The Law Recognizes Polyamorous Parents, So Why Can’t The Media?

Unsplash
A historic custody ruling out of New York is cause for celebration in the polyamorous community. The media coverage, however, is not.

The triad of Audria Garcia and Dawn and Michael Marano of Long Island, New York came to be rather naturally. They were neighbors who became friends and then a romantic spark grew into an equal romantic partnership among the three adults. When Dawn and Michael, legally married since 1994, were unable to conceive, the throuple decided Audria and Michael would be the biological parents of a child the trio would raise together.

As happens from time to time, the romantic relationships shifted, leaving Michael as the odd man out. When Audria and Dawn became a couple, Michael sued for custody of the son conceived with Audria, and Dawn sued for divorce. The joint custody agreement between the biological parents left Dawn without legal rights to a child she has raised for a decade. She then filed a suit of her own “to secure custody rights for [the boy] because she fears that without court-ordered visitation and shared custody, her ability to remain in [the boy’s] life would be solely dependent upon obtaining the consent of either Audria or [Michael],” Suffolk County Supreme Court Judge H. Patrick Leis III explained in his ruling.

Leis took the child’s experience and words into account, concluding that he identifies the “two women as his mother [sic]” while crediting each of the adults with providing “a loving environment.” In a rather standard arrangement, Audria — and therefore Dawn, as well — was granted residential custody with Michael having Wednesdays, weekends, and three weeks of vacation time throughout the year.

Never before has a polyamorous family been recognized by law. Custody precedent has expanded in very recent years to include same-sex couples where only one of the two are biological parents, but non-traditional families with more than two people are regularly discriminated against or simply have no legal recourse when it comes to parenting rights.

Despite the judge’s occasional awkwardness due to a lack of familiarity with polyamory terms and dynamics, he was able to recognize this as a custody case with the typical motivations. There was simply one more parent to consider.

As a solo polyamorous woman who spent almost a year dating a 30-year-old man in an open, hetero marriage, I’ve thought a lot about co-parenting. Both my ex and his wife want kids; as they started talking about timing last year, he and I discussed my potential role in their theoretical child’s life frequently. While I do not want to be a full time parent and had described myself as childfree by choice for several years, the prospect of being an integral (if part-time) co-parent was extremely appealing. It still is, under the right circumstances. (It turns out that I love babies.)

But tempering my excitement was the knowledge that my relationship with their child would be tenuous legally. How invested could I let myself get, knowing a breakup could mean losing access to a child I taught to walk or read to at night? Beyond legal considerations, our culture isn’t sure what to do with those of us in relationships that incorporate more than two people. Would I lose out on important moments in that child’s life because its parents had to be careful who knew about me?

Even though I’m not with that partner anymore, I got very used to the idea of helping raise children as part of a polyamorous relationship. And I’m dating someone new who doesn’t have kids on their immediate to-do list, but he and his wife have talked about it. I find it hard not to continue occasionally daydreaming about the possibility that I’ll eventually be involved with someone who wants to include me in their children’s lives.

It’s with those daydreams in the background that I read coverage of Audria, Dawn, and Michael last week. You can imagine how it felt to discover that even progressive outlets like Slate and New York Magazine’s The Cut had referred back to an article at the New York Post with the unfortunate headline: “Historic ruling grants ‘tri-custody’ to trio who had threesome.”

Cue all the head-desk gifs.

“Threesome” has a particular connotation in our culture, and words matter — especially in coverage like this where so many readers will be “learning” about polyamory and its related custody issues for the first time. I haven’t been able to find any coverage anywhere with polyamorous people interviewed; instead, mono-normative writers weigh in with their own editorializing.

‘Threesome’ has a particular connotation in our culture, and words matter.

For example, from Complex: “While the typical threesome is usually a standalone product of a drunken night, some have the potential to develop into something far more serious.”

That’s not how my typical threesome happens, nor is it how threesomes (or other group play situations) typically happen for any of the other polyamorous people or members of the swing and kink communities that I know. I am intentional about dating and sex, as are most non-monogamous folx.

Several outlets — Jezebel, The Daily Mail, and Cosmopolitan, specifically— have emphasized the judge’s well-intentioned but stigma-perpetuating commentary from the ruling, where he declared that the child’s “best interests cry out for an assurance that he will be allowed a continued relationship with [the] plaintiff. No one told these three people to create this unique relationship. Nor did anyone tell [the] defendant to conceive a child with his wife’s best friend or to raise that child knowing two women as his mother.”

I understand that he was scolding the father, who plans to appeal, for essentially pouting because his divorce means less time with his son. After all, as many as half of American marriages end in divorce; the addition of an “extra” person to the relationship hardly makes divorce necessarily more likely. No one in our culture could reasonably claim that at the time they became a parent they thought they were guaranteed an unchanging family structure.

However. Reporting on this case would have been a good time to paraphrase or interview someone from the nonmonogamous community to push back on the language and assumptions prevalent in the ruling. To their credit, the New York Post did a fairly straightforward reporting job on the case after their inaccurate headline and stigmatizing opening paragraph, including more details about the relationships between the child and all three parents.

Googling “polyamory” and “nonmonogamy” will send you straight to MoreThanTwo.com and its extremely comprehensive glossary of terms, as well as sites like OpenMinded.com where various nonmonogamous types can connect with each other. The community isn’t hidden, so covering this custody case with comment from those in the community in question would have required minimal additional effort from writers. Better yet, outlets could have commissioned coverage from one of the numerous nonmonogamous writers or sex educator folx who have made it their job to comment on related topics.

Despite the expected, yet disappointing coverage, I’m definitely celebrating this ruling — much the way I celebrated the polyamory portrayal on House of Cards a year ago. It’s long past time that consenting adults have the right to build their families any way they see fit and, like it or not, pop culture and mainstream media depictions are an integral part of normalizing non-normative ways of life.

Also, I remain a happiness evangelist. I continue to hope that as more people see alternatives to traditional marriage and monogamy, not only will those inclined toward non-monogamy be better able to find community and acceptance, but the monogamously-inclined will be able to choose that life with intention. After all, building a life with someone requires dedication, hard work, a seemingly endless capacity for forgiveness, and sacrifice — no matter your relationship style.