Oscar Wilde said that “in married life three is company, and two is none.” Yet more than one hundred years later when I mention that I live with my partners – as in plural – even the most sophisticated jaws drop.
By ©Tyne O’Connell
I live with two men, the fathers of my children. No, I am not a spin doctor with a utopian philosophy to sell, nor are we a liaison dangereuse for the nineties. Basically, I am just like thousands of women who have remarried – the exception being that I decided not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Or in this case, the first husband out with the marriage.
Forget nannies and au pairs with attitude, forget juggling career and kids – the key to family bliss in the fin de millennium is not a vacation in Mauritius, but finding another spouse to share the load. Preferably young and gorgeous, and with an artistic flair for compromise. “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but ah, where do you all, er, sleep?” people ask, uncomfortably looking around as if we were stuck for space in our huge converted factory. Watching them on the edge of their seats, their expressions suffused with anticipated titillation, we all feel slightly guilty as we admit that we not actually a menage a trois.
In fact, what is scandalous about our triumvirate is not sex but the symbiotic rhythm of our lives together – the way there is always someone on hand to buy milk, to read a story to one of the kids, or to do up my zipper. As three parents with busy and frequently separate social agendas, it is not a grand passion that drives us, but a quotidian pragmatism.
We are liberated by our commitment. When my first husband and I separated ten years ago we had two young sons.
It wasn’t an acrimonious divorce. Still, it traumatic, and we spent the next two years juggling access and custody arrangements, made all the harder because my career as a gemologist frequently took me abroad. Finally we decided that for practical reasons it would be easier if I moved back into the house.
A lot of people thought it was incredibly big and brave of us to attempt a rapprochement. We pointed out that only a few years before we’d been exchanging body fluids like there was no tomorrow – a little bit of bill-sharing wasn’t going to kill us. So we thought. As it happened, the ensuing arguments were far worse than anything we had encountered in our marriage. The disputes centered our sex lives.
S.P., my ex, who not to believe in jealousy, didn’t see why I had a problem with him bringing women home. On the other hand, my boyfriends got on so well with S.P., they’d drop round for a drink with him!
Some of the women he dated were less than enamoured with me. If we were divorced, why didn’t I just take the kid and leave? They all took different approaches, There was the vegetarian who threw out my venison steaks, the woman who hated kids and asked me to keep them out of her way, and the one who wanted my advice on how to make her relationship with S.P. work. As if I would know. She took me to lavish lunches to beg me to put in a good word for her.
Then there was the woman on a business trip who kept ringing me to make sure S.P. was being faithful to her. He wasn’t.
When the relationships ended, as they inevitably did, I often felt like I was the cause. Basically, I was – not because of anything I said or did, but just because I was there. In the end we agreed that unless we fell inexorably in love with someone, we wouldn’t introduce our lovers to the home.
We had hardly made our pact when I met Eric. I was traveling in Cairo when artist with looks to die for ran onto an elevator I was entering and proposed.
Just like that. That same audacity is probably what carried him through when I gave him a rundown of my living arrangements. Thankfully, neither my ex-husband nor my sons could resist his charms, nor he theirs, when he landed on our doorstep a few months later and turned our lives upside down.
By this time the thought of being apart from our children was anathema to both S.P. and me.’When I told my mother that Eric and I were getting married and that we were thinking of all living together, she said, “Poor Eric! At least give him a six-month honeymoon first.” She was right – privacy is not part of the structure of a three-parent family.
There were bound to be problems, and the determination to stay together for the sake of the children buckled more than once under the sheer weight of compromise. The first year was the hardest. At
various stages we all threatened to leave; eventually I was the one who walked out.
My two husbands found where I’d gone and turned up in the middle of the night. S.P. sent Eric in to talk to me with a silver tea tray and smoked salmon sandwiches while he stood outside, urging Eric on, prompting him, and promising us both it could work.
I realized I was the matrix for our togetherness, but I was also central to most of the problems. I had a shared history with one man and a fledgling relationship with the other; this would have been a juggling act without wanting to live together. I had to learn to let go and put my faith in our future together rather than in my ability to control it. We had to discover a new way of living because, apart from a few eccentric exceptions like Madame de Stael, the French intellectual, there were no precedents for what we were attempting.
We had to invent a new lifestyle.
In the early stages we had no backup from society, family, or friends. Everyone was open-minded about what we were trying to do, but they all expected us to fail.
Perversely, this drove us on. As time went on, our loyalty grew; we clashed less and laughed more.
What finally forged our triumvirate was the birth of Cordelia, whom I had with Eric six years ago. It was a home birth, so I was relying on both men to support me. But from the moment I felt the first twinge, Eric went into one of those first-time-father comas, and started panicking about all the wrong things: champagne toasts, cigar distribution etiquette, et cetera. Husband number one, the veteran, organized the hot towels, the breathing, and the ice chips.
Our lesbian separatist midwife found herself beguiled by the two-husband set-up. On the balcony afterward, smoking her cigar, she conceded that fathers could be of benefit after all – the trick was to get them in pairs. Having an extra father onboard certainly revolutionized the concept of motherhood for me. Two men falling over one another to co-parent took the sting out of my stitches. I lay back and breast-fed while they debated diaper-changing methods and boasted to one another about sleepless nights.
I started proselytising my married girlfriends: Get another husband before you have children. “One isn’t enough,” I said.
“With one you bicker and niggle, with two you rejoice.” My girlfriends were dubious. Surely two men were twice the trouble? But what actually happens when you get two men together is that their innate competitiveness comes to the fore.
And then there is that bonding thing men do. People ask whether the men get jealous of one another. Come off it, I’m the one who gets jealous of them! They give one another the sort of moral support no Prozac, beta-blocker, or analyst can offer. It’s called having your cake and eating it, actually.
It’s been eight years since we embarked on our triumvirate and it’s not gasping for breath yet. We take holidays en famille and plan our future together. I am sure there are drawbacks, but so far I’m happier with two husbands than with one. When weighed against lawyers’ fees, custody battles, and access arguments, the three-parent family seems to be what deal-makers call a win-win situation.
Despite my enthusiasm, not everyone is convinced. “Doesn’t your first husband feel like he’s missing out?” someone asked me recently. I reminded her that we were talking about a man who gets access to his children while free to pursue an independent sex life.
S.P. works in finance, so he’s used to the posturing machismo that goes on, but he claims that, strangely, his colleagues’.
Prurience lies not only in who’s sleeping with whom, but in who cooks for whom. Hello? These are men who could buy a restaurant chain and they think we stay together for the housework?
Actually, cooking is our Achilles’ heel.
The first thing S.P. asked when Eric came to stay was, “Can he cook?” Despite offering one another bribes and incentives to cook, food preparation remains a black hole of our household. We haven’t even got round to building a kitchen.
Usually, we eat out or order in. In the beginning, we tried using nannies or au pairs with the children, but taking instructions from three strong-minded adults with irregular habits thwarts the best of them, For the same reason we can never stay with friends or
family because we exhaust them out of house and home. And no one lasts more than a week in our place. Our mothers-in-law remain flummoxed, and questions like where to spend Christmas become triconfabulations.
‘When we travel, it’s astonishing the interpretation people of other cultures put on our family. In Istanbul our concierge was obsessed with who we all were to one another. “I think you are a bad woman. You should read the Koran!” he teased one day. “She did,” my elder son announced proudly, “the man’s version!”
One recent weekend, our sons, now 12 and 14, challenged the fathers to a fencing tournament, while Cordelia and I shouted “epee!” and “touche!” from the sidelines. “I’ll fence whichever daddy loses,” she told me. At six, she is the progeny of our triumvirate – she has never known any other parental setup and her happiness and contentment are its perfect validation.
Nonetheless, there are still people who ask how the children “cope” with three parents. It’s called staying together for the sake of the children, not in spite of them, I explain. It’s just that in true baby-boomer style we’ve taken the martyrdom out of the equation.
Ms. Magazine September/October 1998