joreth: (polyamory)
I just had an ah-ha moment - one of those things that I kinda already know but it somehow crystallized for me in a way that it hadn't before.

I come from an immigrant family.  It's true that both of the parents who raised me are natural born citizens, but my grandparents on my mom's side were immigrants (and POC at that, who never really learned English), and my grandparents on my dad's side were from that sort of white Norwegian immigrant type family that embedded their immigration status into their family identity, regardless of how many generations ago the actual migration happened.  Like, y'know, Minnesotans who still maintain ties with their second cousins from "the old country" and who are still baking the same old family recipes at county fairs and stuff.

Intellectually, I know that not everyone has the same kind of family ties that I was raised with.  I have the kind of family who still gets offended if their great-niece doesn't send her annual holiday letter every year, and the first time I drove across the country, I was required to stop by and meet my dad's father's sister-in-law's brother (who is my great-uncle by marriage) who my mom hadn't even met yet.  It would have been mildly offensive for me to not introduce myself while I was in the neighborhood.  Keep in mind that I hadn't even known of his existence until I announced the trip, but I sure as hell had to stop and say "hi" or risk ruffling some feathers (and as a product of this family, I thought it was kinda neat to meet family I didn't know I had).

I *know* that not everyone has these kinds of family connections.  But I just put it together that this was related to immigration.

I have drawn parallels before between polyamory and "normal" monogamous extended families.  People often ask me about scheduling in a poly relationship, and I always say that it's no more complicated than trying to schedule an extended family event.  When people seem to get stuck on that concept, it's clear that they've obviously never tried to get 3 uncles, an aunt, about 12 cousins, two grandparents who are divorced and don't speak to each other, a great aunt, a cousin-once-removed, two god-siblings and a god-nephew to Las Vegas for a wedding anniversary party.

And people look at me like I've just grown a second head - of course they've never tried to do that, who would try to do that?!

When I tried to explain to Franklin about the wedding guest list and the need for a large enough venue, he kind of boggled at me rattling off my list of relatives.  Why did we have to invite everyone?  Because of the family politics of *not* inviting someone! (Not that he actually balked at inviting people, but it didn't actually occur to *him* to invite second cousins and great-aunts and it certainly didn't occur to him that any of his relatives might get offended for not getting an invitation).

Meanwhile, I had to check in with him after the wedding to see if his sister was even notified that he had just gotten married.  He *thought* someone had told her.  I have no concept for this in my head.  My bio-mom's step-daughter's (from an ex-husband) cousins all heard (directly from me) about us getting married.  I can't even fathom the idea that a *sister* might have been told by someone, maybe.

So, I know that not everyone does family the way I do, but it didn't occur to me that this is, at least in some part, due to immigration.

If you look at recently immigrated families, you'll see some trends.  Often you will see entire sections of town devoted to preserving their culture, like having a "Chinatown" or a "Jewish" district.  Sometimes that's imposed from the outside, to keep the POC safely contained, but a lot of it is also because recent immigrants to a new country can rely on others of their nationality for support.  They might have immigrated in the first place because they already had family here.  Certain foods might be unavailable anywhere other than their own grocery stores.  They can be guided on naturalization, on language classes, on jobs that will hire them.  The schools in the area are more likely to understand and connect with the children who may be bilingual (or not yet speak English) and have different customs and foods and clothing.

To come to a foreign country is intimidating and there are often a lot of obstacles in the way of settling in.  So people who have had similar experiences, both with the immigration process and with their cultural background, often band together to form large extended family-like neighborhoods and communities.  People whose families have been here long enough for the descendants to no longer identify as a hyphenated-American, but simply as belonging to the US, don't have this same pressure to build and maintain ties to people whose ancestors came from the same place.

Not that they *don't* do that - the Daughters of the Revolution, for instance, is a good example of a purely US extended family construct that has many of these kinds of traits - pulling together as a community, pride in lineage, common cultural mores and foods and clothing and thoughts and behaviours, etc.

But if a person doesn't have, as part of their *identity*, the struggle to fit into an alien culture and needing those like them, even if not directly related, for support, that person may have an easier time adopting a "rugged individualism" sort of identity and maintaining ties with smaller groups like a nuclear family, and perhaps even experience a freedom of social mobility to move through communities and even physical locations without a sense of culture shock and loss of identity.

I have been told by several people that white people like to think that they made up this poly thing, but if you look at black culture, you'll see that something like polyamory has been around for much longer than the '90s when some neo-pagans coined the term, and longer than the Free Love movement that inspired them.  Sure, even white people will talk about how some form of non-monogamy has always existed, but talk of historical non-monogamy tends to be mostly made up of other white examples. While my POC friends point out that they've been doing this *in parallel*, not in response to or influenced by whatever it is that white people think is polyamory.

So, while black cultures can seem to be coming almost from the opposite direction as immigrants, seeing as how they didn't "immigrate" while trying to hang onto an old culture but instead had their culture stolen from them when their ancestors were stolen, the response seems to be to come towards the same place as immigrants - which is to build interconnected, dynamic, extended support networks of families. When you have nothing else, you at least have each other and your shared experiences as an unwanted "outsider" in a hostile land that you call "home".

So, when I was pulling out my usual "polyamory isn't any different from monogamy with extended families", it occurred to me that if anyone needed to develop better tools regarding extended family interpersonal relationships (like therapists, for example), one could look at the research on recent immigrant subcultures and communities in the US.

Which then led me to consider, if immigrant families are so prone to this kind of interconnected family networks, could that be where I picked it up?  My mom is from a recently immigrated, Mexican family, so yeah, probably there.  But what about my dad?  Oh, dad's Norwegian whose parents moved here from Minnesota, who are also pretty notorious for their in-group communities.  No matter how many generations have lived in the US, they still act like recent-immigrant communities, kinda like Jewish people do.

So, now this is a connection I have in my head that I can use to explain polyamory better.  To someone like Franklin, the idea of not talking to a sibling for months or years, or even needing to cut a sibling out for "differences of opinion" is an option that's totally on the table.  But for someone who comes from a Mexican family like mine, or a Chinese family, or an Indian family, the idea that, when two people get married, and the new spouse has a problem with the sister-in-law, the idea that the married couple can just stop talking to the sister because the "marriage comes first" isn't even an option.  It's not even considered, unless one is willing to cut ties with the whole freaking family.

You simply Do Not just drop someone who has a conflict with a romantic partner.  You fucking work it out, one way or another.  And, in some cases, it's the romantic partner who gets dumped.

I'm not saying we should stray too far in this direction where toxic and abusive familial relationships are maintained because they're "family" to the detriment of healthy romantic relationships.  But I am saying that this is a model, a framework, where (some) people understand that a romantic relationship is not the pinnacle of all relationships, and that interpersonal dynamics are complex and strong, and good conflict resolution skills are prized because winnowing down to just "the couple" is not considered the healthy option.

In poly relationships, when we make "the family" more important than the people in it, we stray into coercive territory.  But that's not what I'm talking about here - that's a whole other rant (which I've made several times before).  So I'm not talking about making the family more important than the people.

But I *am* talking about making the family at least AS important, if not moreso, than "the couple".  THAT dynamic needs to go.  That's a lesson we can learn from recent-immigrant communities.  The people in the relationships need to be more important than the relationship, but once that is prioritized, the *networks* of interconnected people needs to be at least as important as any given dyadic romantic "couple".

Because polyamory is not something that "couples" do, it's something that people do.  Your metamours are not people you can just drop when you're having your own issues inside your dyad, in the same way that your mother-in-law is not someone you can just cut out of your lives forever when you decide it's time to have a baby, to focus on your own nuclear family, or when you're having a time of stress between you and your partner.  In fact, calling on your mother-in-law when you start having children, or maintaining your connections with your siblings when you're romantic relationship is going through a rough patch are excellent tools for helping people get through those challenging times.

Poly networks can be an incredible tool for the same things.  When someone dies in a recent-immigrant community, everyone bands together to take some of the responsibility off of the grieving widow, for example - it's a trope to bring food to a funeral because, when this practice became popular, making food was a seriously time- and effort-intensive process (still can be) and if the person who died was the "breadwinner", a community can come together and make sure that people who are grieving, and potentially now out of income or labor to support the family, can still get fed.

And when the entire community pitches in, nobody is overly burdened.  When my grandfather died, my grandmother was not able to care for herself, so she got shuttled around from one of her child's households to another, adding an extra amount of food and financial obligation and labor to that nuclear family.  At least she had several children to keep passing her around to.

But if she had a *community*, with someone who could have dropped off a casserole every other day, and someone else who could have come by to play bridge with, and someone else who could have interfaced with the lawyers, etc., etc., none of her children's nuclear families would have been taxed to the point that she was needed to be "passed off" to someone else (the reason she only had her kids and no extended community has to do with my grandfather being an abusive patriarch type, but that's another story).

Or, as many other elderly people who didn't come from the kind of community-based background as my grandmother and didn't have nearly a dozen children who believed it was their obligation to take her in no matter what have had to rely on nursing homes and the kind of kindness of strangers that money can buy.

When I went into my suicidal depression, I had several people I could turn to, all with different ways of helping - the one who could show me love and affection, the one who could help me navigate the complicated medical system while looking for a counselor, the one who could just listen, etc.  When I found a low-income clinic that accepted my application for the most amount of financial assistance they had to offer ($10 therapy visits), and the counselor they assigned to me learned of me being poly, the first thing he asked was if the stress of multiple relationships was contributing to my depression.

I explained to him that my poly network was the only thing that *wasn't* contributing to my depression and, in fact, was actively helping by being my support network.  I could tell that this possibility hadn't even occurred to him (not that he was familiar with poly in the first place, but naturally the first thing he thought of when he heard "multiple partners" was stressful love triangle, jealousy, competition, superficial connections, etc.).

But, to me, it seems obvious that more people to love means more people to support me.  I credit a lot of my ability to grasp polyamory with my adoptive background too.  My parents instilled in me a very strong sense of "family is more than who you're related to, it's who you're connected to through love, not blood".  But a lot of people see adoption as a last resort, and not even that because they want children "of their own", they don't want to raise "someone else's kids".  And it occurred to me that part of my parents' ability to see adoption as "god's plan" for them and their adopted children as "theirs" might be related to the whole immigrant thing too.

The church I went to in high school was predominantly Filipino, with some Mexicans.  I sang in the church youth choir.  All of us choir kids called each other's parents "mom and dad", because, in our church, they were all our "parents" and we were all their "kids".  Lots of people in this area had adopted or raised "someone else's children" - siblings or children who were unwed teen parents that couldn't raise their children so they did instead, young cousins or their own siblings who had some kind of problem at home and needed to escape, their own kids' school friends with similar problems, a relative's child who lived in an area with poor schools so they took in the child to give them an address that allowed them to attend a better school, stuff like that.

For recent-immigrant families, seeing everyone as part of one big family is how we survived.  I think it gave my parents the ability to provide me with probably the most idyllic adoption story possible short of a Daddy Warbucks story, and that sense of family and my positive adoption experience gave me the ability to foster a healthy outlook on polyamory, one that sees the destructiveness and toxicity of couple-centrism and couple-privilege.

In recent-immigrant families, you can't isolate yourself down to just "the couple".  That's where you are in the most danger.  You can't lock yourselves into a "couple" because that leaves no room for family, friends, god, and community, and without those things, you can't survive.

Obviously, within monogamy, a "couple" is still important - you wouldn't want someone to "come between" a romantic couple by having more romantic connections, so the analogy starts to break down at that point.  But, even there, we have some room.  There is some precedence for "the mistress" being part of the family, or at least maintaining connection to the community.  As we see in The Color Purple, black families have had some romantic interconnectedness going on there too.

These things have happened, they're just not talked about in the same way as modern polys talk openly about polyamory.  A lot of times, kids grow up never really understanding that "Aunt" Sarah isn't someone's sister or a friend of the family that moved in to have help raising her kids, but her kids might be Daddy's kids too.  And in certain sorts of communities, while this might not be the norm or widely accepted, it has happened, and people are not thrown out for being "black sheep", because they're *family* and family is supported and helped to the best of the community's ability.

So I think we can look to the complex nature of recent-immigrant communities for some guidance and modeling of large, complex, interconnected networks of family systems.  And maybe all these damn "couples" can learn a thing or two by emulating the healthier aspects of communities with rich cultural traditions of extended families.

Lots of time, the Argument From Antiquity is a logical fallacy - just because it's "old", or "we've always done it", it doesn't mean that it's true or healthy or good for you.  But sometimes things are "always done" because it's a system that works.  Sometimes, it *is* in our better interests to "listen to our elders" and keep certain traditions alive - like valuing the larger family and not prioritizing couplehood over complex family network connections.