We’re off to a wedding. I love weddings. Love ‘em, even though I already know I’ll start crying at the bridal march. Like many weddings, this one will be a heady mixture of joyous celebration spiked with massive logistical angst and the usual smattering of unforeseen hiccups–fodder, no doubt, for anecdotes at family reunions in the years to come. But instead of the plus one invite, my boyfriend was blessed with a plus five invite. That would be me, my other boyfriend, our two children and his girlfriend. We’re a polyamorous family, an intentional family, and that makes things a little more… exponential. Much of our time every year is taken up with extended family matters, because being four adults also means four sets of in-laws.
I have many in-laws and for my part I return the favour with two adoptive parents and two biological. Three out of four of them are several times divorced and remarried, each one brings me half-siblings, step-siblings, cousins, uncles and aunts. None of them apart from the youngest have under two point four children. Then multiply that by my boyfriend’s family, my other boyfriend’s family, and my metamour’s family. So many polyamory self-help books focus on the fact that time is limited when it comes to relationships, but they rarely mention that time is needed not only for multiple relationships, but also multiple in-laws… their issues and their functions.
Polyamory and the Holidays…
For instance, a few Christmases ago I worked overtime. Being a family of four nationalities, there were many different traditions to incorporate and integrate. After the Swedish xmas at lunch on the 24th, Icelandic xmas in the evening the same day, we hosted French/English xmas on the 25th. Instead of the regular seven different Xmas dishes, there were now fourteen. Friends and relatives were welcome, among them vegan, vegetarian, low carb-high-fat dieters and chronically ill who were unable to eat ubiquitous ingredients. Many of the dishes had to have several alternatives. Then there were clashing personalities to contend with. Genial drinkers, teetotallers and mean drunks. Flower power free thinkers tactfully steered away from card-carrying religious folk. No overt expression of more than one romantic relationship here, thank-you-very-much.
At the end of Christmas, I collapsed with exhaustion and was signed off work. Which meant we had to rethink how to plan holidays. Less stress, less complexity, less money. But our next attempt–designed on a shoestring budget–necessitated even more meticulous planning and several painful exclusions, for which some have still not forgiven us.
The holidays also provide the best opportunity to get into arguments. You know what I’m talking about… Polyamorous folk, being on the fringe themselves, tend towards other fringe individuals. Yet few fringe folk comes from exclusively fringe families. I, and most other members of my chosen family comes from a conservative background. So along with politics, religion, money and all the other things you may not care to discuss for fear of clashing with your in-laws, we have another one. Relationship choices.
As a family, we have a 50-50 success rate of acceptance. Two of the four families accept how we live our lives, one is still ignorant of it after several years, whilst my own family knows and strongly disapproves. One aunt has decided that I am married to the father of my children, and addresses me as ‘Mrs’ whilst the my other partner holds no relevance for her. For other relatives, I have simply ceased to be. And although this is a constant source of pain, it ironically makes things easier when Christmas comes around.
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Family by choice, or is it?
It seems incredible now, but I once thought the notion of intentional families was a simple one. Who wouldn’t want a family actively chosen from people whom you love and who love you with their whole heart instead of some of those conflicted fuck-ups we are saddled with by blood and/or marriage? But whilst I still believe in being able to add to your family by choice, I know now that it is by no means simple nor often is it by choice, because the members you choose to be in your family, come with their own families.
Inside the poly-bubble, when it’s just us, our choices are normal. We eat, shit and pray to our individual belief systems like any other family. We may communicate more, but only because we like to–luckily–because we also have to in order to maintain and deepen our relationships. We rarely feel out of place until we are confronted with the conformist beliefs of those closest to our nearest and dearest. Many feel that simply by existing in our poly-configuration that we dishonour or subversively criticise their mono-normative choices. Attending a traditional wedding like this one, might be particularly dicey…
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I’ve met his extended family before. At that time, we fielded the usual subject matter polyamorous folk are practised in answering, from promiscuity and relationship longevity, to intention and well-meaning but intrusive curiosity. Now there are newcomers and we ready ourselves once more in case we have to explain our choices.
Why do we do it to ourselves? One reason is because although ‘baggage’ is a word loaded with negative connotation, extended family often includes truly awesome and loving people. Yes, there’s gold in them there hills. With polyamory, you are more likely to be intimate with a larger group of people, because if there’s one thing about family it’s that they are also people who know you better–often than many others. We expose a different side of ourselves when we are around them. And although there are more people to reject our choices, we have many more people available to love in the first place. For me in particular, since my own family does not accept my choices, my in-laws bless my children with a wonderful loving environment and roots that they would not otherwise have. And for me that’s priceless.
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[Feature Image: Six people stand in the dark. Each of them has used light to trace out one letter in the air. Together the letters spell, FAMILY. Source: Laurel Harvey]