The rise of polyamorous parenting: Why 'throuple' families are coming out

Ian Jenkins, Alan Mayfield and Jeremy Hodges are three men in love, in a committed, long-term "throuple." They are also fathers of two, through surrogacy, and are the trio behind a much-heralded legal fight in California, which won all three men the right to be listed on the birth certificate of their first baby, Piper, who is now 3. Now their landmark court victory and parenting journey, which includes the addition of Parker, 1, is the subject of a new memoir by Jenkins, Three Dads and a Baby, out this month.

"We all wanted to parent," Jenkins tells Yahoo Life, "but we had a lot of hurdles to go through."

Ian Jenkins, Jeremy and Alan. (Photo: Sweet Me Photography)
Ian, Alan and Jeremy with baby Piper. (Photo: Sweet Me Photography)

And while their story is certainly unique, it seems to be part of a growing trend: Throuples not only becoming parents together but proudly sharing their lives with the world. It's due in part, of course, to social media, but also what appears to be a cultural shift: In addition to the birth certificate victory in California, the city of Somerville, Mass., recently extended domestic partner benefits to include polyamorous groups of three or more. Seeming baby steps are huge to those affected.

"I think there are literally more people doing it and more people aware of it," says Elisabeth Sheff, a sociologist who has studied poly families for 25 years and written three books on the topic, noting that, until quite recently, "it has not been in the mainstream." When she first started studying such families, she tells Yahoo Life, "I would hear from people who accidentally fell in love as a group, and they would often think they had invented it … and now I am not hearing that from people anymore — they are hearing it online and seeing it on TV shows, plus there's also a ton more academic research. Both have boomed in the past 10 years."

It feels like poly families having a moment, with many sharing their lives through social media, through blogs, by speaking to the press or, in Jenkins’s case, through memoir (and Instagram). He tells Yahoo Life that, as discussed in his book, opening his relationship was hard at first, but then it just made sense.

"It's been kind of a long process for me, never having been exposed to this in my life, but instead reaching my own conclusion that most people do not mate for life. … I don't think it's human nature for people to be in a marriage and have no feelings for anyone else,” explains Jenkins, a general hospital physician in San Diego who was with Mayfield, a psychiatrist, for a decade before the two of them made a connection with Hodges, who works in animal medicine at the San Diego Zoo.

As for friends and family, the biggest hurdle was for Alan's parents, who are Catholic, and Jeremy's religious conservative parents. "It was a much bigger accommodation, especially for his mother," Jenkins says, “but … she did the work to get to know us and is now a fantastic grandparent."

Committed polyamory, notes Philadelphia-based therapist Carol Morotti-Meeker, who has expertise in poly relationships and families, can be done in "an infinite number of ways," including with all gender combos and more than three adults.

Despite the biases that most poly families may find themselves up against, Sheff says that "the most important finding' of her long-term research has been that such units do not have any specific disadvantages as compared to other outside-the-norm families. "So, for example, they experience stigma much like gay and lesbian families do," she says, "and like interracial families did [largely] in past, and how divorced families used to be highly stigmatized."

The Simbala Family (Photo: Barbara O Photography)
The "Triad Family" is, from left, Raquel, Luis, Lukas and Katie. (Photo: Barbara O Photography)

Basically, she adds, "If your family is different from the mainstream, then you're going to catch some sh*t for it. So, poly folks are one of the targets now."

But now many of these families are taking control of their narratives, aiming for a sort of revolution when it comes to how others understand non-monogamy.

The power of being out — especially as parents

Entering into a committed threesome was a big enough leap for Jenkins and his partners — but becoming parents together might have been an even bigger one. He says they wouldn’t have done it if they’d been living in an unwelcoming environment. "But we had been out as a throuple for some time with all our friends and colleagues," he explains, noting that "coming out was pretty easy — we didn't have any negative reactions from any of our friends or coworkers." As far as the decision to bring kids into the mix, "we thought, 'What if they get teased at school?' But that's also true for two gay men, mixed-race couples. … We felt the benefits outweighed the risks."

Still, despite his family's relatively easy time, Jenkins was compelled to share their story through his book and subsequent media coverage, knowing that not everyone is as understanding or privileged. "I know the situation would be vastly different for people around the U.S. and around the world," he acknowledges. "You have to follow the model, or you get in trouble."

That can especially be the case in less wealthy, more religious or non-white communities — so when poly parents of such demographics come forward with their stories, as they have in recent years, it’s powerful.

"When I started [studying poly families] in 1996, the community was smaller and less diverse, and those who felt safe coming forward were mostly white, highly educated professionals," Sheff explains. "But the community has grown far more diverse in the past 25 years."

Parents, in front from left, Piddu, Sunny and Speetie, with their four kids. (Photo: Instagram/polylove_triad)
Parents, in front from left, Piddu, Sunny and Speetie, with their four kids. (Photo: Instagram/polylove_triad)

Sunny, Speetie and Piddu — a throuple living in Indianapolis with their four kids, who recently shared their story with the Daily Mail — certainly fit the more modern profile. All three are from traditional Indian families and emigrated to the U.S. — most recently Piddu, 31, who entered into an arranged marriage in her home country and moved to California with her husband; when the marriage crumbled, Speetie and her husband, Sunny, invited her to come and stay with them and their two children in Indiana. The three of them wound up falling in love, turning what was to be a one-week stay into what's so far been a decade-long relationship.

"From the beginning, we just loved each other … the support and the care and the love I received, it was beautiful. It was a comfort," Piddu tells Yahoo Life. Adds Speetie, "[Sunny and I] had talked about [opening our marriage] every now and then, but not as a permanent thing. But it just clicked so well, so we just kept saying 'yes' to everything that came our way … and in the next two months, we were like, ‘If we were going to live this way for a few months, we can live this way forever." The children took to Piddu, too.

"What both of us remember was like, 'Who is this stranger?' But we got used to her very quickly," Cookie, 16, tells Yahoo Life, briefly joining her parents' Zoom interview along with her 15-year-old sister Kissie (their other siblings are 10 and 4). They were homeschooled until fourth grade, but once the girls went to school and fellow students were curious about their family makeup, she says, "I made a diagram with a triangle — an even arrangement all around — and I use it as bragging rights." They once had a friend whose mother wouldn’t allow her to go to their house, but most friends are accepting, Cookie says, "and if their parents have questions, they just ask them."

Sunny notes, "It hasn't been strangers with the issues, but more friends… some literally drew lines in the sand. We were like, 'OK, that’s your choice.'" That’s been the toughest part for the family, along with the rejection from the adults' parents, in varying degrees.

"My family told me I’m a fool — 'What if she takes everything away? What if she steals him?' I was like, 'What if they are right?' There were no books, this was 10 years ago," Speetie recalls. "My insecurities were being flared up with all these outside voices. But in this house, we were so comfortable together."

As of last year, they've been sharing that love and comfort with the world through Instagram, partially inspired by quarantine downtime (the family owns a hookah bar that had temporarily closed). "We’re all a little lonely, that's the human condition," says Sunny, "but that connection and that wonderful feeling you can get through a relationship as, say, a couple? It’s even better with more people [with which] to let your guard down. It's so nice, so freeing."

Another poly family who had to fight extra hard against community judgment is the Simbalas, of Baltimore, Md., a trio of Latino heritage that calls itself the Triad Fam on social media and a blog.

"I think we just lived in hiding for a good amount of time," says Raquel, who joined Katie and Luis, a hospital systems administrator, seven years into their marriage when all three met and fell head over heels; Katie soon became pregnant with their now-5-year-old son, Lukas, and now they parent him together.

Adds Katie, who was a worship pastor at her lifelong and very strict Pentecostal church, "I was a person of influence in the church, and I just felt it was something that felt inauthentic — to be light in the world yet hiding this huge part of myself. So, for me, it was really important to not mask, because I come from a family where that’s all they really did. … I wanted to break that for myself and my family, my son."

So, in 2019 — after coming out to their own families to mixed reviews (Raquel is currently estranged from her parents) — Raquel says, "We decided to just say f*** it," and go fully public, including with the church where, unfortunately, they were met with "majority rejection." Raquel, meanwhile, a high school Spanish teacher, spoke to her principal to warn her about their blog and Instagram, and she was "really supportive" — as many students have been, telling her, "I love your family." Their Baltimore neighborhood is "progressive," says Raquel, which has “been such a blessing," and Luis’s mother, before she died, fully embraced the triad.

As for Lukas, "He knows he has two moms and a dad, we tell him there's different family structures … that all families look different," says Raquel, with Katie adding, "I don't think he knows it’s not normal yet. … But we are a happy family and it's not bullsh*t … and he's a happy, beautiful kid."

If Sheff's research holds, he'll stay that way: Although admittedly biased, focusing on white, educated families with healthy incomes, she's found consistently good news. "The kids report to me that they come out of these families, they look at their peers, and they feel like they’re a lot more functional in the world … after growing up in a family that was very high-skilled in communication, negotiation, honesty, truth — tools for emotional resilience," she says.

Dynamics of poly parenting

Couples who find it hard to agree on parenting decisions might shudder to think of the arguments that could spring from three or more caretakers in the picture. But Morotti-Meeker says the dynamics of poly parenting work largely the same way as with two-parent households.

"You've got to be all on the same page, otherwise the child will be confused and conflicted in loyalty — and that can happen in two-parent families," she says. "That’s nothing new."

Add Sheff, "That third perspective can either be incredibly useful or incredibly divisive."

Jenkins says that parenting decisions regarding their two little ones have generally gone smoothly and that having the freedom to shift responsibilities around has helped. "I recently kept [both kids], and my two partners went away to our cabin. … I feel like it’s important for us to rotate experiences, like, ‘Hey, why don’t you two go to dinner?’"

The other families who spoke with Yahoo Life recalled only minor disagreements, with Sunny noting the biggest rift has been over whether or not to let the kids eat sugared cereal. For the Simbalas, it's been over Lukas's desire to paint his fingernails.

More generally, Sunny says, the tension about parenting comes in around his being too lenient, or Piddu feeling that she's "stepping over." But, he notes, "It's never been a struggle. We just have to communicate." Adds Speetie, "We lost so much, family and friends, and you spend your lifetime on those relationships. So, we want only honesty and authenticity in our relationship. It's seven of us, and our main rule is, no matter what happens, we stick together as a family."

…and advantages, especially in a pandemic

"I think the pandemic has really demonstrated how painful isolation is … and how hard it is to work and parent, much less have time to sleep and exercise and clean the bathroom," Sheff notes. She says that balanced against the disadvantage of being stigmatized, the advantages of poly parenting are "similar to wealthy or high-functioning families, in that they have a lot of resources."

That pooling of resources, she says, "ends up having significant and positive effects not only on the children but the adults — they get more sleep, they can exercise, they can work uninterrupted, they have more free time, kids get more of their needs met and get a wider range of role models." Parents of infants, in particular, she says, "if you’ve got four, five adults in the household, then you get four solid nights of sleep. That’s a recipe for sanity."

As Raquel explains, "We can tackle our home in a much more efficient way — Katie will cook, Luis will clean, I will start bedtime with Lukas. I think he is able to get something different and special from each of us."

And then there's the advantage of a family not breaking up but growing larger if a parent falls in love with another person, Sheff points out. "The idea of marrying once, for 70 years? A lot of people don’t want to do that. So, this gives room."

By speaking out about their lives, poly families are hoping to familiarize others with a different way of living. As Jenkins says, he wrote his memoir to show the world that "love makes a family, and if you see a family that doesn't look like yours, it doesn’t mean they’re not taking the best possible care of their kids."

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