I saw a post that I just can't get out of my head. A married hetero couple has decided that they will be expanding their attempt to have a baby by allowing the wife's boyfriend to try to father the child too. Sounds wonderfully poly, right? Well, this couple has also already decided that they won't learn who the bio-father is, and no matter who that bio-father is, the married couple is who will raise the child. And they're going to announce this decision to the boyfriend soon.
I just can't properly express my horror at this situation. There is so much wrong here that I'm having trouble knowing where to start. This is exactly the kind of thing we're talking about when we complain about not being an equal partner. I want to be very clear about this: I am NOT suggesting that the boyfriend MUST be an equal co-parent to the child. What makes this a disempowering relationship, what makes the boyfriend not an equal is not what role he will play in the child's life, but that the decision on that role has been made without his input.
Here's the thing. I'm adopted. I strongly believe that my bio-parents made the right decision in giving me up for adoption and I have always believed that. This is not about who gets to be the parent. The decision to give me up was made by my bio-parents, not my adopted parents. My adoptive parents did not decide that I should be their child and then they found my bio-parents and announced to them from on high that they shall bear their child for them. I have a relationship with my bio-mom, so I actually do know the circumstances of my adoption. She decided, on her own, without any coercion from anyone, that giving up her parental rights was the best thing for me. Her parents would have supported her if she had decided to keep me. It was a hard decision for her, but she made that decision because she believed it was the best thing for me. She chose my adopted parents from a list of hopeful parents. My adoption was a case of everyone involved coming together and choosing each other voluntarily. My bio-mom had full agency in the decision to not be a parent. If anything, she had more power in the decision than anyone else in the equation.
I am a firm believer that not everyone should be parents, even if they contribute the genetic material to the child. I support parents who leave their children and spouses because I believe it frees the kids and spouse up for building working families and prevents children from being raised by parents who don't actually want to raise them. I don't approve of leaving children in financial straits, but that's a different rant. I wholeheartedly support people who do not want to be parents, for whatever reason, and I believe that children are better off not being parented by people who don't want to be parents.
I keep reiterating that my argument is not that the boyfriend ought to be the father because I know that some people are going to hear my objection and come back with "but what if he's OK with not being the dad?" That's not the point. That's SO not the point. The point is that the decision has been made for him by people, at least one of whom is not even in the relationship and who will not be biologically related to this man's child. Imagine if a divorced woman remarries, and her new husband has the ability to go back in time and tell his new wife's first husband "this kid that you're about to father? Just so you know, it'll be my kid. Legally, and in practice, and from before it's even born. You don't have a say in this, if you don't like it, you can just avoid impregnating your wife, or you can divorce her now before she gets pregnant and we'll find someone we like better to father my child for me."
"But he doesn't have to accept! He's free to say no, or to leave if he wants to." Again, missing the point. Once someone has given their heart to another, they are not as free to say no as it seems. Especially when that person is already entangled with people who, judging by this situation, have set him up in an inherently disempowering situation. If everyone involved believes they are happy with their current arrangement, and if he is in love, it's all too likely that he'll look at the situation and think "sure, I don't mind not being the 'father' because I'm still the boyfriend and I'll still be a major part of my child's life." Because when one is in love, imagining the day when the relationship goes sour and custody battles get wicked seems so ridiculous, so absurd, that one usually doesn't even consider it as a possibility.
"Of course my partner would never be one of those frightful, evil witches who would keep me from my own child! If I thought they were that kind of person, I wouldn't have fallen in love with them in the first place!" No one who ends up in divorce court, bitterly tearing their children in half and using their children's bloody pieces to whack each other over the heads with ever thought their spouse was the kind of person who would do that sort of thing. When we're in love, we can't even imagine our partners doing anything so horrible. This is why people are able to say stupid things like "unconditional love". I guarantee that there is something that your loved ones can do that will make you stop loving them. The problem is that you don't think they are the kind of person to do that sort of thing.
And you are also terrible at predicting your future emotions - everyone is. What we think is acceptable when we're in love, we often don't think is acceptable after the love is gone. I've certainly agreed to things in my relationships because I was in love and I didn't think it was really that bad, but after the relationship ended, I was disgusted at myself for having agreed to it and for not seeing how that thing was really a prelude to exactly those things that led to our breakup and it was actually far, far worse than it looked from the beginning.
Things like veto, and this situation, are like that - they don't seem that bad when you haven't gone through it and you're in love so you can't see how the other person could possibly have bad motivations or would possibly take advantage of the situation and harm you. It's usually not until you've gone through it and are out the other side that most people even have the opportunity to see it for the bad thing that it is, and even then usually the only people who do so only do because it didn't end well. It's like when people don't wear their seatbelts.
I know a guy who refuses to wear a seatbelt. Apparently he was in a car accident once and got ejected from the car, and someone told him that it was a good thing that he did because if he had stayed in the car, he would have been injured worse or killed. So he never wears a seatbelt. He's been ticketed multiple times for it, but each time he goes before a judge and says that he absolutely will not change - that he's only alive today because he didn't wear a seatbelt. The only way he will ever learn what a bad idea it is to not wear a seatbelt is if he gets in some horrific wreck that makes it obvious that a seatbelt would have prevented his permanent paralysis or loss of limbs or the death of a loved one or something. And even then it's not guaranteed that he'll learn that lesson, but it will take something awful to get him to see that not wearing a seatbelt is inherently a bad idea if anything can convince him at all.
Some people go their entire lives never getting into car wrecks. Maybe they get into a fender-bender or narrowly miss another car or something. But, out of sheer luck and the mysteries of the statistically probable, some people manage to not do something like roll their car down a hill (not that I would know anything about that). And they will go through their life believing that something they're doing or not doing is responsible for not dying in a car crash.
I knew another guy who tailgated something awful. Because of him, I learned how to sit in the front seat of a car and never once look out the front window. I was terrified of him rear-ending someone and having my legs crushed beneath the dashboard as the car crumpled underneath the rear bumper of the car ahead of us. He thought he was a good driver. He insisted he was a good driver and that he had certain skills that prevented him from rear-ending anyone. A couple of years after we broke up, he totaled his car by rear-ending someone. I dated a first-responder and we were always pulling somebody out of a broken wreck of a car because he was obligated to respond to any accident he came across and we came across a lot while out on dates because we dated in California - home of the original Road Rage and the California freeway system.
I have a dozen stories just like this - some idiot thinks they're bulletproof and that they are because of something they're doing or not doing. And many of the people we hauled out of mangled steel and burning hulks came out of there still believing that it wasn't some failure of theirs that got them into the accident.
What I'm trying to say is that if, and that's a big if, but if this boyfriend just happens to be OK with impregnating his girlfriend and not being allowed to be the kid's father, that's coincidence. It's not proof that the hierarchy is working. If he was really OK with it, then it wouldn't have needed to have been decided ahead of time. And if he is OK with it, then he probably isn't in a position to understand his own disempowerment. He probably believes that he has all the choice because he chose to be in a relationship with these limitations. So this couple will parade him about with "but our secondary says it's OK, therefore it's not disempowering!" Yeah, and I know some black people who don't mind if their good white friend calls them nigger either. It's still fucking racist. If the boyfriend agrees to this, it's likely because he can't imagine the married couple doing anything to make him regret the decision. So it will probably take them doing something to make him regret it before he'll understand what's wrong with this whole mess and how the deck was stacked against him from the beginning.
That's the problem with abusive structures, as I'm coming to learn, unfortunately from first-hand observations - they seem reasonable at the beginning, or from the outside, because if they seemed unreasonable at the beginning, no one would get into them. We often can't recognize them until it's too late and we're neck-deep in alligators. Some of us will even vehemently defend the swamp because we can't see the alligators from our vantage point. We'll insist that we have agency and that we are empowered, because we can't see the invisible threads being woven around us that will hold us down while the alligators eat us, and we won't see those threads until we try to move out of the little niche we think we carved for ourselves.
And, even worse, we often can't see when we're the ones weaving the sticky spider silk around our prey, because it's just what we do so we don't know anything different. Hey, he wandered into our web, didn't he? We couldn't have trapped him if he hadn't stood right where we could build our web. It's his freedom of choice. So why should we bother to change our ways when there are victims just lining up to stand where we can weave our webs around them? Oh, I dunno, maybe because it's not good enough to be a spider, trapping prey in a swamp filled with alligators? Maybe because we should be trying to become people who are willing to help lift up our partners out of swamps instead?
If your relationship structure includes the ability to make decisions for people without their input, your relationship is inherently, fundamentally, unethical. Period. It doesn't matter if those people are willing to accept those decisions. If they were not able to come to the table with you as an equal and say "here's what I am interested and willing to do with you", then you are, by definition, disempowering your partners. The final configuration is irrelevant. It isn't about who gets to be the primary and what if someone likes being a secondary. It's about who gets to decide who gets to be the primary or the secondary. If the answer includes people who are not in the relationship that the decision is affecting, and it doesn't include anyone who is in that relationship and is affected by the decision, then it is an unethical, unequal, disempowering structure. It's not the configuration or the end-result roles that make it so, it's the process.