Poly and Pregnancy: A staunch polyamorist makes the case for monogamy (sometimes)

Poly is hard. Polamory and pregnancy is exponentially harder. 6 months into the ashy aftermath of our break-up, I can’t help but wonder sometimes, if it wouldn’t have saved a lot of heartache had my partner and I put external affairs on hiatus while focusing on the very new, very intense relationship we had just started with our newborn daughter.

Things were pretty easy before the baby. Sure, we had occasional spats or jealousies, but overall, we felt pretty confident not only that we had the poly thing down, but were more or less a shining example to friends of the sweetness of constructive non-monogamy. Our thoughts on poly had meandered into alternatives to the traditional nuclear family in an effort to provide a more enriched experience for children as well as parents. We had bought a townhouse, a fixer-upper, with the intention of re-architecting it to this end. It was a lot of work, but we reveled in the mess and excitement and absurdity.

The problems started after I became pregnant, despite it being planned and calculated all the way down to which month we wanted the baby to be born. I was working full-time with an hour commute and was quite unprepared for the fatigue of the first trimester. Each day I would come home, eat like it was my last day on earth, and sometimes fall right asleep on the floor or bed, surrounded by leftover containers. But it was a well-paid gig, and I make significantly more than he does/did, so I felt it was important for me to bring in as much money as possible for the time I’d take off once the baby arrived.

“It is rather the incapacity to love which robs mankind of his possibilities. This world is empty to him alone who does not understand how to direct his libido towards objects, and to render them alive and beautiful for himself, for Beauty does not indeed lie in things, but in the feeling we give to them.” [1]
–Carl Jung

If you consider that all our activites require Qi, or Libido, or Svadisthana, or whatever the hell you want to call that thing that keeps your world in orbit, pregnancy takes a lot of it. When a task of enormity usurps a lot of it, your other endeavors often get put on hold until there’s enough to go around.

So making a baby left little time for my art, fitness, extracurricular activities, dating. At the time we decided to conceive, I took a break from other lovers to ensure paternity. After the pregnancy was confirmed and I considered it safe to frolick, I was so exhausted, I had no time or interest.

The sudden incongruence in our dating didn’t really start to bug me until I noticed that I would ask him for help, or to stop leaving messes in spaces I needed to use, and get ignored, or refused before he launched into some defense of why couldn’t or wouldn’t or shouldn’t be bothered. Things finally hit the roof when he repeatedly refused to reach out to someone I liked but didn’t have excuses to hang around once I decided soccer was too dangerous for my growing belly, shortly followed by some miscommunication that resulted in me not knowing he was having someone over for the night. We’d already had one talk about my desire to move out, and he had responded temporarily by fervently cleaning up after himself. But something about having the great disparity in our sex lives thrown right up in my face reified the inequity in our relationship enough for me to tell him it was over. At the time, in the heat of emotion, I don’t think I knew how right I really was.

“Marrying has been found to bring a net increase in domestic work for women, and a net decrease for men. [2]

Whether or not you’re poly, inequity in the division of labor between husbands and wives is a cliche, most especially in families where both spouses work. I suspect this disparity in sweat equity investment will be fueling the already steady demise of heteronormative marriage until the institution is nearly a relic of the past. As I am writing this, I’ve been “poly” in various forms for over 13 years. I didn’t come across the word until around 2005, but since the very beginning — since losing my virginity and since my first boyfriend shortly thereafter, I knew monogamy just didn’t quite feel right for me.

I think something a lot of poly’s do, at least initially, is try to mash down their feelings of jealousy by labeling them as “insecurity” or “conditioning.” With time and attention to one’s personal growth, the deconstruction of irrational jealousy ultimately dissolves it until it doesn’t form at all. If you’ve opportunity to explore and your needs are getting met, the scorecard doesn’t really matter, and if you’ve cultivated a bit of emotional independence, and you make the effort to maintain your friendships outside of your primary relationship, the prospect of not always being romantically involved isn’t all that terrifying either. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t sometimes reasons to feel concern if a third party actually shows hostility to your relationship, or like you’re giving and not getting back. I’d given up a lot of my needs to embark on the shared decision to make a baby, and not only was he not helping me in any of the comparatively small ways I was asking, he was getting his needs met right in front of me, like a glutton shamelessly feasting before a someone who’s starving. Is it the glutton’s fault for not seeing the hungry person, or is the hungry person not being loud and clear enough?

During the first year of our daughters life arguments over money and space and effort swelled on what was already shaky ground. I’d gone into quite a bit of credit card debt in order to keep nursing when he was unable to keep the bills covered beyond the third month, and when I was discovering that none of my usual agencies were willing to give me offsite work. I can’t help but assign some blame to the US’s lack of social protections and shortage of organizations valuing the contribution of working parents and the next generation enough to accommodate their needs. A culture that only values the bottom-line creates an insecurity that seeps into our sexual relationships in very touchy and unpleasant ways. I think a culture of social support, whether it’s public or private sector, allows men and women to relax a little more over an act that cn and does have very real economic consequences.

We tried therapy and things seemed to get better for a while, but as anyone with kids knows, once the baby is born, things get harder, not easier. Our patterns continued, fueled by mounting resentment and lack of understanding. When our daughter was just over a year and a half and I had finally paid off the debt, with very little help from him (and even that most grudgingly after numerous fights), I decided to move out.

Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” [3]
–Helen Keller

From etymonline.com
fidelity (n.) early 15c., from Middle French fidélité (15c.), from Latin fidelitatem (nominative fidelitas) “faithfulness, adherence,” from fidelis “faithful, true,” from fides “faith” mid-13c., “duty of fulfilling one’s trust,” from Old French feid, foi “faith, belief, trust, confidence, pledge,” from Latin fides “trust, faith, confidence, reliance, credence, belief,” from root of fidere “to trust,” from PIE root *bheidh- (cf. Greek pistis; see bid). For sense evolution, see belief. Theological sense is from late 14c.; religions called faiths since c.1300.

My uncharacteristic discomfort with his personal life prompted me to wonder if there isn’t some subliminal function to monogamy that gets eclipsed by Evolutionary Psychology’s pragmatic explanations involving genetic succession and resources. Is it really as simple as ensuring one’s DNA gets passed on and one’s offspring are provided for? Or is there a promise of one’s libidinal resources in building a home & family together wrapped up in the package? When you submit to each other as sole sexual partners, a certain regulation occurs. If your partner is too tired or busy for sex, or cross with you, you won’t be getting any either and your incentive is to mitigate whatever is blocking their affections. Here lies a misgiving I sometimes have with non-monogamy – I believe some pursue it out of a fear of sacrifice or fear of being alone, rather than sovereign respect for another’s freedom to connect with others. If one lines up enough people, one will never run out of nookie and validation to save one from working through differences.

This is not to say I have been converted to monogamy – perish the thought. I don’t see myself ever committing to monogamy long-term. But this experience got me thinking about monogamy in a more nuanced way. In the same way that I learned to see value in temporary celibacy based on my artistic practice and my yoga practice, I can see value in temporary or periodic monogamy. These are 2 of the vast multitude of mechanisms we employ to temper the sexual impulse in an effort to achieve other ends.

Would a temporary hold on external lovers have saved our relationship? It might have saved some strife while transitioning to being a family, but ultimately, I doubt it — my decision had more to do with him not pulling his weight, and my needs for art, eroticism, travel, and health going unmet than it did with the notches on our bedposts. It also makes me wonder if perpetuating the illusion of monogamy evolved as a symbolic gesture of dedication, which many monogamists seem to turn a blind eye to when the relationship is healthy and fulfilling in other ways.

Is libidinal dedication a survival tactic that natural selection mandated we follow [5], if only from conception to weening of a new life? In the US, we don’t really have anything in the way of economic structures outside of the institution of marriage to support child-bearing and childrearing, especially now that families are often geographically spread out. Many mothers, if dependent on their husbands for financial support, are just one divorce away from bankruptcy. This makes it much harder to not feel a twinge of concern if he’s off courting another. If we were to alter the socioeconomic structures that currently support the task of childbearing and child-rearing such that they remained separate from our romantic relationships, would this necessarily create a context more accommodating to healthy non-monogamy?

1. Jung, Carl G. 1916. Psychology of the Unconscious. Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press

2. Craig, Lyn and Sawrikar, Pooja. 2007. Housework and divorce: the division of domestic labour and relationship breakdown in Australia. Melbourne, Australia: HILDA Survey

3. Keller, Helen. 1937. Helen Keller’s Journal. New York. NY: Doubleday, Doran, Incorporated

4. Hartford, Tim. 2008. Divorce is Good for Women. Washington DC: Slate Magazine

5. Rogers, Deborah S. and Ehrlich, Paul R. 2007. Natural selection and cultural rates of change. Standford, CA: PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), Stanford University’s HighWire Press®

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