Four months ago, Lisa Lo, from Calgary, separated from the father of her two young children, ages two and five, in part because she wanted to open her marriage to relationships with both men and women.
Lo, whose name has been changed to protect her family’s privacy, is polyamorous, and she’s had three relationships since her separation, one of which has ended, and two of which have been complicated by pandemic living arrangements.
Some of these relationships have brought big feelings, but through it all, Lo is mindful of keeping an emotional balance for her kids, who spend most of their time with her. “They pick up on my emotions,” she said. “If I’m happy, they’re happy. If I’m stressed and upset, then they’re stressed and upset.”
But that was all pre-pandemic: “Now, dating has been put on hold,” she told HuffPost Canada. Lo’s priorities are different these days. She is very much focused on the challenges COVID-19 poses to all multi-household families: creating consistent self-isolation protocols, navigating the handing-off of children, communicating in a time of stress, finding legal counsel.
To create a situation that worked for everyone, Lo had to have hard conversations with her ex-husband about whether to integrate any of her existing polyamorous relationships into their isolation cohort.
They settled on Lo living with one somewhat-ex-partner (it’s complicated). They are also still employing a nanny in both households, in part, because this is supportive of Lo’s mental health. The negotiations about child schedules and hand-offs between households have been complex.
Lo has also been challenged by some of her loved ones about having non-immediate family members in her household “pod” during the pandemic. But, she was able to take that in stride.
She said being queer has given her a lot of practice with tough discussions: “I’m used to being outspoken about things that are unconventional. I’m done being in the closet about anything.”
Rachel Farr is an assistant professor of Psychology, and she runs the FAD (Families, Adoption, and Diversity) research lab at the University of Kentucky. She said that for LGBTQ2 families, this pandemic both feeds into existing patterns of resilience and creates new ones.
“Some of the emotional dynamics I think are true for any family trying to negotiate [this pandemic],” she told HuffPost, “but there are added layers of sensitivity and vulnerability for queer families, who also face stigma and various forms of silencing through institutional discrimination or lack of legal protections.”
LGBTQ2 families are used to facing barriers and overcoming challenges. Many have faced reproductive discrimination and economic and legal obstacles over everything from parental rights to child custody. LGBTQ2 parenting researcher Abbie Goldberg said in a UCLA interview, “LGBTQ parents leaving different-sex relationships have historically, and still to this day, faced stigma and discrimination in family courts.”
Yet, the resiliency that comes with learning to navigate complex family situations and invent non-traditional ways of doing things is serving multi-household queer families now, during the pandemic.
Watch: Meet two dads, their four kids and learn how they make it work. Story continues below.
“Some of this is not new to queer families,” Farr told HuffPost. “They have had to do this creatively for decades and generations. And many of them do have different relationships with ex-partners than maybe our cisgender heterosexual friends do.”
This holds true for Kyla McDonald and her blended Winnipeg family, which includes her wife and their four boys, ages six, eight, eight and 10. Pre-pandemic, the kids had a complicated but well-oiled schedule between their three households, and their parents have tried to keep it consistent through this time.
McDonald is a teacher who writes an education blog, and knows how important consistency is for children’s wellbeing, and the households have tried to maintain their schedules for the children’s sake. “We have an illusion of control, [but the kids] don’t even have that illusion right now. So we just need to give them something to feel like they have some grounding,” she said.
While it is relatively easy for a family with only one household to maintain control over everyone’s movements, there are more seams in a two- or three-home family. “The more people involved, the less you can control what happens,” McDonald, whose ex-wife has a girlfriend who has assured the couple she is limiting her exposure, but the degrees of separation make it impossible to be truly certain.
Overall, however, Kyla McDonald said she’s happy with the way the three households have managed to communicate through all this. For McDonald and her wife, having a non-traditional family has freed them to make more conciliatory patterns; she said the three households have had meaningful conversations about homeschooling, routines, and the children’s anxiety levels through all this.
“Queer people are more likely to surround themselves with chosen family.”
“I think how our relationship is balanced in the first place would be less likely in a hetero world,” she said, adding that the families all do important holidays together. “Just the amount of contact we have with all of the households coming together and doing stuff together, I think you’re more likely to find that in a queer community.”
According to Goldberg, early research pointed to lesbians’ ability to remain close with their exes — many people talk about the lesbian “army of ex-lovers,” as author Amy Hoffman put it. While this is often the case, as suggested by McDonald’s family, we now know there’s a huge diversity of experience in same-sex separation and divorce.
One thing that’s come out of more recent studies, Goldberg wrote, is that women in same-sex relationships are typically highly driven to prioritize what is best for the kids.
Lo has found solace in the fact she’s currently living with an ex-partner who helps care for her children when she needs a break, and her ex-husband takes the kids periodically. Mindfulness and non-violent communication strategies help too.
For example, the former couple is co-creating a vision plan for the next three months, sharing positive comments about one another, and expressing gratitude. Lo also has an online parenting community, some members of which are bisexual or polyamorous, like her, so there’s always a virtual shoulder to lean on.
Farr emphasized that queer communities tend to display resilience by “mobilizing various forms of social support.” Queer people are more likely to surround themselves with chosen family, for instance, both because they value community and because so many have experienced rejection from biological families.
While Lo would still like to find a polyamourous relationship and imagines the perfect woman showing up at her doorstep (post-pandemic, of course), she’s realizing that reinventing her life, post-separation, will ― for now ― look different than she thought.
In the meantime, Lo and her ex-husband are working through the tough conversations they’d been avoiding pre-pandemic, about things like child payments and formalizing a schedule with the kids. And they’re finally drafting a separation agreement in mediation. She feels supported and cared for by him, no matter what else happens.
For her part, she is giving her ex-husband the space he needs to process where their relationship has gone and says she deeply listens when he wants to talk about his feelings. She has also been accommodating his requests of when and how much to see the children.
Through all this, Lo has been grateful to have in place a non-traditional support system that allows her family to function well and stay mentally healthy and safe. The combination of an amicable relationship with her ex, a supportive co-housing arrangement, and a queer-friendly parenting group has kept her resilient.
“I’m getting what I need all around me,” she said.
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