Being Proud of Polygamy Instead of Ashamed

I distinctly remember the first time someone looked up to me for being a polygamist.

We had been invited by some polygamous friends to a Thanksgiving dinner that was attended by an eclectic group of fundamental Mormons (some were members of a sect of Mormonism, but many were independent).  I knew almost no one there.  (This was the first time I met Benjamin Shaffer, the attorney who purchased Drew Briney’s law firm when the Brineys moved away from Utah.)  I was introduced to a married couple and I asked them if they were polygamists.  The wife said, “No, not yet.  I wish.  Are you guys polygamists?”  When I answered in the affirmative, she said with sincerity, “Oh, that’s so great.  I hope I can be a plural wife someday.”  (She’s a plural wife now and one of the best I know.  As one example of how she’s so supportive: She has a huge picture of her husband and sisterwife on their wedding day on her living room wall.)

That was a very nice moment for me.  Up to that point, people expressed many different feelings about my marital status, ranging from outright rejection to disgust to fascination to neutrality to supportive, but I had never met anyone who was actually jealous of me for being a polygamist.

I didn’t consider myself a fundamental Mormon, but after that Thanksgiving dinner I started to feel more and more comfortable hanging around Mormon fundamentalists because of their general belief that polygamy is acceptable, desirable, even preferred.

I still spend plenty of time with people who merely tolerate my polygamy.  When I’m around those people, I will either hide my polygamy or at the very least I feel an overarching sense of embarrassment/shame about it, like the girl who keeps brushing her bangs in front of the zit on her forehead.

However, those feelings of shame or embarrassment are left over from when I cared what those people thought.  I’m not ashamed to be a polygamist.  I’m actually quite proud of my plural family and in particular of my husband.  I’m proud of my husband for keeping two emotional women happy most of the time.  I’m proud of him for financially supporting a large family.  I’m proud of him for bearing the weight of a marred reputation caused by society’s feelings about plural marriage.  I’m proud of him for always putting his family first and for being the most selfless person I have the privilege of knowing.  I’m proud of him that God trusts him with such a great responsibility.  I’m proud of him for keeping peace (and restoring it when it’s lost) between all the members of our family.  I’m proud of him for his wisdom in difficult decisions.  I’m proud of him for functioning on 2 hours of sleep when one of his wives needs to talk with him all night.  I’m proud of him for never putting himself first but for always always serving God and his family and others around him.  I’m proud of him for being stable when one or both of his wives are being crazy.  I’m proud of Joshua for so many reasons.  I think of him as a king and I feel it an honor to be married to him.  I’m proud to be one of his queens.

The feeling of pride I have over our functional, beautiful plural family has grown and expanded almost imperceptibly until an event that happened yesterday.  We went to a party for Joshua’s aunts, uncles, and cousins.  This party is held annually, but it was our first time attending since becoming polygamists.  We used to go every year (and to other events with these people as well), and Joshua and I have been married for 17 years, so I’ve known these people for a good long time.

The family is a pretty big group, I would say about 85 people, and almost all of them are active LDS.  This is the kind of group I have historically felt awkward to be around.  None of them are excited that we’re polygamists, and many of them openly disapprove (even writing letters and making phone calls to make sure we know how they feel).

And yet, yesterday when we walked into the party, I held my head high.  I felt like a queen.  I look at Joshua as a king and Melissa as a queen, and  yesterday I felt no shame or embarrassment whatsoever.  I greeted everyone with a confident hug and just acted like my old pre-polygamy self.  If anyone felt awkward, it wasn’t me.  If anyone wished I wasn’t there, it wasn’t me.  I didn’t feel like I was inferior to any of the monogamists in the room.  I didn’t feel like I had anything to apologize for.  I didn’t feel like I had a zit on my forehead I was trying to hide.  I just felt proud of my plural family and proud of my kingly husband.  It was a wonderful experience and certainly made me feel as tho I have progressed in my journey as a plural wife.

How Joshua and I Met

There he stood, in the front of our Ethics and Values classroom, curly brown hair, leather jacket that couldn’t hide his muscular arms, sexy 5 o’clock shadow, a deep voice.  He was discussing the pros and cons of capital punishment, the controversial ethical topic assigned to his group.

I had dated a lot in high school, but now that I was in college, I was trying to be pickier, trying to figure out what my type was, and I had picked up the habit of analyzing men to discern which of his physical traits I liked and which I didn’t.  I had never found a man I couldn’t improve upon, but as I sat on the back row that day watching and listening to Joshua, for the first time I couldn’t come up with a single thing I would change to make a man more attractive.  I had found my ideal man, at least on the surface.  Not only was he the most handsome men I’d ever met, but he was intelligent, well-prepared, and well-spoken.

At the end of Joshua’s presentation, I raised my hand to add to the discussion.  Was it just my imagination, or did he like what I had to say?  A little while later, I raised my hand again, but then I noticed that class time was almost gone, and I lowered it again.  He noticed the question left hanging, and he approached me as the classroom emptied and asked what I had intended to say.

We talked for a few minutes before going our separate ways.  But that was enough to get the ball rolling.

It was a series of coincidences that had led to our meeting.  You see, we weren’t exactly classmates: We were taking the same course, but we were in different sections taught by the same professor.  If things had gone according to schedule, Joshua and I would never have met.  But something happened to shake things up: My brother had been called on a mission for the LDS Church, and I wanted to go with him and the rest of my family to see him enter the MTC, or Missionary Training Center.  The end of the college semester was approaching, and since class time was being taken up with group presentations, my professor had started making class participation part of our grade to prevent attendance from declining.  If I was going to see my brother enter the MTC, I would miss my class, so I talked to my professor in advance and got permission to make up the participation points by coming to another of her Ethics and Values sessions.  I searched my schedule for a time when that would be possible.  Most school days at 1:00 p.m. I was busy as an ASL interpreter for a religion class.  Fortunately, those classes weren’t held on Fridays, which meant I was available for that one hour — which happened to be, of course, the day and hour of Joshua’s presentation in his own section of Ethics and Values.  That’s how I came to be there that Friday afternoon.

After Joshua and I had parted company.  I went to work for a few hours and then got ready for a date — a formal dance I was going to with a man named Ryan.

Now, Ryan and I were very close friends, and sometimes we acted as tho we liked each other, but the truth was that the woman he wanted to marry was away from home serving a mission for the mainstream LDS Church, and I was just a placeholder until she came home a few months later.  I wasn’t particularly into him either, but we got along splendidly, and our relationship was convenient.  We carpooled to school together, worked on our Calculus 3 homework together, hung out as friends on the weekend, and when one of us needed an official date for an event, the other person was usually available.

(As a side note, two fun stories: After his girlfriend got home from her mission, Ryan and she came together to my wedding reception, which was so romantic that they ended up getting engaged at it.  They’re still happily married and have half a dozen kids.  He’s a successful engineer, so I guess it worked out for him to study calculus with me, ha ha.  Another guy I dated met someone at my wedding reception, soon afterwards they started dating, later they were also engaged.  Have you ever heard of a wedding reception so romantic?)

I had asked my friend to do my hair in a fancy up-do for the dance with Ryan, and while she worked, I chatted endlessly about this man named Joshua I had met at school that day.  I don’t know how I came up with so much to say about someone I’d only talked to for a quarter of an hour, but you and I both know how silly girls can be.

At some point in the course of our conversation I told her, “I think I’m going to marry him!”  She responded by telling me I was crazy.  (I still have the professional photo taken of Ryan and me at the formal dance, and it’s one of my favorites because of the fond memories I have of that day and even of my hairdo.)

I couldn’t stop thinking about Joshua for days, and he must have had a similar weekend.  On Monday he got my phone number from our professor (with my permission), called me up, and the rest of our story is for future chapters.

Being Plural in Public

I just didn’t think about it.

I’m pretty affectionate in public and I simply don’t think about how it could be perceived by others until I have this moment of shock, clarity, and realization that we are not a “normal” family.

Joshua sometimes goes on business trips. When he flies back into town the rest of us like to meet him at the airport. Everyone loves watching for him and being the first to call out when they see him come down the escalator to baggage claim where we are all waiting for him.

The last time we did this, He kissed both Charlotte and me upon greeting.

I then had this moment of “Whoa! what did we just do?”

His coworkers had come in on the same flight. He had not told them about our family. If they saw, what would they think? More importantly, what would they do? There is a law here in Utah making my marriage illegal. Potential reprucussions, although unlikely, huge.

We have this happen every so often in public. Affection in public shown to both wives and I don’t think about it when it happens, and then I look around and see people avert eyes, or stare. It gets all weird. I just want to live my life. I don’t want to be a spectacle.

Excuse me, ma’am, but Jacob had 4 wives.

I was still an active member of the LDS Church, and I was substituting as the pianist in primary.  Singing Time was over for the Junior Primary, so I had a few minutes to relax before the Senior Primary came in.

The Primary President was in charge of Sharing Time, and she was having the children role play some Bible stories.

Since we believe we are Israelites, Jacob (a.k.a. Israel) is a key person in our story and covenant heritage.  The trouble for a strictly monogamous Church is that Jacob/Israel inconveniently had 4 wives, and each wife was the mother of at least 2 of the sons who would become the namesakes for the “tribes of Israel.”

How does one tell the story of the family and hold Jacob/Israel up as a good example we should emulate without condoning his polygamy???

When trying to role play this awkward marital situation, what is a Primary President supposed to do?

She did what any self-respecting monogamous Primary President would do.  She pretended that Jacob had only one wife, giving her the credit for birthing all 12 of his sons (and 1 daughter).

I wasn’t a polygamist back then — in fact, I didn’t even like the idea of polygamy — and yet I was shocked at this blatant mis-telling of the common Bible story.

(Side note: The famous musical Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat mentions Jacob’s “wives and states that Joseph’s mother was Jacob’s favorite wife.  As far as I remember, the play leaves it at that; the plural wives are not major characters and they are never explicitly named, so the screenplay skirts around the polygamy issue without either making a big deal about it or being inaccurate.)

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Back to the Primary President.  She invited 1 boy and 1 girl to the front of the room and let them dress up in some simple homemade costumes.  Then she introduced them to the primary as Jacob and his “wife“, who were the parents of the 12 sons we know as the tribes of Israel.

I was stunned.  I couldn’t let this error pass without comment, so from the back of the room, I raised my hand and opened my mouth and said,

“Excuse me, ma’am, but Jacob had 4 wives.”

The Primary President blushed and hemmed and stammered and couldn’t find a way to remove herself from the embarrassing situation she’d put herself into.  The story was cut short and the children were shooed back to their seats.

I felt bad for correcting the Primary President in front of everyone, and yet, what would you have done?

An hour later, when the same activity was being done with the older age group, I noticed that the Primary President still had children act out Adam and Eve, Noah and Mrs. Noah, Jonah, Daniel, David and Goliath, and so on, but she didn’t dare repeating the Jacob-and-his-monogamous-wife incident, and that story was left out.

Jacob family tree

Unfortunately, my brother isn’t a polygamist.

When we began telling people we were polygamists, we told them in the wrong order.  We should have told my parents last, rather than first; as it turns out, my father has a big mouth, and couldn’t respect my simple request to allow me to tell people my news myself.  I asked him not to tell anyone for a month, and he promised me that month, and yet within 48 hours he had called both my bishop and his own bishop, confided in his friends and employees, and saddest of all, had announced my news to my brother, whom I really wanted to tell personally.

To his credit, he did call me afterwards and insist, “You should tell your brother your news.”  When I asked him why he was going out of his way to suggest that, he would only repeat himself.

So, I called my brother on the phone.  He was on a road trip with his wife, driving across the desert with spotty cell service.  Between me wondering what my dad had already told him and the phone call frequently getting dropped, the conversation took place in less-than-ideal circumstances.

After I finished telling him, my brother’s immediate response was the following: “What’s going on?  What do you need?  Do you need money?  Do you need help getting out?  Tell me what you need from me; tell me how to react, and I will.”

I answered that I didn’t need money, I didn’t want out of the situation, that all I wanted was his acceptance.  After he was convinced that I was safe, that I was being taken care, and that I was content, he stated his intention to be supportive.

And he has been.

This experience was what I thought of when I saw S2E4 (“Unforeseen Circumstances”) of Seeking Sister Wife.  Sophie Winder has a conversation with her brother about her polygamy, and he says he doesn’t understand it and doesn’t agree with it.

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Sophie says it sucks that her brother disagrees with polygamy.

However, she also says, “Unfortunately, he hasn’t chosen to live this lifestyle.”

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This is where Sophie and I differ.

I honestly don’t care whether my brother is a polygamist or not.  I also don’t care whether my friends are polygamists or not.  Naturally, if someone is a polygamist, that’s something unusual we have in common, which makes a friendship more likely.  But all I need from a brother or a friend is for them to be a supportive person in my life as a whole; I don’t need them to live exactly as I do.

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I’m friends with plenty of monogamists, and I don’t think it’s “unfortunate” that they haven’t chosen to live polygamy.  I still consider them to be “there for me.”

I definitely don’t think everyone should live polygamy.  Among other reasons, polygamy is extremely difficult.  In fact, Sophie’s brother cites that as a reason for not being interested in it.

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After the episode aired, Sophie published a post on the Winder family blog called “Live and Let Live.”  You can read it here.  You can also read Joshua’s thoughts on the same conversation here.

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Finally

About ten years ago, my husband and I bought our first house together.  While I lived in that house, I planted trees and gardens.  I bought furniture.  I hosted events.  I had a variety of houseguests.  I put up pictures and had pets and houseplants.  While I lived there I went from 1 child to 3 children and began homeschooling.  I had a variety of Church callings and a good selection of friends and friendly neighbors.  I was in living that house when my belief system about the LDS Church crumbled (although I stayed an active member for a number of years).  I also gave birth in one of the bedrooms upstairs.

In that same bedroom, my husband and I first discussed the possibility of his marrying my best friend Melissa.  (Short version: I could no longer ignore the spiritual experiences I was having regarding God’s will in the matter.  Joshua and I had never talked about it before, but I opened the conversation with: “So, Joshua, are you going to marry Melissa?”  His answer: “Well, I don’t know.”  My shocked reply: “What do you mean you don’t know?  I know!”  Two days later he had his first conversation with Melissa about it; I think it’s fair to say the latter conversation was far more awkward than the former.)

A few weeks later, in that same upstairs bedroom, I announced to my husband my plan to essentially give the house to Melissa and her children and move with my children more than an hour away, in order for her teenagers to have the space they needed to finish growing up.

That very day, about 5 years ago, we packed up a single carload and I moved away from my trees and animals and gardens, most of my possessions, my friends and neighbors, and the only home most of my children had ever known.

Gradually, tediously, over months and many many many trips between the two houses, Melissa patiently helped me finish moving out of the house which was now, bewilderingly, hers.  And she made that house her own, changing out the kitchen appliances and paint and window coverings and furniture and animals and gardens to better suit her preferences.  She continued the arduous task of parenting children without their father.  And she got used to being a plural wife.

Melissa has now lived in that house longer than I ever lived in it.

For 5 years, my children have had just one parent half the time.  I tell you, it sure is a special treat for the kids when Baba walks in that front door after they’ve been stuck with only me for a couple of days.  Two of our children don’t even remember life before their father was a polygamist.  They don’t remember what it was like to eat dinner and have devotional with him every single night.  They’ve developed habits such as asking me every couple of hours whether Baba will be here today, and writing things down they don’t want to forget to tell him.

For 5 years, my husband has had more than one carpool to get to his job.  (It’s very confusing for his fellow carpoolers.)  He’s had multiple houses and yards to maintain.  He’s been forced to have duplicates of numerous things (including cars, lawn mowers, and property tax bills) so he can frequently seesaw between his two domiciles.  And I can’t even count the number of times he’s needed something but has turned up empty-handed because the tool or other item was in a different county.  He’s been like an unlucky stepchild, constantly going back-and-forth between two houses.

Over the last 5 years, all of us have had more difficulties than I care to list right now.  We’ve also had a lot of personal growth and character-building, but I’ll save that for another time.  I’d rather get to the good news.

For 5 years, Melissa has been finishing the job of turning children into adults.  Her youngest is now 18 years old.  He recently graduated from high school and is launching out on his own.

We are all ready for a big life change.

Melissa’s time in my old house is coming to a close.

Tomorrow my sisterwife finally moves in with me. 

Well, sort of.  I live in a house with several separate apartments, all connected on the inside.  Melissa and I will live together, but each of us will have our own part of the house, our own front door, our own master bedroom, our own kitchen.

Our husband will no longer need duplicates of so many things.  He will get to come home to his entire family every evening.  The children will get to see their Baba and their other mother daily.  Melissa will have to do a lot less driving.  And she and I get to begin a new phase of our relationship.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

What do you think?  What big housing changes have you gone thru?  If you were a polygamist, would you want to live all together in one house or live separately?  Leave your comments below.