Parenting with Two Partners

You know that setting on Facebook for relationship status, “It’s complicated”? Yeah. That’s for me.

I’m not going to go into the details, explain, justify, or tell how it came about. The end result is, now I’m doing equally-shared parenting (to the best of our ability) with two partners at the same time. We’ve considered all sorts of living arrangements, but we’re all devoted to the kids, so what we’ve come to is this: The adults will be adults, and we will live together in one house, and the kids will have stability and not have to go back and forth from one house to another.

Oddly enough, as a house with three adults, three kids, and two cars, one of the most challenging parts of all of this has turned out to be logisitics, but that is only now, after we’ve been doing it for five years. When we started with this arrangement, the most challenging part was clarity around questions of parenting.

Regardless of what challenges may have existed in my relationship with my first partner, we were (and are) always on the same page about the kids. We have similar beliefs about what kids are capable of, how to communicate clearly and without using coercion, manipulation, or hard words (as much as possible). We were entirely committed to co-sleeping, breastfeeding, babywearing, cloth-diapering, child-led weaning… the whole package.

My second partner… less so. It’s not that he opposed any of those things. He helped me fight for a home birth when the odds were vanishingly small (I had one). He supported me in the early (and late) days of breastfeeding. He cheerfully changed and washed load after load of cloth diapers. But he’s a really, really light sleeper. And he’s really, really cranky when he doesn’t get enough sleep. So nighttime parenting became a huge issue, because he was nearly desperate for us to get the kids to go away and leave us alone from about 9 in the evening until 8 the next morning. And as anybody who has ever met a child knows, this was never going to happen. He also had internalized most of our western assumptions about what kids are “like”, what they are doing (manipulating you) and the responsibility of parents (to make their children behave).

So we argued. I never had to fight for my parenting choices before, and it was different. Not to be disagreeing with society, or strangers on the street, or even my parents (who were, by the way, completely on board with all the natural parenting strategies, and had even managed to get their heads around our unconventional family arrangement). But to be fighting with my partner about things like what words we use when talking to the kids was different. It pushed me to be more clear and it forced me to work hard on my own behaviour and language. It was tempting to turn to my first partner as an ally, to simply out-vote the new (younger, less-experienced) parent, but that was clearly not going to work; it made him a second-class parent. He has admitted on a couple of occasions that it was tempting to take on that role, because it reduces his responsibility… and it is a more traditional role for a father, anyway.

This unconventional approach has turned out to be valuable to us as a family, for both pratical and personal reasons. First, there is almost always somebody available to be with the children. Bedtimes are a breeze with this many people to chase, corral, and read to the kids. All of us have time to get out to evening classes, book clubs, and the occasional coffee shop. My new partner turns out to be much better at playing with the kids than the other two of us ever were. We were very functional parents, but if there was “fun” it was always highly structured and usually educational. For just plain running around the yard, it’s great having another adult around. For us, it has worked out well staying together, working out the problems, not having to juggle the schedules and finances of two separate households. We have to keep talking. And talking, and talking. As long as we keep talking, we keep getting more clear about what we are doing, and how we are doing it.

This has pushed me to develop as a human being. If I’m going to argue for a particular parenting practice, I need to know why it matters. I need to know what I believe about the world and the people in it, and I need to make sure that my actions are consistent with those beliefs. It’s hard, but I can’t be kind to my children if I’m not kind to my partners, and if I’m not kind to myself, and if I’m not kind to the other people in the world around me. If I want my children to have full access to their fathers, I must be the kind of person who makes that a priority. As a side effect, I enjoy my children more these days and I’m more confident with them. I even play sometimes.

I am a better parent because I have had to become a better partner. Turns out that this work of living with other people is always “complicated;” this just makes it more obvious.


Today’s author parents three kids with two dads in a large but otherwise completely normal bungalow. She is relieved to report that everybody is now out of diapers and able to spread their own peanut butter, moving her on to new challenges in parenting. Although this post is anonymous, the children cheerfully announce to one and all, “Hi! I’m Annie, and I’ve got two dads!” It leads to some strange conversations at the public library.

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