Growing Up Poor With Three Parents

How nonmonogamy helped me to escape a life of poverty.


“Polyamory equals privilege.” It’s a sentiment I’m hearing more and more often. As the story goes, the average single working parent with a low-wage job has no time to go out on dinner dates, attend epic debaucherous parties, and engage in various leisure activities with their many lovers.

As Vivienne Chen puts it in her excellent article on the subject:

…someone working on minimum wage unsupported by their family might not have the time or resources to invest in developing multiple relationships — if they had a Google Calendar, it would probably be filled with work or time spent helping family members, not dinner dates. […] Anyone who participates in polyamory MUST recognize that your ability to “be poly” is not a given — you are goddamn lucky to be able to be in a place (physically, socially, financially) where you can love freely.

Lola O. expresses a similar sentiment over on Polytical:

…having the time, energy, and resources for more than one relationship is, without doubt, a privilege. I see a lot of poly people online and offline wax poetic about polyamory being the next stage of human evolution […] all the while ignoring that a working single mother barely has enough time for herself, let alone dating.

This viewpoint seems to be gaining traction, maybe even reaching dominance, as nonmonogamy becomes more visible. It’s buoyed in no small part by media portrayals like Showtime’s intensely Caucasian Polyamory: Married and Dating, a veritable festival of hot tubs, champagne, and $300 yoga pants. Or the fact that, at least online, the poly community is mostly white and highly educated.

Is this how polyamory looks? Pete Hawley, Jantzen Sunclothes advertisement, 1951

It’s easy to see why people might come to think of polyamory, at least in the form they see today, as the purview of “rich, pretty people with too much time on their hands.” However, this viewpoint fails to acknowledge the underprivileged nonmonogamists among us — it serves to alienate the disadvantaged, to discourage them from even trying it. This denies polyamory’s considerable economic, social, and structural benefits to those who need them the most.

I do appreciate the above authors’ insight into this complex issue. Chen even outlines a few ways in which polyamory could theoretically help a family to reject the capitalist narrative of monogamy. I’d like to expand on her point, drawing from my own experiences.

I am a second-generation poly person, who grew up in the eighties. My parents were quite poor when I was born, and I’ve experienced a great deal of class mobility over the course of my life. I’ve witnessed first-hand how economic privilege is not a requirement for nonmonogamy. In fact, the nontraditional nature of my family directly facilitated my own escape from a life of poverty. This is what it was like for me, growing up poor in America with two moms and a dad.

My old house, c/o Google Street View

My biological mother’s family were immigrant farmers who fled postwar Eastern Europe for the Midwest. She had attended some community college, but left school and moved to California in her early twenties. My mom had a dizzying array of entry-level jobs, from veterinary assistant to school bus driver. Some of my earliest memories are of standing with her for hours in the food stamp line in the town Veteran’s Hall, and the giant bricks of mild yellow cheese we’d get from WIC.

My “other” mom, who as a small child I knew simply by her first name, was also a farm girl. Her parents were devout Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their family’s interpretation of the Scripture prohibited them from allowing her to receive an education. When she met my parents around the time I was born, she had a 3-year old daughter from a previous, abusive, marriage, and was working as a minimum-wage retail clerk. She taught me to read in the year before kindergarten.

My father’s mother was a widow, disowned by her family for refusing to abandon a son with an intellectual disability. That same son, my uncle, regularly abused my dad throughout his childhood and adolescence. To escape his home life, my father joined a gang, which kept him out of school, and led him into alcoholism and methamphetamine addiction. He’s also an incredible surrealist painter. I believe that his focus on art, coupled with his relationship with my mother, led him through this long, hard phase of his life. By the time I was born he had recovered from his addictions, but a host of complex medical issues left him disabled, on a meager fixed income from SSI. He played a mean game of pool, though, and would win local bar tournaments each winter so that we could have Christmas presents.

We lived my entire childhood in a tiny shack in the Northern California forest with only a wood stove for heat. Each winter, we’d scavenge deadwood from the mountains and pile it alongside the house under cheap blue tarps. I learned to use a chainsaw when I was 12, and I’m still pretty handy with an axe and maul.

That chainsaw was one of my family’s prized possessions, and I remember clearly when we bought it: $200 was a lot of money, but it represented a savings of a whole hour each day, cutting logs by hand with a bow saw. My dad would regularly tear down the saw’s engine on the living room table to clean it, the whole house smelling like 2-stroke oil and sawdust.

I learned to live cheap by reusing and repairing everything. I’d hold the flashlight while my dad, covered in grease, fixed our decrepit pickup truck. When it was broken anyway we would bike miles down the highway, backpacks full of groceries. At night, my mom would sit and watch TV while darning socks stretched over a burned-out lightbulb.

My parents all slept together in one big bed, on a pair of twin mattresses pushed together. My dad would complain about falling into the space between them, but it was what we could afford.

Things are very different for me now. After many years as a successful software developer, I’m the founder of my own company, and have made my home in the heart of one of the world’s most expensive cities. My friends and I maintain a spacious workshop for building large-scale tech art, and I curate a growing collection of passport stamps.

My life is shared with a wonderful partner, an amazing group of friends and lovers, and a sweet old one-eyed cat. I feel a great deal of respect and love from my community. I live a charmed life.

I’m very lucky: my parents are remarkable people who care deeply for me and did an admirable job of raising me. But, it certainly didn’t hurt that there were three of them.

As a bisexual white man, I’m aware that I play pretty close to the lowest difficulty setting. Still, poor children become poor adults. I wonder, with just two parents, would I be where I am now? There’s no way to know, but my chances would have been much worse.

If privilege can be defined as unearned advantage, then for my family polyamory was not the result of privilege. Rather, it was a source of it. I can see now that my parents’ triad provided them with the resources and mutual support they needed to be so conscientious in raising me and my two siblings. It freed them from many of the difficult decisions a poor, working family often has to make: attend the PTA meeting, or put in some overtime? Actively raise the children, or make enough money to feed them? A three parent household has 50% more time, income, and experience than a two-parent household. That counts for a great deal.

Had my own parents been monogamous, perhaps I’d have learned to read a year or two later, denying me some of the academic advantage I enjoyed for the entirety of my education. Maybe they would not have been able to afford that obsolete computer they bought when I was a kid, or the time to learn and then teach me Atari BASIC, which became the foundation of my career (yes, I’m one of those insufferable geeks who started programming when I was 8). Maybe when our house flooded in 1986, we’d have been left homeless, without the resources to rebuild. These are a few clear examples, but there’s a thousand other tiny things, from breastfeeding to bedtime stories, that confer advantage to the children of parents with spare time and extra cash.

Growing up, I was surrounded by the wreckage of relationships destroyed by infidelity and divorce. Custody battles were a fixture of my young existence, and I witnessed the toll they took on my friends’ lives. This experience is not unique: 57% of impoverished families in America have a single parent. While I’ll be the first to admit that relationships are complicated, I can’t help but wonder how those families might have been different had the parents been skilled in responsible nonmonogamy. If American culture valued a relationship’s ability to change without ending, if we ascribed different meaning to sexual fidelity, could some of those kids have retained a mom or a dad? If we were better at recognizing our own ability to find love, sex, and a co-parent in separate individuals, could those families have been stronger?

The poor are often portrayed in a reductive manner. For example, in this famous photo by Dorothea Lange, Mrs. Thompson’s sons were posed facing away from the camera, because their playful smiles reduced the gravitas of the image. (c/o Wikimedia Commons)

It’s hard to talk about privilege without an image of the underprivileged in mind. However, we have to be careful that our models serve us. It’s easy to claim that a single working parent doesn’t have time or money for dates, or movies, or even a haircut. Anything can be too expensive, or too time consuming.

There is an earnest effort here to acknowledge a group’s humanity by being sympathetic to their struggle. Yet, we cast the poor as cardboard characters. Work, sleep, feed the kids, repeat. It’s just not like that. Poverty is complicated. Discussions of privilege seek to promote understanding, but overly reductive models can be marginalizing. They deepen our class divide.

Poor people are busier, more stressed, and have fewer options. It sucks. Poor people also have friends, communities, and complete, fulfilling lives. They have access to resources. When I was a kid, we would eat dinner together, sit on the front porch and tell stories, go outside in the chilly night air and stare up at the stars. We celebrated birthdays, watched videos, read books, and laughed. Poor people meet, socialize, fall in love, have kids, and grow old.

The common narrative assumes that the underprivileged don’t have the time or money to date, but statistics tell another story. Although class-driven variation exists in rates of extramarital affairs (wealthy women cheat a little more, educated men a little less), the overall rate remains alarmingly high across all income brackets. Sex is a basic drive and people have been prioritizing it since before the discovery of fire. What if, instead of destroying families, we could build sustainable support networks and close-knit communities instead?

There is room in most people’s lives for polyamory. It can even play a significant role in helping to alleviate poverty, but it’s not a magical solution. Not everybody is interested in nonmonogamy. It makes dating easier in some ways and much harder in others. For the poor especially, there are unique challenges brought on by the clash between alternative sexuality and culture, religion, or prevailing community values. In some places, the intersectional oppression that poor poly people face might tip the scales: the community lost could be of greater value than the community gained.

My family certainly had its trials. Cohabitation is hard, and a three-person relationship is a tricky thing to manage. We were also, no doubt, subject to considerable bigotry, especially back in the eighties. As a child I was largely insulated from it. Still, from my perspective it was entirely worth it. When I ask my parents, they have no regrets.

The practice of loving openly is not just a further marker of our growing class divide, or another example of racial disparity in America. By casting polyamory as a bourgeois trifle, we do one another a disservice. Shiny cars and fancy cheese do not forge lasting bonds between co-parents. This thing is different.

As a sexual minority, we stand astride some of the rare common ground that can unite us, similar to the way in which the gay community’s shared struggle in the seventies and eighties was so effective in (temporarily) dismantling racial prejudice. People are working hard to take up that legacy, and to better integrate the poly community as well. I am grateful for efforts like the OpenSF conference’s direct outreach to minority communities, and the Poly & Race features on modernpoly.com (a good roundup can be found here). I’d love to see more efforts like these, but with a focus economic as well as racial diversity.

In the West, we’ve developed the ideology of the patriarchal nuclear family for centuries, slowly distancing ourselves from our extended families and with them the support networks that have sustained the poorest among us for countless generations. The wall we’ve built around the two-parent household is a sad fact of life for many of those in poverty, and I am so grateful that I was spared.

Polyamory is not the solution for everyone, certainly, but it gives those of us who choose it the opportunity to write a new story — we can redefine what it means to be family and build a culture that supports us, richer or poorer, for generations to come.


Thanks to Nadya Lev, Audrey Penven, and Rachel Cassandra for their editing and advice. Title image: original work, CC-BY.

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