What’s your heart telling you to do?
I don’t know.
Maybe, you’re trying too hard to hear it.
– Nicholas Sparks, A Walk to Remember
I’ve written a lot about polyamory, here and in other places, but I’ve been thinking a lot over the past few months about how I’ve written about it. So far, I’ve only written about how great polyamory is – about all the benefits and how it works perfectly for me and my husband. I may have said in passing that it can be hard, talking about the importance of communication etc, but I haven’t ever written about exactly how hard it can be.
It’s a conscious strategy. I still read too much about how polyamory is just about sex or that it’s shameful or something to be hidden, and so I want to shout from the rooftops about how great it is!
But even with the usual ‘for me’ caveats, I fear that there’s something unbelievable about creating a completely positive description of anything, let alone a complex relationship structure. I worry that I’m being evangelical or just creating propaganda that positions ‘monogamy’ as the new ‘vanilla’ – something routine and dull that is looked down upon by those enlightened enough to have experienced supposed higher levels of pleasure. Because that couldn’t be further from the truth. All relationship styles are difficult. All relationships need work and compromise, and it just turns out that hierarchical polyamory is the one that works best for EA and I.
So to create balance, I thought I would write about times when it’s been hard, times when I’ve wobbled. And the biggest one recently has been since becoming a mother.
People often ask me how I’m enjoying motherhood; how I’m finding it, how I’m doing. And the truth is that I love it. I love my baby and my larger family more than I thought was possible. I love her so much that it literally takes my breath away! Every time she does something new or does something cute or just does anything really, my heart swells like it might burst with love. I could lose hours with her sleeping on my shoulder. Every time, I want to hold her close a little longer. I want to feel her warmth in my arms. I want to turn and kiss her cheek. I want to feel her wispy hair on my neck and hear her sleepy snuffly sounds. And while I hold her, I can forget that I’m so tired and that I need to sleep and I can forget everything except her.
I love how strong I feel because we made her, how competent I feel because we’ve kept her alive and she’s thriving, how joyful I feel because I do love it and I do feel such great and happy emotions when I think about her. I really love it.
And I also hate it because the more I become her mother, the less I know who else I am.
No, hate is too strong a word. I don’t hate it; I love it, but I feel lost. Not all the time, not every day, but I definitely feel lost. It’s a division that I’m not used to. I’ve been many different people at the same time – doctor, sex blogger, friend, lover – but this divide cuts through them all and it’s shaken my foundations in ways that I wasn’t expecting. Things that were second nature or easy for me before feel distant; self-esteem, self-image, self-confidence. Self anything really. They all feel like they need work, like I need to work to find myself again. As if I’m not important right now and my self can be forgotten in favour of my need to be a mother.
When I was pregnant, I told myself that I wasn’t going to be a “mother”, I was going to be a parent (which on its own is some internalized misogyny). But society saw me as a mother, and put on me all the baggage that comes with that title. I’m still figuring it out.
— Anne Thériault (@anne_theriault) May 12, 2019
Of course, being a mother makes it pretty difficult to find time to do that work. All my focus and attention is rightfully on our baby, playing with her and entertaining her, and all my energy goes into keeping her happy and alive. I use any spare on keeping our house tidy, on cooking and other essential household admin. It’s been harder to find time for myself, to think selfishly about me.
And because of that, I’ve found polyamory harder too. Yes, I’ve written so much about how great it is and what a perfect fit it is for EA and me, but it has been harder for EA and me and Baby M. I’ve struggled. We’ve had more heart-to-heart discussions than ever before. And I’ve realised that this feeling of being lost within myself has meant that I was also lost in our relationship, holding tight to EA while our extended relationship bruised me. I never doubted that polyamory was right for us long term but I found myself getting unusually upset about things that had never been an issue before and wouldn’t have been a concern in a monogamous relationship.
As I have said many times before, my acceptance of polyamory, and my joy in it, is absolutely and completely rooted in my own self-confidence – I’m not jealous of EA’s other partners because I don’t question my own value to him, but wobbles in my confidence must have implications.
Because the deeper I fall into motherhood, and the more I love and enjoy it, the further apart I feel from the person I was before. Standing among EA’s other partners and feeling secure was effortless before; now at times of particular exhaustion or hormone fuckery, I’ve struggled to see my place, only seeing where I was deficient and doubting my value for the first time. My body is different and unknown to me. I can be so tired that I feel boring and ineloquent, struggling to think beyond the baby. Worse, my priorities are different and at the moment sex is no longer my main drive. It is as I feared; my baby has taken over from everything that used to be important to me.
Now these feelings of deficiency are not uncommon as a new mother and being in a monogamous relationship wouldn’t have protected me from them, but polyamory subtly changed the focus of my fear. I did not and do not fear that EA would fall out of love with me and I’ve never felt like he wasn’t attracted to me anymore or that he didn’t want me. Instead, I feared that I would simply be left behind. That I wasn’t enough anymore. That the balance of our relationship might change and, while EA may still consider me his emotional primary, he might prefer having sex with others or prefer spending time with his other partners instead of me.
I know now that these fears are irrational and they both discredit EA and misrepresent our relationship, but I felt so different that I was able to believe this irrationality. In my new insecure state, I became haunted by exactly those features of polyamory that usually give me strength – the fact that I don’t need to be everything and everyone, the fact that he will be gaining experiences from his other partners that I can’t or don’t want to give him. Instead of seeing this as a bonus, it became a risk. All his sexy new adventures would be with others only rather than as well, and I would stay home with the baby and keep house. As a result, compersion too easily became jealousy, self-confidence became insecurity.
It was tough. It is tough. We’ve had to have talk again about everything. It has forced me to vocalise those minor fears that might not have felt important before but grew to terrifying size during these moments of doubt. But it’s meant that we reaffirmed our love and value for each other. We have reaffirmed that the choices that we’ve made are the right ones.
We are not alone in finding that the first few months with a new baby create strain, and we are not alone in occasionally needing to check in on our relationship to reaffirm our decisions. Nothing stays the same forever – new babies, new partners, new careers, new desires and new wishes will all play their part in shaping our lives and the people with which we share them, and these are likely to repeatedly change over a lifetime. I expect these conversations and check-ins will have to be repeated many times in our lives with each significant change and as Baby M grows. Will we tell her, for example? Should we introduce other partners as anything more than good friends?
But I also chose to write about this because these last few months have really reminded me that self-esteem is an active process; it’s not something you just have, it’s something that you must work to maintain. When I was single, I did that work. I knew I needed to be confident and comfortable in myself in order to achieve what I wanted in my life and I was damned if I was going to rely on getting that validation from a man! My methods were ridiculous – matching underwear for no reason, stockings at work, admiring myself naked, buying treats when I’d done something I was proud of – but they worked. And before the baby, my self-esteem was so buoyed by new love that I forgot how important of these techniques were.
So I’m trying them again. I’m taking that bit of extra time to myself to shave my legs or put on make up. I’ve invested in new moisturisers. I’ve tried to get dressed every day as lounging in my dressing gown had become slatternly rather than indulgent. Such superficial and slight changes but they did make me feel more like who I used to be.
Strangely, feeling better about myself has also made me feel better about the mother/me division. With stronger foundations, I don’t feel so split. I am able to enjoy and relish my time with Baby M, knowing that it will be over and I will be back to work before I know it. I don’t want to wish away this special period of her life and I’m so grateful that these wobbles in my enjoyment of polyamory have exposed where I needed to do the work.
Because Baby M is the best and most exciting thing that has ever happened to our family and, right now at least, that is all that matters. As she gets older and needs me less every minute, my priorities will no doubt swing back to include more sexual adventures but, for now, I’m happy to wait…