Sometimes Stephanie Weisner doesn’t know how two-parent families do it all, without a Mike in tow.
Weisner, 38, has been in a polyamorous relationship with her husband, Ian Hubbard, and her work colleague, Mike Wissink, for eight years. The three adults all live together in one home in Moncton, alongside Weisner and Hubbard’s two children, who are seven and nine years old.
The family keeps a joint e-mail account to sort out their household logistics. While Weisner and Wissink, 49, work shifts at their airline industry jobs, Hubbard, 47, home-schools the children. Wissink often cooks and cleans while Weisner does the groceries. All three pitch in with bedtimes and shuttling the kids to their various activities. This winter, the whole family’s going to Disney World.
“We’re very boring and normal,” said Weisner. “We’re not swinging from chandeliers.”
More Canadians than ever before are pursuing non-monogamy, according to a new book, Polyamorous: Living and Loving More, by Toronto journalist Jenny Yuen. Interviewing scores of poly Canadians, including more than a dozen parents, Yuen examines how those stepping away from the monogamous nuclear family hope to dispel misconceptions and be normalized in their communities. As more polyamorous parents come out, they are challenging society to redefine what makes a family – just as LGBTQ parents did before them, and divorced and single parents did years earlier. Many are calling for stronger legal rights, from guardianship to child support to family health insurance.
“Polyamory is still an unknown – it’s still misunderstood," Yuen said. “We have a long way to go.”
Canadian courts are slowly beginning to recognize polyamorous families. In 2016, a British Columbia judge ruled that a Nanaimo father living with multiple partners deserved equal parenting time with his ex, despite her claim that the man’s poly lifestyle would hurt their son and daughter (the court disagreed). In April, a Newfoundland and Labrador judge recognized three polyamorous, unmarried adults (one woman and two men) as legal parents of the woman’s child, who was born in 2017. “I have no reason to believe that this relationship detracts from the best interests of the child,” Justice Robert Fowler stated in his decision. “Society is continuously changing and family structures are changing along with it.”
In health care, some are also acknowledging polyamorous families. POLYBABES is a new, groundbreaking study from the McMaster Midwifery Research Centre that tracked poly Canadians’ experiences throughout pregnancy and childbirth. Co-investigators Erika Arseneau, Samantha Landry and Liz Darling are working to educate health-care providers about better helping poly families – from allowing more than one partner into the birthing room, to avoiding invasive, judgmental questions.
Polyamory – the practice of having more than one consensual intimate relationship at a time – differs from polygamy, which is illegal in Canada and involves formalized marriage between more than two people. While Statistics Canada does not track polyamorous families, a 2016 American study found that 21 cent of people reported engaging in some form of consensual non-monogamy in their lifetime.
Despite Canada’s recent, progressive legal rulings, poly parents face some of the same stigmas that LGBTQ parents encountered not so long ago. According to researchers who study the polyamorous cohort, perceptions persist that parents with multiple, sometimes temporary partners corrode family values and confuse children with a lack of stability.
A 2017 Canadian study asked 480 respondents who had been in polyamorous unions – a third living full- or part-time in homes with kids – how they think the rest of the country sees them. Most felt that Canadians do not view their relationships as a legitimate form of family, according to study author John-Paul Boyd, former executive director of the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family. More than half said outsiders still mistakenly treat polyamory as a sexual fetish or kink.
“There’s often a perception that polyamory is somehow trivial,” Boyd said. “But this represents what appears to be a growing segment of the population, especially with young people who are rebelling against the presumptions of monogamy and the kind of relationship styles of previous generations.”
Researchers have found that children of poly parents fare no worse than the children of monogamous parents, and in fact enjoy some unique benefits in their enlarged households, according to a 2015 analysis of previous studies compiled by Waterloo, Ont., sexuality educator Jacki Yovanoff, titled What About the Children?! Children in Polyamorous Families: Stigma, Myths, and Realities. (However, Yovanoff notes that some poly parents feel pressure to portray their families and children as “perfect,” anticipating that their detractors would be quick to blame any flaws, however minor, on their unorthodox lifestyle.)
In Weisner’s Moncton home, more hands on deck means the children get more attention. “There are more people to get you juice and more people to chat with,” Weisner said. “If you’re angry at Dad, you can go and find Mom or you can go and find Mike. There’s always someone who’s available.”
Their setup also gives the adults more free time. On Saturday mornings, Wissink, 49, takes one child to drama class while Hubbard, 47, attends a running clinic. When Weisner has a date night with one of the men, the other takes care of the kids. And when the two men, who are best friends, took a guys’ trip to Vegas, Weisner babysat.
Then there is the economic boon: “You can have two incomes and a stay-at-home parent, which is pretty sweet,” Weisner said.
Many poly parents believe that having more adults around helps socialize and build emotional maturity in their kids. Toronto pastry chef Emily Materick, 40, has three-year-old twins and maintains multiple romantic relationships. The children’s stepfather, Adam Riggio, sleeps over four or five days a week; another partner stays over once a week and Materick is also starting up a couple of new relationships. The mother believes that dating different people will yield more diverse perspectives for her kids, down the line.
Initially, Materick’s toddlers were possessive around dates who would come over. “If one of my partners had their arm around me, they’d try and take their arm off from around me,” she said. Eventually, the twins got more comfortable. “For a three year old, it’s not about, ‘Who’s having a relationship here?’ It’s basically, ‘Are you here and are you fun?’” Materick said.
Some poly parents believe they are living proof for their kids that healthy, honest relationship options exist beyond the monogamous status quo.
Kitchener, Ont., consultant Michelle DesRosiers is currently in three relationships. DesRosiers, 40, has chosen not to live with her partners; she shares her home with two sons, 8 and 10, from a previous marriage. “I watch and hear them,” said DesRosiers, who runs a poly parenting network on Facebook. “I go with their pace if they have questions.”
DesRosiers argues that her kids get to see what healthy, amicable breakups look like, versus combative divorces driven by infidelity.
“Pop culture [pushes] the idea that relationships are failures if they end,” DesRosiers said. “In polyamory, there are relationships that are inevitably going to end. Everything has a time frame. For the kids, I get to model how relationships end and what healthy transitions are.”
Polyamorists challenge another relationship myth – the one that tells us one spouse has to do it all: be our lover, best friend, co-parent, emotional confidant and work coach. Whichever way DesRosiers’ kids decide to live their lives, she hopes they’ll learn not to place too heavy a burden on their partners. “Go out and have some solid friendships and be sociable with other people,” she said. “Don’t make one person your everything.”
In Moncton, Weisner and Hubbard had many serious conversations before they opened up their monogamous marriage to Wissink in 2010. Not only was their relationship now shared with a third person, so was their parenting. While the married couple leans toward a child-led philosophy, Wissink comes from a stricter background. All three have adjusted their parenting styles: Wissink has gotten more relaxed around certain rules and expectations while the married couple will sometimes turn to Wissink when “gentle tactics” aren’t working. “We all have pretty equal say,” Weisner said, noting that family votes are easier with a third person serving as tie-breaker.
While Wissink serves as a father figure to the children, the family prefers to use his first name as his title: “The kids introduce us as their mom, their dad and their Mike," Weisner said. The parents have talked to their kids about their open family, sharing their philosophy that love is not a finite resource.
So far, no one has openly ostracized the atypical clan. “We haven’t had anybody be hostile,” Weisner said. “I think we’re very fortunate.”
Judgment, when it has come, has been quieter. The more religious families in their home-schooling community are polite but keep their distance, according to Hubbard, Weisner’s husband. “You can be a topic of conversation,” he said. Although relatives have accepted Wissink, they don’t necessarily discuss this poly dynamic within their own social circles, Hubbard observed. And though most of their own friends are open minded, a few have voiced skepticism about the arrangement over the years. Hubbard said his close-knit family poses an “inconvenient truth" to critics.
What will the trio of adults tell the children should they ever be bullied for their unconventional family?
“If someone misunderstands, they can either try and correct them or just live knowing that how you live is what works for you,” Weisner said. “They know who we are.”
WHAT THE KIDS SAY
Elisabeth Sheff, an educational consultant and author of the 2013 book The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multi-Partner Relationships and Families, paints a vivid picture of how the kids of non-monogamous parents feel about their uncustomary households.
In a 2013 report co-authored by Mark Goldfeder, Sheff conducted in-depth interviews with 22 American children ages 5 to 17, who candidly divulged the perks and the pitfalls.
On the plus side, children said that more adults in the house meant more “ride availability” anytime to anywhere, more Christmas and birthday presents, more homework help and more attention. Some said they felt more connected to their parents than other kids did to their moms and dads, thanks to the openness and honesty in their homes. The children reported minimal social stigma, partly because their poly families could easily pass for blended families with step-parents.
At the same time, teens complained about crowded houses: too many people, too few bathrooms, too little privacy. They spoke of rivalries with their parents’ partners’ kids. Extra adults in the house also meant extra parental supervision: Lies were harder to maintain with so many adults watching. Some teens felt loss when their poly parents split with a partner they’d liked.
Sheff argued that many of these challenges weren’t unique to poly kids: children of divorced parents dating new people or building blended families face similar realities.
“Over all, the children seemed remarkably well adjusted, articulate, intelligent and self-confident,” the authors wrote. “These respondents appeared to be thriving with the abundant resources and adult attention their families provided.”