Note from the blog owner: Natali Dilts is a new contributor to the blog and this is her first post.
The first memory I have concerning my “bonus-mom” plays back in my mind as follows: being excited to see her and then running towards her but then stopping at the tip of her left ring finger. “Your father asked me to marry him”, I perfectly recall her enthusiastic inflection as she urged me to admire her engagement ring. I looked at it in disbelief, I remember thinking “What about my mom?”. Before I could fully articulate my original reaction, I saw my biological mom embrace my soon-to-be mom, and as any seven year old would, I followed my mother’s example and began to welcome this new woman into my life.
Ten years later, I informed my birth mother of this memory. She then asked me several questions, her questions were questions that I already had. One of the questions being: Most of the people I knew as a child were directly involved in a polygamous relationship; why was my initial reaction negative?
Perhaps the engagement simply caught me off guard because of my expectations of what a romantic relationship looked like. The courtship process in polygamy is strict and similar to that of a Christian Baptist dating ritual. No physical intimacy before marriage, apparent family involvement, and the purpose of the relationship to be “to the glory of the one and only God”. To the untrained or youthful eye, such a relationship could easily be determined as a close friendship.
I was homeschooled; my two social groups were family and church so the idea of polygamy was not foreign, in fact, it was incredibly common. I was actually more familiar with the polygamous way of life than the typical monogamous way of life. Though I had mentally understood the concept of polygamy fully and I had seen polygamy my entire life, I think I was surprised at my own family’s involvement. However, I do not think that fully explains why I reacted negatively to my bonus-mom’s engagement.
When I was seven, monogamy and polygamy to me was just a difference between two families. Refrigerating bread versus not refrigerating bread was a more prevalent difference between family beliefs than polygamy was. I would talk openly about my two mothers whenever I came into contact with children my age who were not acquainted with polygamy. I continued on that way until I was told not to do so.
“You shouldn’t tell other children that you have two moms; they might get jealous. You get two moms but they only one. You get a bonus-mom.”
Obviously, this was not the real reason I was not to tell “outside children” of my way of life but it’s the reason I believed. I do not think that the general public’s negative view of polygamy influenced my thoughts that day either. However, the majority of the world is mono-normative, meaning, monogamy is the ideal, typical relationship. This is similar to the idea of a physical relationship defining a romantic relationship. People’s certainty of normality speaks so much louder than people’s active disagreeance in regards to your lifestyle. This concept of normality likely had an effect on me; the effect was not drastic but probably influential.
To be completely honest, I am not exactly sure what prompted me to think this way, there is likely a combination of several things both seen and unseen. I recognize that trying to understand my seven-year-old psyche in order to explain the immediate, sympathetic jealousy that many children of polygamy have felt in defense of their biological mother, will not provide many if any concrete answers. However, opening the discussion may lead to more concrete or evident answers and it may inspire “plyglets” to come forward and tell of their experience in polygamy. I do not claim to speak for all children of polygamy, I also know many “plyglets” who have formed a closer bond to a bonus-mom and felt jealous for her instead of automatically empathizing with their bio-mom. Nor do I claim to be an expert in psychology. These are mere theories of why some children of polygamy may feel jealous in the name of their biological mother.
Transition to siblinghood is similar to the transition into polygamy.
A common explanation describing how one man can love many women is described through how one woman can love many children. Psychoanalytic theorists such as Freud have emphasized the stressful nature of this transition for firstborn children, often citing it as one of the most traumatic experiences of early childhood (Adler, 1957; A. Freud, 1946; Winicott, 1964). Parental attention, once the sole province of the firstborn, must now be shared with a sibling rival. Winicott (1964) considered the distress of first borns during this time to be normative; “it is so usual as to be called normal when a child is upset at a new one” (p. 133). Since several children experience this, they are likely to relate to their mother and be empathetic. I personally experienced this with my mother. I am the oldest and I remember how I felt at the birth of my younger sister, not incredibly positive, I projected the emotions I felt towards my sister onto my mother and how she may have felt about her sister wife. Whether or not my predictions were correct, it caused me to empathise with my bio-mom and her struggle to accept a new wife.
Many neonates demonstrate a stronger connection to their biological mothers in contrast to their additional caretaker (father). It has been concluded that the main reason for this phenomenon is the physical dependence of early life. Emotional bonds are created and called “womb bonds” while there is a physical growth of the fetus. Then following the birth of the child, the first moral development stage of life is termed “trust vs mistrust”, where the child learns to trust their mother through physical care or where the child learns mistrust through neglect. The intimacy of this relationship does not extend to the additional caretaker until around the age three. To extend this trust to even more caretakers it could take an additional amount of time and it is not guaranteed to have the same intensity.
It is estimated that until around the age of eight children are completely egocentric. Many interpret this as “a lack of sympathy until the age of eight years old” but this is not the case. Children are able to comprehend the difference between positive and negative emotion by the age of twelve months and they typically respond accordingly but they do not see the emotion felt by others as important as their personal emotions because it is not a central part of their world. It would be fair to assume that their biological mother’s emotion is of more importance to them than the emotion of their additional mother. Simply because, their bio-mom typically plays a more central role in their lives, thus she is more important and her emotional state trumps the emotional state of her sister wife.
In what I have observed in my personal experience and through the basic childhood psychology that I have studied, I conclude that it is likely for a child to feel jealousy out of empathy for their biological mother when the possibility of polygamy is proposed. It is likely for the following reasons: societal influence and expectations help to dictate which ways a child may think of polygamy, there is a closeness to a biological mother that cannot be recreated, and the child is more likely to know of the emotional effects of their biological mother than of their additional mother.
This topic is important to present to the general public and the polygamist public because it highlights an important emotional process that “plyglets” experience. Further psychological speculation or anecdotal information from children of polygamy could be useful in defining polygamy’s place in the modern world.
References and Bibliography
Adler A. The progress of mankind. Journal of Individual Psychology. 1957;13:9–13.
Affonso DD, Mayberry LJ, Sheptak S. Multiparity and stressful events. Journal of Perinatology. 1988;8:312–317. [PubMed]
Alter JK. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Columbia University; New York: The relationship between language maturity and the adjustment to the birth of a sibling.
“Biomental Child Development: Perspectives on Psychology and Parenting” (2013).
“Envy Theory: Perspectives on the Psychology of Envy” (2010).