Alternative Family

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Living and Loving More
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It wasn’t a wedding, but a welding.
For years, I thought I was too commitment-phobic to ever walk down an aisle without running the other way. But on that June morning, as several friends on each side helped carry layers of scalloped printed newspaper that comprised my gown – news stories my partner Adam and I had worked on over the years at the Toronto Sun together as reporter and photographer – I took confident steps towards my unorthodox future.
Several feet away, I could see Adam, beaming while standing in his newspaper vest, and my fiancé Charlie seated in the front row, smiling his encouraging smile, and I knew I had made the right choice to openly and unabashedly love two men.
Our story began as a love triangle and ended with a committed V.
Nearly a year ago, even though the three of us would have categorized ourselves as “monogamous,” we started exploring the possibility of polyamory – being in a relationship with more than two people at the same time, with everyone’s knowledge and consent.
I met my two loves of my life – Charlie, literally, and Adam, romantically after years of friendship – a week apart of each other in the summer of 2013. How’s that for fate?
But because we thought monogamy was our only choice, there was a lot of heartbreak for many years, trying to choose between the two. From the get-go, I was always honest to the two of them about how I felt and looking back now, I think that laid down the foundation for open communication, respect and trust needed in any relationship, but especially poly relationships. Without those, problems rise quickly to the surface and things fall apart pretty quickly.
I struggled with the picture I thought what life was supposed to look like. One partner. Monogamy. I was often told, “You can’t have it all.” But living an ordinary life just wasn’t me. And in society, we are told to be brave, love deeply. That seemed to feel right for me.
Ironically, around that time, I discovered a pre-Hays code film, Design for Living, about a woman who ends up in a polyamorous relationship with two men on a train to Paris, who initially made her choose between them.
What changes towards the end of the story is that both men realize they need her; that they all bring something different to the relationship and as a result, it all balances. That having something is better than nothing at all, but it doesn’t come from a place of starvation or fear. Meanwhile, she chooses a safe, ordinary life and discovers how bland it is, married to this old vanilla guy.
As her two loves and she drive off to Paris to live together, not knowing whether it will work or fail, she kisses one and leans over and kisses the other and the screen fades to black.
And then, at the peak of our dark days of being in a love triangle, Adam approached me in the newsroom and laid out an alternative option.
“What if we tried to make this work with Charlie?” he asked. And he meant it.
It wasn’t because we were jumping on a bandwagon of some hipster trend of hot non-monogamy, but stemmed from our unique set of circumstances (I wanted to be a mom and so did Charlie and Adam was in his 60s and already had a 20-year-old son). But even more powerful than primal biological needs was our connection. Both men knew the connection they shared with me and vice-versa was rare and we were not prepared to waste it.
And that analogy was no better expressed that in the lit-up 11:11 barn board sign hanging at the front of the venue, a symbol of mine and Adam’s synchronicity. We would randomly check our phones and see it was 11:11 a.m. or p.m. and send screenshots of it to one another.
Our ceremony began at the time and I walked towards Adam to Sigur Ros’ Staralfur in four-inch red leather patent Valentinos, my mom linking arms with me on the right and my left hand holding a bouquet of mint and red paper flowers and the leash that pulled my Shih-Poo Wampa from scampering off.
During our commitment vows, I often glanced over at Charlie, dressed with a newspaper bow, who was tightly holding on to my mom’s hand and wiping tears away with his other hand.
I could feel our own connection, standing up there.
In December, Charlie moved across an ocean and moved in with me. I think we all had fears about how this all would work, how we would deal with jealousy, envy and all the other irrational, but inherent, feelings that we would be new at navigating in a relationship that included more than two.
A few weeks before the Welding, I could feel the anxiety Charlie felt about the party, even though we would have our legal marriage the following year. He worried it would feel too intense for him the day of or that him and I would lose out on some “first” experiences together.
But it was surprising – I think for many of our guests as well as ourselves – how natural it all felt.
Charlie was very much included, from our vows to our speeches. The three of us held up Welding masks in photos – cause that’s how we roll. Charlie helped with our Chinese tea ceremony and during our first two dances of Ella Fitzgerald’s “The Nearness of You,” and Tame Impala’s “’Cause I’m a Man,” my two guys alternated being on the floor with me and my mom, laughing and having a ball.
We have a term of this in the poly community – “compersion” – feeling joy that your partner is experiencing joy, even though you may not be the direct cause of it. And boy, compersion was filling the place to the roof that day.
There was a moment after the end of the speeches – some people were still watching, but others were milling about – when Adam and Charlie hugged each other in front of everyone. I was in the middle and touched both of their faces and we were all overcome by emotion. Our photographers captured that joyful moment between the three of us embracing that I will never forget. It encompassed everything about the relationship with the three of us without requiring words.
A friend who was skeptical back in the winter when I first brought up the concept of polyamory found he had to explain the three of us to some of his friends. “It’s a feeling,” he told them. “When you see them in person, you can feel how much they care and love each other.
Again, we’re poly by circumstance. But not in a sister-wives kind of way, though there is definitely a huge element of “family” here. It feels right. It’s all based on love and mutual respect and openness. We have all worked hard and gone through our dark days to get to this point.
Charlie puts it in a way that is so simple: “I love you. You love me. Adam loves you. You love him. That’s it.”
We’re mostly “out” to our co-workers, friends and families.
My seemingly traditional Chinese parents have shockingly accepted our future plans – my mom told me to bring them both home for Christmas dinner. I think they like having two “sons.”
My dad, who is in his 80s and has survived a war, seen some shit, and has endured his own romantic heartbreak, told me: “We’re not like our parents’ generation. We’re open-minded. You’re all adults, whatever makes you happy.”
The Welding wasn’t a legal ceremony by any means – there was no pronouncement, no marriage registration or licence. We stayed away from loaded terms such as “husband” and “wife” and had disclosed our relationship to family members and friends months prior. To make sure we stayed away from any legal hot water of violating any anti-polygamy laws, we even got advice from one of Canada’s most profile criminal lawyers, a Toronto family lawyer and a retired Ontario Superior Court Justice. The consensus was as long as it wasn’t registered and wasn’t presented as a wedding, it should be fine.
My cousin told me some of my aunts and uncles were afraid to tell my grandma on my dad’s side about poly, fearing it may cause a heart attack. I think they underestimated her ability to be open-minded – I mean, this was the woman who cut the umbilical cords of six of her children, she’s hardcore. And guess what? She was totally fine with it. She told my cousin she understood the importance of honouring the relationship with Adam, but also legally marrying Charlie, especially if we were going to start a family.
It was very important to do that in front of our family and friends.
In poly terminology, I’m called the “the pivot” in the V-shaped relationship – the one who balances the emotional weight of the two sides. But honestly, Adam and Charlie balance me. And it only works with the three of us.
Adam said with a chuckle: “You’re doing all the things in life chronologically – Welding, honeymoon, baby. Just with two different guys.”
I am lucky and grateful to have two men I love and who love me. Again, it’s the connection – even though they are different – that tie our bond together. And it is the maturity and respect on everyone’s part, no matter their ages, that allow for all this to co-exist and work.
“I just want you to be happy,” both partners have said. “And he makes you happy, so I can accept and support that.”
Charlie offered our apartment to Adam and I to enjoy for an intimate night, pre-Welding-moon to Venice. When we arrived, he had decorated the place with hearts, flowers and candles with a touching and personal note to the two of us. Later on, Adam and I agreed, it felt right to ask him to come “home” after he was done work just so the three of us could spend time together as a family. Again, unexpected compersion.
It took two years, but the triangle opened up to more love than we have ever imagined. The two even call each other “Co” – as in “co-partners.” But things were never forced, they progressed and camaraderie blossomed naturally.
As one of friends have commented, “You make poly look easy.” But trust us, there’s a lot of hard work involved.
And we’re bracing for whatever wild ride lies ahead, hopefully including the introduction of our first-born and having Adam aboard as “Weird Uncle Adam.”
Mine and Charlie’s wedding next year will be much different from the Welding and will be very unique to us, but still include Adam. And that’s a perfect parallel to poly – it’s different and unique, but in no way takes away from the other.
When we finally let go of perceptions of how life and relationships “should be,” it allows us to open up to a different, alternative way of living that works for us – happily.
Even though our dynamic may be closed – that is, we’re a polyfidelitous V, not looking for other partners – the stories of Canadians opening up and loving more is definitely not exclusive to a small population.
The conversation about non-monogamy is something that is no longer kept between the sheets.

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Co-Parenting from the Inside Out

I heaved my suitcase into the back of my rusted Corolla and sank into the driver’s seat. I was parked in the driveway of the suburban Winnipeg house where I had become the mother of two sons, then aged five and eight. On that November night the curbs were edged with dusty snow, the brown lawns sullen and hard. On that night I was leaving my home and my marriage of fifteen years.
I backed onto the street and drove around the curve, crying so hard I couldn’t see. As soon as I was out of sight of the house, I pulled over, sobbing, my head in my arms on the cold steering wheel. My sons, David and Steven, had known for a week that my husband, John, and I were separating, but this was the first tangible step to reshaping our family. I knew their dad would care well for them that night. Still, it had taken every ounce of my resolve to kneel, look into their sad, bewildered faces, and hug them goodbye, saying, “I will see you tomorrow.” Leaving the house was such a significant step, it felt unreal and desperate. After a few bleak minutes, I took a shaky breath, restarted the car, and drove slowly out of the neighbourhood toward my temporary refuge.
The ship that had been my married life had foundered and I was throwing myself into black, cold water. I didn’t know how this next phase would work, just that our family life as it was couldn’t continue.
In the previous year, I had realized that our marriage was frayed to the breaking point. Years of escalating arguments had led John and me to try counselling, but after three months, John stopped going. When I asked, “What is it that’s not working for you?” he answered, “I just don’t think it’s going anywhere.” It felt like I was standing on one side of a twoway mirror with John on the other side. He could see what I was experiencing, but my view of him was opaque, shielded. I felt more and more helpless, trying to peer through the glass. Very lonely.
Finally, one sunny Saturday morning, sitting across from each other in our matching blue wing chairs, we had our first honest talk in years. I comprehended what I hadn’t wanted to see: John’s commitment to our marriage was gone.
As this horrifying realization sank in, I felt like I had been punched in the belly. I spent that day sitting, walking, staring into space, trying to rearrange my world. We carried on for the next few weeks in an atmosphere charged with things unsaid as I gathered my nerve and looked at options. One thing was clear to me: while John would be content to carry on as before, as if nothing had changed, I could not. I peered briefly down that future path and saw myself there — a bitter, weary woman with no joy in living.
I started examining other choices. I knew the boys loved us both and would need time with each of us. For them to be brought up well, they would need parents who were healthy human beings. For me, in addition to lots of time with David and Steven, I would need time to myself each week, real downtime, or I would be a terrible mother — constantly shrewish and irritable. So, co-parenting seemed the least disastrous option. I confess I wasn’t all that concerned about John’s needs, but a part of me registered faintly that it would be good for him to keep connected with the boys.
I knew that John was good with David and Steven, that he loved them. Even through my haze of hurt and anger, I could see he had gifts to offer them, different than mine. I drove them to music lessons, curled up with them nightly to sing lullabies, and made sure they ate vegetables. He took them to his family farm and expected them to do physical labour, carried them on his shoulders, and got them giggling as he wrestled with them. Whatever else happened, John was the boys’ father, and they needed to grow up knowing and taking pride in both of their parents. I never doubted the importance of this in the long term.
Once I actively began to consider leaving, I carried tension throughout my body, wondering if I could make good choices. My throat felt tight, my breathing shallow. I kept rolling my shoulders to try and loosen them. My work colleagues never gave advice, which I appreciated, but they saw me each morning haggard from lousy sleep. Puffy bags under my eyes made me look closer to sixty than forty. In our small office, sympathetic looks told me people knew I was grappling with whether to leave my marriage. For my fortieth birthday, co-workers threw a coffee party, covering my office ceiling with exuberant red and white helium balloons trailing ribbons. I almost cried at the absurdly cheerful sight. A colleague said, “You’ll know what to do when the time comes.” Her confidence helped me keep listening to myself to find my next steps. I needed every ounce of confidence-building that came my way.
John and I tiptoed around each other for weeks, keeping a buffer of politeness between us.
“Will you be able to take Steven to his practice tomorrow night?”
We seemed stuck, unable to go back or forward. I felt increasingly fragile, as if my inner core was dissolving in the endless effort to keep a normal facade.
Finally, one evening, as I was folding laundry in our bedroom, John came in. I suddenly couldn’t do this any longer. I blurted, “If we separated, would you consider co-parenting?” I was scared to ask the question, as if naming the possibility of separating might make it more real. John didn’t look at me.
After a few long seconds, his answer came: “Okay.”
It was a huge relief to me. There was a viable, if terrifying, way forward. No one I knew was co-parenting. Considering it felt odd, as if I were peering into strange new territory. I talked over the possibility with friends, but no one had done anything like it. I looked in bookstores, but at that time there was little on the shelves.
Co-parenting never felt like a good choice. I had wanted so much to keep the family together that anything else was a sad and scary unknown, something that didn’t fit the dream of family. However, the dream was gone. Shared parenting offered the fewest bad outcomes.
When I asked myself if co-parenting would work, I started by assessing our resources. First, I felt fairly confident that I could earn a living if we split. It wouldn’t be fancy, but we could survive. I also believed that John could stay solvent, so we each could provide some financial base. This was critical. Another factor was family support. My parents and siblings lived three thousand kilometres away in British Columbia. I wasn’t willing to uproot myself and the boys, or ask them to choose between their dad and me, in order to move closer to my family. Therefore, their dad’s relatives, right in Winnipeg, were an important resource. I felt genuine affection for his family and believed they would provide social support for both the boys and their dad.
Next, I needed to look at where I would live with the boys, and where their dad might live with them. I couldn’t imagine staying in our house, with its echoes of heartache. I thought we should sell the house we jointly owned, both move to a nearby, less expensive neighbourhood, and find homes within walking distance of each other. John, on the other hand, first expected that I would stay in our house. When I said absolutely not, John announced he would stay there. He didn’t want to introduce any more change into the boys’ lives than they were already facing.
This turned out to be an excellent decision because it gave the boys social stability. I am grateful now that John insisted on staying in the house and that I didn’t oppose him further. I can see how pain dominated my thinking, limiting my readiness to consider all options carefully.
What would it be like to see the boys only part of the week and have them move back and forth? I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like for any of us. I supposed we would all survive, but beyond that it was uncharted territory.

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Thicker than Blood

Thicker than Blood

Adoptive Parenting in the Modern World
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Fraught Intimacies

Fraught Intimacies

Non/Monogamy in the Public Sphere
also available: eBook Hardcover
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