Talking With Kids About Open RelationshipsMargaret Jacobsen Walks Us Through Being Honest and Open

Margaret Jacobsen writes beautifully on a bunch of different difficult topics. For example, last December, Margaret, who is Black and lives in Portland, Oregon, did an experiment where she kept track of all the racist things people said to her over the course of two weeks. And instead of working to be nice and polite in response, she’d tell them exactly what she thought. When a white woman stopped her in a coffee shop, for example, and reached out to touch her hair without asking, Margaret reached right back and ran her hand through the stranger’s hair, commenting that it was rather stringy. 

A lot of what Margaret writes about is being a parent. On the website Romper and on her own Instagram, she posts photos of her kids and writes honest, vulnerable stories about raising her two children. She also writes about being in an open relationship, her divorce last year, having a miscarriage, and is generally an amazing role model for talking about those things most people fear to discuss.

SARAH MIRK: So can you tell us a little bit about what your family looks like? Who’s in your family?

MARGARET JACOBSEN: OK, so I was married legally up until May with my ex-husband, and we have two kids together. We live seven minutes apart in the same town. The kids go back and forth, just split time between us each week. And then I have a partner, and my ex-husband also has a partner, and I have another partner outside of the home. So usually at my house, there’s the four of us:  so me, my partner Noah, and the kids. And then, I have my partner, Pace, who lives in the city but will come and eat meals with us and go places with us and do things like that. So that’s what it looks like. That’s who I would say is in our family, in our immediate circle.

That sounds really sweet.

It is kind of sweet.

I just imagine this dinner table with a cornucopia on it.

[laughs]

And everybody eating delightfully together.

I mean, it’s more just like toys that have been pushed aside on the table so we can eat dinner. But OK!

It’s probably more like bowls of Cheerios, and something’s on fire.

Yeah, everywhere. Always, always. It’s always crazy.

[Chuckles] Well, there’s a million things I could talk to you about, but I wanna focus on talking to your kids about relationships and non-monogamy. So let’s go back in time to your first marriage, and you and your husband had an open relationship. One issue with talking about open relationships is when you say “non-monogamy,” people instantly think swingers, orgies, sex all the time!

Yes, yes, yeah.

Can you describe what open relationship means to you?

[Laughs] It is not sex all the time! It’s a lot of conversations over and over and over. When we opened up, my husband and I, it came after I had had an affair. And so I would say we weren’t the most educated on it. I had done some reading, and I realized oh, me wanting relationships outside of my husband isn’t actually bad. And that was from me Googling, cuz I was like, I have these feelings; I feel like I could like other people outside of my husband. I grew up Christian, so it’s like monogamy is the only way. We talked about it, and my ex-husband was very, “Ugh. I don’t wanna do it.” And I was like, “No, let’s try it!” because everything I was reading in books and on the internet, I just felt like it made sense for me and who I was. I would say I kinda pushed my ex-husband to do it, even though I don’t think that’s who he was. And it was a lot harder than I thought it was gonna be. I thought that it would just be really easy to find people to date that were fine with me being married, but then people associate it with cheating. And I feel like people were almost more willing if it was actual cheating than the being honest. That is a thing I ran into:  People were like, “Wait. So your husband is OK with this?” I’m like, “Yes! It is a conversation we had. We can go on this date, and we can make out.” Hence why there was not all of the sex, and there isn’t all of the sex or orgies, for that matter. But I learned a lot in that process because I had to unlearn a lot of rules that I had given to relationships about I can’t tell my partner that I find this person attractive because that is the same as cheating. Because that’s what I learned in church: If you check someone out, that is just as bad as having sex with them.

So I had to unlearn the process that would go on in my head where I would be like, “Oh, I don’t need to tell my husband about these things I did,” even though that was part of it, and that was a really big part of non-monogamy is being open and having the conversation and being that honest. We did finally reach a point where we could be so honest with each other. I was like, “Oh my gosh! This is Nirvana for relationships. How brilliant. We can just talk about all of it. I can tell you that I found this person to be really hot, and these are the qualities I like about them.” And you can tell me. Sure, we encountered the jealousy, but I was like, this is so cool.

It’s so interesting that you mention that other people outside the relationship were potentially more hostile to the idea of an open relationship to the idea of cheating.

Yes, mmhmm.

I think that’s because when you’re raised thinking about monogamy as the norm, cheating makes sense in that context, like oh, people lie; people do that. But the idea that there’s a completely different way of going about your life is pretty radical and makes people really stop and be like, “I don’t understand.”

I was just talking to my ex-husband about this, and I was like, “I don’t know why people act so surprised when I tell them these things.” He’s like, “Because,” like you were saying, “it’s not the norm.” But it’s become my normal life, and I mean I figured out as much as I can figure out, and I’m gonna keep figuring out how it works. But I do remember also thinking that’s ridiculous. Because there’s always the first thing that people go to is jealousy, like how do you deal with jealousy. And that’s actually my favorite question that people ask because I’ve learned so much about myself by facing my jealousy. I think it’d be one thing if I just pretended it didn’t exist, like I think I had already done in my life because there was no need for me to face it or be honest with it. But it made me realize that I felt possessive of another human, which was odd. Another human is not mine, and I had to relearn my language around that too where I was like, “But you’re mine!” And it’s like, oh my god, no! Why am I saying those things and being jealous of another person. It was like why do I get jealous of these people? It’s like an insecure thing, and then I faced that. Then I’m like, oh my gosh. OK. Cool. I just learned this other thing about me that I didn’t realize that I have feelings about.

So what kind of conversations did you have with your ex-husband about how to talk about this with your kids, and how did it finally come up with them?

We didn’t really talk about it with them until we decided that we weren’t going to be together. So it was interesting because when we told the kids that we were going to divorce and not be together anymore, we had been dating other people. They knew these people, and we explained to them that we had these other relationships. They weren’t like, “Oh. What?!” They were like, “OK. You love another person.” I feel like my daughter already believed that that’s a thing that could happen.

How old is she?

She is seven now; she’s about to be eight. One time, I think she was four, and I was doing her hair. We were in the bathroom, and she was like, “When are you gonna get a boyfriend?” And I was like, “No, I’m married to your dad!”

[Laughs]

She’s like, “Yeah, but–”

So she asked you, “When are you gonna get a boyfriend?”

Yeah, and she said, “I just want more adults to love me.” It was really beautiful and also, I was just like, how does she know that that’s what I want out of my life?

[Laughs]

So the other day we were talking in the car, and I was like, “Oh, you know, Pace is my partner.” And she was like, “Oh, I thought you were just dating. That’s really cool that they’re your partner now.” And to my kids they’re like, “Oh, more people that love us and are here for us?” I think that’s my favorite thing about non-monogamy is that my family just has grown, and my kids just see it as such. It is weird and disheartening when people are like, “Oh, you just want your cake and eat it too.” I’m like, “No, it’s hard work!” It’s so hard having two partners.

[Laughs] It is not just sex all the time! Who is this person just having sex?!

Well, your kids sound wonderful.

They’re pretty rad kids.

When you finally did start talking to them about dating other people when you and your husband were splitting up, how did you approach that, and what were your fears or concerns?

So my parents were really, like didn’t talk to us about anything that seemed too adult when we were kids. I feel like I’m just the opposite with my kids. I usually just talk to them about everything, and I don’t make it a big thing. I just throw it into our normal conversation. So me and my kids just talk about everything, and it’s very normal. So it was just a regular conversation where I was like, “Oh, I’m gonna go on a date with Noah, and sometimes I also date this person.” They were like, “That sounds cool.” They were just like, all right.

Hmm. That’s interesting. I’ve been thinking a lot about how kids don’t make a big deal out of something until they realize it’s a big deal to you.

Mmhmm.

It’s a little bit like testing rules or boundaries where, when they realize something matters a lot to you, suddenly they’re like, “Oh, what is that?” and kind of poke at it incessantly [laughs].

Yeah, my kids don’t care. It’s so normal to them it’s like how when they went to school–and they mostly go to school with white kids, and they’re mixed–my daughter came home and was so confused that there were so many parents that were a white mom and a white dad and that it was just a mom and dad; there were no just dads or moms. She’s like, “Why doesn’t anyone have a family that look like mine?” It was so normal for her to be in a mixed-race home and to be around lots of different people. So my kids, their normal is just I guess not the normal-normal, but they don’t know anything else. They’re like, oh, this is my life. OK. So I think that’s the thing. So people always are like, “What about the children? Aren’t you concerned that they’re gonna get weird ideas?” And I’m like, “What ideas is my kid gonna get? I treat all of my relationships the same way.” So even if I was just in a monogamous relationship, that’s what I mirror. There’s not this huge difference, at least not around the children or in the home when we’re just hanging out. It’s literally just people hanging out, and we’re this family. I think it’s so beautiful and so uplifting, and I think my kids are so lucky that they have two homes, and in those two homes are another set of parents and then some. I think it’s really healthy.

So I’m wondering, what are some ways you try and instill your kids with really healthy ideas about relationships? Because there’s so much in our society that gives really terrible advice and really terrible role models for relationships. I mean, just turn on the TV or watch most movies hinge around relationships that are pretty bad. Where stalking is considered romantic.

Ugh!

by Sarah Mirk
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Sarah Mirk is the former host of Bitch Media’s podcast Popaganda. She’s interested in gender, history, comics, and talking to strangers. You can follow her on Twitter

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