usually stays home with the baby on Fridays to give Jenny a night off. Jenny’s parents aren’t that into helping out with the baby, so it’s invaluable for her to have Adam around to lend a hand with childcare in lieu of the usual grandparents.
Mastering logistics is one of the challenges of poly parenting—especially around the holidays. “There are so many issues around going to Christmases and Passovers and Hanukkahs and Easters,” Sean says. “It’s a lot of family to pack into a single week. It’s a lot of family to pack into our house if we have everyone over. All of the families are super accepting—it’s just that there are too many of them!” And poly families can continue to expand, because the “metamours”—the partners of partners—may come with their own broods.
There are also upsides to all these extra family members. Children get more playmates; Sheila’s daughter Alisanne, for example, lives for the days when she gets to visit her father’s girlfriend’s house and play with Melanie’s four children. And parents get more emotional support, says Jon*, who lives with lawyer Jessa* and their two sons, Ty*, 7, and Crispin*, 4. The couple is in a triad relationship with Frankie*, who lives separately.
“If I need support and my partner is not able to provide that, I have another partner to go to,” says Jon. This can, however, also present a challenge; Jon has to offer support to multiple people, too. “The more people you’re invested in, the more support you need to give,” he says. “If everyone happens to have a bad day at the same time, that can be…a lot.” Jon alone, for example, has two additional partners besides Jessa and Frankie, including Bryn* (whom Frankie is also dating) and long-distance love Wendy*. He sketches out a drawing of his “polycule” (his poly set-up), complete with metamours and their partners. It looks like a molecule, each hub a human, connections branching out everywhere. It almost fills the page.
Traditional families, with a couple and their kids, may be the norm, but to poly families, that arrangement feels quite limiting. “The nuclear family can be very isolating,” says Michelle DesRosiers, from Kitchener, Ont. “The children aren’t as exposed to different adults’ personalities.” Michelle is in a relationship with Gord (who has two tweens) but identifies as “solo poly,” a term that usually refers to a polyamorist who may have one or more serious “secondary” partners, but prefers not to have a “primary” partner, and has no interest in a relationship that looks like a traditional couple. DesRosiers is also not into cohabiting with anyone, preferring to live alone with her two sons, Easton, 11, and Aidan, 9. She takes them to polyamorous family events, where they can meet others in the community. While Michelle can’t tell a Cadillac from a Camaro, Gord is a big car guy, like her youngest son: “Whenever he comes over, they talk non-stop about cars,” she says.
Kids can also learn valuable communication and relationship skills from poly parents and their partners, says the What About the Children?! report. “The priority put on openness, honesty and emotional literacy can foster an environment where children develop a tendency for higher emotional intelligence,” reads the report. “Other benefits for children in polyamorous families [include] a higher degree of maturity, self-confidence and self- reliance, as well as great interpersonal skills.”
The report’s author, Jacki Yovanoff, is a mom of two and is Gord’s nesting partner (that is, the person he lives with); she loves that her kids get to see a different relationship style than monogamy. “Our kids have an advantage of not making assumptions about what’s ‘normal’ and having that critical thinking tool built in,” she says. “We say, ‘There isn’t normal and abnormal; there’s just more common and less common.’ So monogamy may be a lot more common in our culture, but I wouldn’t say it’s the ‘normal’ structure.”
With additional partners, however, comes more of everything—including clashes over parenting styles. Sheila’s husband’s girlfriend, Melanie, is much stricter than Sheila. And Ryan and Liane have had to determine how best to parent not only between each other but with another two people, which can take time—and a lot of talking. “We need to negotiate what works for all of us and find a way to merge our beliefs and values, and what we want and what’s important to us, and come to the middle with all the decisions that need to be made,” Ryan says. “There have definitely been challenges to work through in order to reconcile what we all wanted.”
Then there are the breakups. A 2009 study found that one of the most commonly cited disadvantages of poly family life is the kids’ pain in having to say more goodbyes to beloved partners more frequently. Michelle prefers to see this challenge as an opportunity to model good breakup behaviour for her boys and, as is common in the poly community, position the split as more of a transition than a break. “Not only will they learn how you engage in relationships, but they will also see how you approach getting out of relationships or how relationships can change,” she says. The flexibility and fluidity of poly relationships also means it’s common for some exes to actually stick around in another capacity, whether it’s as platonic partners or as friends. Jacki, for example, split with a girlfriend, but still helped out in ferrying her ex’s daughter to doctor’s appointments, and they stayed in touch so the kids wouldn’t have to be apart.
So how are the kids handling all this? According to What About the Children?!, the main concern comes from outside: “Parallels can be drawn to children raised in gay and lesbian families, where the stress comes mainly from negative comments from friends or schoolmates and the stigma many people hold.” Studies also show, however, that kids who experience stigmatization can emerge stronger. None of the children in the families interviewed here have experienced discrimination, despite their parents being “out” as poly, whether partially or fully. Jacki came out a few years into being poly; her daughter once took a newspaper article about Jacki to show her teacher.
Michelle checks in with her sons a lot, frequently asking whether they have any questions. “They’ll be like, ‘No, Mom! We still don’t have any questions!’” she says. “To them, it’s such a non-issue.” Last summer, the boys joined her at Toronto Pride, where they carried the Polyamory Toronto banner.
Jon didn’t like the idea of keeping secrets, so when Frankie started spending the night, Jon and Jessa let the boys know. “We didn’t want our children to feel like they had to keep secrets from the family or be ashamed of anything that happens in our house, and we wanted them to understand that loving relationships can take multiple forms,” Jon says. Ty’s response? “What’s for breakfast?”
Some poly families struggle to get acceptance from their community or even their own relatives. While there’s no active opposition from Ryan, Sue, Liane and Sean’s family members, there isn’t necessarily enthusiastic support from everyone. They’ve found the grandparents have had challenges bonding with their non-biological grandchild to varying degrees and have had to work hard to get everyone to a place of acceptance and tolerance.
Even if the odd grandma isn’t on board just yet, there’s more than enough family to go around. Leaving Jon’s house, you pass under a sign atop the doorway that proclaims “Here Be Dragons.” In the 1700s, this phrase was used to demarcate lands that hadn’t yet been explored, places of potential peril. “We have that sign up to encourage our kids to go and experience adventure,” Jon says. “But they also know they can always come back—that they will always have a home here.” And so their children will set out into the world, emboldened by the love of many, of multitudes.
*Names have been changed
This article was originally published online in June 2019.