In many ways, Catherine Skinner is a typical stay-at-home mom.
The 37-year-old former actress lives with her family on a 30-acre farm in rural Ontario where she spends her days cooking, knitting and caring for three children.
She even has a mommy blog (playboymommy.com) on which she shares her housekeeping tips and photos of herself cooking in a pencil skirt like ones worn by the housewives of Mad Men.
But there is one aspect of Skinner’s life that is far from regular: Her family is polyamorous. The man she calls her husband, Nekky Jamal (37), also has a legal wife, Sarah (41).
For the past five years, since moving in with the family, Skinner has been a full partner and spouse to both of them, as well as an adopted mother to their two biological daughters, aged 8 and 10. A year and a half ago, she gave birth to a son, who is growing up, like his sisters, with two moms and a dad.
“What I tell the kids is that we have a unique and special family,” she says.
“Not everyone will appreciate it, and some people will be fearful of it, but to us if feels like the most natural, normal thing in the world.”
The Jamal-Skinners are part of a small but noteworthy number of families who are making the choice to raise their children in polyamorous partnerships involving three people or more. Call them bopos (bourgeois polyamorous) or polyfidelitous (the more academic term), they are the most conventional members of the “poly” sub-culture, a group that includes everything from orgy-obsessed swingers to S&M enthusiasts.
Like many polyfidelitous families, the Jamal-Skinners lead conventional lives outside of their domestic partnership. Educated, affluent, socially liberal professionals (Nekky is an eco-business consultant and Sarah is a business analyst at York University), they believe in political tolerance, private education and shielding their kids from too much TV. They do not have outside lovers, or go to sex clubs, or wear PVC clothing. As Nekky describes it, “We’re not trying to promote a particular lifestyle. We’re just adults who made a grown-up decision to raise our family a different way.”
There are no hard statistics on the number of poly families, and few polyamorists are as “out” as the Jamal-Skinners. But academic researchers estimate that anywhere from 3 to 5 per cent of the North American population engages in some kind of consensual non-monogamy.
While still uncommon, poly families have at least become more noticeable. Polyamory has been the subject of several new books in recent years. Last summer, American writer Angi Becker Stevens, wrote about life with her daughter and two male partners in a Salon essay titled My Two Husbands. The popular parenting blog Mommyish.com has a regular column penned by an anonymous writer called Polyamorous Mom. On Pinterest boards devoted to poly family life, devotees can post pictures of themselves and their spouses cuddled up in king-sized beds.
To some, polyamory is the final frontier in the battle for sexual tolerance – a fight that started with the rise of feminism and still rages in the debate over gay marriage. And their hope is that, just as society has gradually come to respect the rights of transgendered, gay and bisexual people, so too will it eventually accept the rights of people who choose to live together consensually as spouses.
This is what families like the Jamal-Skinners believe, and it’s why they insist on being completely open about their family life. “Our middle daughter loves to walk up to strangers and say, ‘Guess what? My family is cool – I’ve got two moms and a dad!” Nekky says with a laugh. “And I think that’s great. From the outset we’ve always said, if we’re going to do this, we have to be completely open.”
But while bopo families might abhor being lumped in with the likes of the polygynous religious community of Bountiful, B.C. (in which underage girls are groomed for marriage to older men in a manner that critics argue is not fully consensual), legally speaking they are very much in the same boat. The landmark B.C. court ruling in 2011, which allowed groups of people beyond a couple to live and raise children together in a “conjugal fashion,” effectively decriminalized polyfidelity in Canada – though the court did hold up other aspects of the polygamy law.