While the Jamal-Skinners insist they are not political, they do feel poly families should be afforded the same rights as their coupled contemporaries. Many poly activists maintain theirs is not a lifestyle choice but a different sexual orientation.
The notion of polyamory as aberrant is relatively new. Elisabeth Sheff, a U.S. academic consultant, points out that for a long time poly families were actually the norm. “Conventionally speaking, one man with many wives – polygamy – is more common across cultures and across time than monogamy,” she said.
But today, the notion of monogamy as the gold-standard of relationships is one embraced by conservatives and liberals alike. To question its moral legitimacy (especially when young children are involved) is deeply unsettling for most people. One obvious challenge of bringing up children in a polyamory family is the thorny issue of social stigma. Tara, a 42-year-old graphic designer and mother of two who spoke on condition of anonymity, told me that when she and her husband of over 20 years decided to take a new male partner into their marriage seven years ago, they were ostracized in their community. “It was great for our family, but not when the surrounding community found out,” she said. “Playdates and invitations to kids birthday parties stopped. People avoided us at the playground. We lost many friends. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever been through.”
Tara and her family eventually moved to one of B.C.’s Gulf Islands where they have found a more socially tolerant community. But she says it’s still difficult: “One woman actually said to me, ‘Why can’t you just have an affair like everyone else?’”
It’s this perceived hypocrisy that frustrates many bopos. They point out that while marital infidelity is an open secret in our society, polyamory is still viewed as aberrant. Or, as Skinner puts it, “Most people are polyamorous to some extent. Unlike us, they just choose to lie about it.”
Once you get past the taboo aspect of polyamory family life, the practical benefits begin to emerge. The Jamal-Skinners, for instance, are double income family with a stay-home parent – an enviable set-up for any family with three young children.
And then there’s the issue of sleeping arrangements. Sarah and Catherine have their own rooms, and Nekky moves between the two at will. According to Catherine, “He doesn’t feel the same need for his own space.”
For this story, I spoke to a stay-at-home mother in Orange County, Calif., who had a full-time non-live-in partner in addition to her husband; to a married mother of two who had for a time lived as part of a “quad;” and to a handful of other married polyamorists. But none were as open or unconcerned about social ostracism as the Jamal-Skinners, and they would not allow the use of their real names.
Perhaps the Jamal-Skinners are simply lucky – they say that after the initial shock wore off, their close friends and family members accepted their relationship. “Our kids are our greatest ambassadors,” says Nekky. “In the early days of our relationship, we were painfully aware of how different we were, but now we often forget. And anyone who has doubts can see how great the kids are, which is the greatest testimony to the fact that our family works.”
Nekky gets a lot of jokes, he admits, about having his cake and eating it too. But as he likes to remind people, “Yes, I’m very blessed to have two wonderful women in my life, but it’s also two relationships to manage.”
And that may be the most challenging aspect of polyamory family life: the potential for emotional drama and jealousy. Kendra Holliday, an office manager in St. Louis, Mo., who also works as a counsellor for couples choosing to transition into the polyamorous lifestyle, says that poly spouses need to be good communicators, especially when children are involved. “Introducing a third or fourth person into your marriage can be incredibly destabilizing if it’s not managed properly,” she said. “Everyone thinks of the sex with poly people, but actually the emotional work is what primarily sets them apart from monogamous couples.”
Indeed, Skinner says she and her partners “would never have survived if it hadn’t been for the help of a good therapist.” But their transition into polyamory, which seemed fairly radical at the time, now feels normal.
“Polyamory doesn’t blend that well into the social fabric yet,” says Nekky, “but if you look at the day-to-day aspect of our life, we’re really not that different at all.”
Editor's note: A previous version of this story stated that actress Tilda Swinton was involved in a polyamorous relationship. At one time, she lived with the father of her children as well as her boyfriend, but it was not polyamorous.