Shared Carework in Polyamorous Families
Families are the most common reference point for people in modern US society. From cooking and doing laundry to taking people to doctor’s appointments to earning enough money to pay for an apartment, families often offer each other the kind of day-to-day support everyone needs. This type of care is especially important for people who are unable to take care of themselves, either because they are children, sick, disabled, old, dying or dealing with the aftermath of someone else’s death. By spreading the work across multiple people, polyamorous families can help each other manage their families’ care needs.
Children need a lot of attention for a long time. While the nature and focus of caregiving changes over time — from feeding infants to caring for toddlers to teaching teens how to drive or manage their own time and money — the need is young people to receive attention and guidance from older people for many years. When just one or two people are giving all the attention and direction, it can quickly become exhausting.
In my Longitudinal Polyamorous Family Study (LPFS: 1996–present), I found that parents with multiple close partners fare better than parents with less support at many different life stages. That’s not to say that the only way to get support is through having multiple romantic partners and metamours (partners of partners), but that the support these families offer each other can be invaluable to polyamorous people to make life easier.
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For example, when there are more adults around, it’s much easier to earn enough money for basic family needs, and maybe even have some extra money. With the incredibly high cost of housing, food and transportation, many families are struggling to support themselves financially. Spreading paid work leaves everyone more time to do something other than multi-job and more attention to children, spouse, and self-care.
Similarly, a family in the LPFS had a baby with severe infant colic, a condition in which gas builds up in the baby’s stomach and makes them extremely uncomfortable. In great pain, the infant cried inconsolably all night, every night, for months.
Since there were three adults in the parent rotation, each adult got two nights of sound sleep before having to deal with the whining infant again. One of the parents remarked to me that they weren’t sure if everyone would have survived the baby’s infancy without being able to distribute the night work. Exhausted parents are less productive, more irritable, and unhappier than well-rested parents, so their ability to get a good night’s sleep two-thirds of the time made a significant difference in the family’s well-being and the care they were able to provide to their older child and to each other.
illness and disability
At some point in our lives, most people become ill or disabled. When that happens, we need help from others in our lives, from bringing the soup to taking it out. People in polyamorous families often have a built-in system of people who can help take care of them, not just their multiple partners, but their metamours and other members of their polycule as well. Dividing up the household chores when someone in the family is ill or disabled can make a huge difference to a comfortable life and is the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to caring for an entire family including ill or disabled members.
Food and housing are vital to a happy life, and both require money. Just as in families with small children in need of care, it is enormously helpful in families with sick or disabled relatives if several people can earn money. Distributing earning capacity across multiple people means the family can stay housed and fed (and use electricity, stay warm or cool, pay medical expenses, use transportation, etc.) even if one member is unable to work for a fee work.
Being sick or disabled can be lonely, both for the person who cannot get out and enjoy the world, and for their significant other who miss their company when they are out. Having more people around to keep them company at home and/or on the go means everyone can have more company and support. This is not only great for people with illnesses or disabilities, but also for people with social disparities. If a person is an introvert and would rather not go to the crowded event, they can stay home and have a quiet time with space to themselves while their other loved ones go out and enjoy the excitement of the noisy crowd.
Aging is likely to bring with it disease and disability, so all of the above benefits can apply to older people as well. In addition, as people age, they are more likely to experience death surrounded by friends, family, and loved ones. A broader social network of supportive people can handle the illnesses, disabilities and deaths that come with aging much more easily. While setting up a polycule isn’t the only way to reach this supportive network, it’s a popular way for people who like having multiple partners.
When biolegal (linked by shared DNA or legal arrangements such as marriage or adoption) family members die, the remaining family members often have to deal with the aftermath of their death. One of the most tedious tasks associated with the death of a loved one is cleaning out their living quarters and disposing of their belongings. This can be particularly difficult for elderly children whose elderly parents have lived in one home for many years and left behind a lifetime’s accumulated possessions. Having help during this difficult time can be incredibly valuable, and it turns out that members of a polycle can be really great at helping each other deal with the aftermath of death.
Kathy Labriola/Rowman & Littlefield
In her book Polyamorous Elders: Aging in Open Relationships, Kathy Labriola reports on the various ways in which polyamorous elders have helped one another through death and the dying process. Labriola shares how this became apparent to her respondents as the COVID pandemic hit and people around the world were dealing with the deaths and dying of their loved ones.
Labriola says: “Many poly elders have been rejected and alienated from their biological families for decades, including in some cases their adult children. As a result, they often don’t have much support from their biological families as they age. However, they often have a lot more support from their partners, metamours, and often their ex-lovers. This ranges from housework and cooking to care and financial support.”
Because the vast majority of caregiving work in US (and many other) societies falls to women, polyamorous families can be particularly beneficial for women with children who themselves have disabilities or family members with disabilities, and women who are old or dying or women with elderly or dying women family members. Distributing the work of caring can result in better mental and physical health for all, and greater happiness for caregivers and those being cared for.