One set of parents, in a committed relationship with their school — that is just one possible arrangement among many, in a year that has seen the rise of learning pods; multiple families banding together to hire a tutor to teach their children at home.
Those attempting to form a microschool with friends are drawing up legal contracts, and working out alternating schedules, but it’s anyone’s guess how the experiment will go. How will friendships fare? How can multiple families juggle the mix of egos, group dynamics, and communication styles? For insight, I spoke to polyamorous moms — couples in relationships with other couples or individuals. Both pods and polyamory involve an unorthodox arrangement of interconnected adults coming together in a way that fulfills their needs. Both can complicate existing relationships and, if not approached mindfully, become a minefield of misunderstandings and hurt feelings. They can also be very rewarding.
Pod learning isn’t intimate to the same extent as polyamory, but it’s still a meaningful relationship that requires a lot of mindfulness, communication, and trust, as these three poly moms explain. They offered advice on what “pod families” might expect, and how to avoid common pitfalls of sharing your life with multiple people.
Assume Nothing (And Get It In Writing)
“Being poly is about 5% fun sex and 95% insane communication and negotiation,” says Erin S. (who, like the other moms interviewed for this piece, wished to remain anonymous due to the criticism levied at polyamorous people and polyamorous mothers in particular). “Nothing can be assumed in any poly dynamic,” says the Connecticut mother of one, who has been openly poly for more than 15 years. “You need to be heard, consent, discuss, be honest, and feel comfortable and confident with what you want and your goals..
This is true of any relationship, she explains, and if even well-meaning enthusiasm gets ahead of planning and logistics, it’s not going to work out. She recommends would-be pods take a page from the Polyamory Playbook and write out actual contracts — complete with rules, plans, schedules, and even mission statements — before classes get started. Though not legally binding, they nevertheless outline clear boundaries, expectations, and goals upfront.
“You are allowing someone else to be somewhat involved in the education, discipline, and caregiving of your child,” she points out, so “you’re going to realize that there are so many more things to navigate and to lay out on the table and compromise.”
Erin says that while contracts aren’t a panacea against all misunderstandings and disagreements, they can prevent many. And even when they can’t, they can help temper hurt feelings and confusion. “Every pod is going to be different but they need to figure out and be committed to sticking to the agreements that are set forward.” To set yourself up for success, she recommends parents “do the hard work in the beginning so that you don’t get stuck questioning things later on.”
Conversations About Health Don’t Have To Be Awkward
Open and clear communication can make for more harmonious relationships, but addresses an even more basic, pressing issue: keeping the pod safe from COVID-19.
“When you start dating in the poly community, sexual health is a topic that comes up before meeting,” says Cait F. a single mom of two in New York City. “Now it’s the same thing, but with COVID.”
Cait says anyone in a learning pod should take note and not shy from questions that might seem invasive. “You have to ask how many other people have you been seeing? When is the last time you got tested? Have you been tested for antibodies?”
In polyamory and study pods, it’s about finding people who are all complementary to each other.
Contact tracing is a de facto part of the poly community even under normal circumstances, and not just once but ongoing. The same level of honesty and dedication discussion, Cait says, needs to be part of any group getting together during a pandemic. And while it may initially seem awkward, consistently making it a topic of conversation means that, in time, it becomes second nature. “It’s so casual and open,” she says. “Those are just normal questions I’ve gotten used to asking and being asked.”
“You’re making a commitment to be with these people and that means looking out for everyone’s health,” says Erin.
Lean On One Another’s Strengths
Perri S., a mother of one in Nevada, lives in an open triad with two partners. And while they share a life together, she says that their differences are just as important to the family’s happiness, mental health, and relationship as what they have in common. They rely on their “different areas of overlap” to take pressure off any one individual to be and do everything for the others. This dividing labor more effectively and leaning on one another’s strengths and interests is a delicate, but well-established balance. Perri thinks this same principle can be applied to pod learning. “In polyamory and study pods, it’s about finding people who are all complementary to each other, who you can work with in close quarters and also gain something new or needed,” she says.
Perri is currently discussing podding with some members of her friend group, where all the adults will pitch in and teach different subjects. She thinks her poly lifestyle lends itself well to this kind of communalism. The dynamic is familiar: she and her partners are used to, knowing when to step up or step back when working as a group. But even though everyone is focused on their own area of expertise, she says, it’s important to remember the big picture.
She advises people keep an open mind. “Even if you disagree, make sure to point out any valid parts of other stances before you state your own case. It makes it easier to find a compromise when everyone knows what they agree on.”