I have, over the course of my life, been to three universes; this is the third. The example of my predecessors suggests that I soon shall visit a fourth, and thus I write these words. It is perhaps too much to hope for that my fourth world will be the same as my first, and I will once again return home.
The second world I shall not dwell on unduly. It is identical to your Earth, except that none of the good TV shows got canceled. (Firefly season thirteen is terrible– almost as bad as the first!) The first I will call Patria, which in Latin means “homeland” (for it is my home, long though I may be in exile) and also “fatherland” (for reasons that will soon become apparent).
In Patria, it is generally agreed upon that every man a woman has sex with the month before she conceives a child is that child’s father. Of course, not all fathers are fathers to the same degree: if a woman has had sex with one man nine times in the month when the child was conceived, and another man once, then the first will be 90% the child’s father and the second 10%. We normally do not bother with such mathematics; instead, we rank the fathers by how often the mother had sex with them.
Most children have five to ten fathers. Of course, few women have five to ten lovers at any given time; it is usual, when a woman decides to try to conceive, for her to choose a small number of beloved friends to have sex with once or twice. They are selected for their handsomeness, kindness, bravery, intelligence, or other traits the mother would like to have in her offspring. It is considered a great honor to be asked to be a child’s sixthfather or seventhfather.
The firstfather is generally the mother’s committed partner. Socially, his role is similar to that of a father in Earth culture. The secondfather usually lives with the mother as well, although his role is more similar to babysitter or trusted friend. He may have his own wife, who is referred to as the secondmother, who may also help take care of the child. (I translate the terms, but they are much more euphonious in my own language.) The thirdfather and fourthfather are something like uncles: they don’t necessarily live with you, but they do come to your school plays and baseball games, play catch with you sometimes, and talk to you about boys. The fifthfathers and up tend to be more distant: they typically give presents at Christmas and your birthday, call or send cards every now and again, and sometimes engage in a bit of light nepotism.
One exception to the distance of the fifthfathers and up is in the six weeks immediately following birth. Culturally, a mother is not supposed to do much of anything for the six weeks following birth; she is supposed to sleep, breastfeed, and play with her baby. She will typically wear pajamas all day. All other duties are taken over by the fathers. The firstfather and secondfather are on-call if the mother wants anything (a footrub, a softer pillow, someone to hold the baby while she showers) and themselves often don’t get much sleep. So a lot of the cooking, cleaning, and other household maintenance gets done by the thirdfathers and up. A fifthfather who doesn’t even bring meals is considered quite neglectful. (That said, in the modern era, many fifthfathers instead pay for takeout or hire a cleaning service.)
Of course, nothing is ever the way they describe it to you in your relationship education textbook. There are several ways that modern society differs from this idealized vision.
Most importantly, of course, scientists have discovered how reproduction actually works. In fact, all children only have one father. While the commitment level of each father roughly aligns with the probability that they are the father, in fact, only one father provided the sperm that gives the infant half its genetic material. The Religious Right in my world insists on denying these scientific facts. The more fundamentalist argue that, in fact, children have more than one father; the term “epigenetics” is often used. The more liberal religious people agree that while only one father provides the children with genetic material, the other fathers compose the child’s soul. Even for children who have had their paternity tested (perhaps because of the chance that they will inherit a rare disease) and have been confirmed to be genetically related to, say, their secondfather, people will regularly comment that she has clearly inherited her firstfather’s kindness or her sixthfather’s wit.
Gay marriage was legalized about two years before I got married to my husband. In queer communities, all the mother’s lovers are considered to be parents, regardless of gender: for instance, one might have a female “thirdparent”. If the mother is a lesbian, she will typically have sex with one man, who is then by custom considered to be the fifthparent. Similarly, the surrogate mother or birth mother of a child adopted by a gay male couple is the fifthparent. Some heterosexuals refer to fifthparents instead of fifthfathers and fifthmothers in an attempt to be progressive and gender-neutral, but this is generally considered to be unbearably twee.
We do not have assisted reproductive technology, which you have developed. It was discussed in science-fictional terms, but all research along those lines was crushed by the advocacy of the Religious Right.
Long ago, when we developed these traditions, people rarely moved more than a day’s walk from their home village– certainly not after they’d had children. In the modern era, however, it is difficult to coordinate even as few as seven or eight adults all living in the same place, because many people have to move for work, and it is quite uncommon for people to have flexible jobs that are easily moved around.
That isn’t as bad as it could be, because families have gotten smaller. My birth family, for instance, had twelve adults in it. On the other hand, when I married, my family consisted of merely five people: me, my husband, my child’s secondfather, his wife, and her child’s secondfather, who himself had no interest in marrying or producing children. Many more people these days are interested in being a secondfather or secondmother but themselves do not want to raise children, and because of birth control it’s possible to do so. But nevertheless families often wind up fractured because people have to move.
The Religious Right disapproves of all of these changes to The Way Life Is Supposed To Be. They generally hold that gay parenting, divorce, and people moving (as well as people not knowing the names of all their children’s fathers, as happens sometimes in working-class communities) are all what happens when you start believing in the single-father theory, instead of the Godly theory of multiple fathers.
(A random, interesting bit of trivia, which occurred to me as I was writing about the Religious Right: In your universe, flirty fishing was only practiced by one small cult. In Patria, it is endemic in both evangelical and Catholic communities. The former typically use contraception when single and flirty fishing; the latter have Jesus babies, which are generally raised in convents or adopted by devout Catholic families.)
I had previously believed that the Religious Right was mistaken about the single-father theory. It’s science; how could knowing the truth harm people? But being transported into your universe has led me to realize, much to my horror, that they were absolutely correct. The single-father theory is destructive. Your universe– this universe into which I have unwillingly been dragged– is horrible and I hate it and I want to go home.
First, of course, there is the harm I face, having been rejected by my family of origin for my perfectly normal and indeed sedate sex life.
Second, there is your society’s horrifying attitude towards parenting. In Patria, most families have a stay-at-home parent (usually a mother) who cleans and cooks. The labor of being a stay-at-home parent doesn’t scale up linearly with number of people in the household: it doesn’t take that much more time to cook for six than for four. And since families are so large, even a relatively poor family can afford a stay-at-home mother.
In your society, there is this bizarre obsession with only the biological parents of the child providing care. This is perhaps most obvious in the six weeks after the birth. As far as I can tell, in your culture, new mothers are expected to do their own cleaning! Mothers talk about being sleep-deprived and depressed as if this is the normal state of affairs! Of course you’ll be sleep-deprived if you don’t have twelve or fifteen people to help take care of you, my god. My husband, in spite of the fact that I am relying on him for everything since my child will have only a firstfather, gets only six weeks of paternity leave. Many fathers don’t take paternity leave at all! Grandparents help a little bit, but you still only have four of them, and many people are disconnected from their parents. (Of course, many people are disconnected from their parents in Patria too, but at least we have more than one father to pick up the slack!)
In reading feminist texts in this world, I have heard of this appalling concept of “the second shift”. Apparently women put in a full forty hours a week at work and then come home and are expected to clean and cook and run errands and take care of children! Having a housespouse is utterly out of reach for average couples. No wonder the rise in feminism has made women so unhappy.
In our universe, feminism made women happy. Before the feminist movement, mechanization of domestic labor freed some of the women of the household from taking care of the home, and in their spare time they typically volunteered or made art or engaged in political activism. Afterward, of course, women had jobs. There’s still the problem that men tend not to be housespouses, but all in all our system is far less horrifying.
Day care is unheard of in Patria; I think there might be some social programs for teenage mothers that offer it. To be clear, I don’t object to day care at all. Children naturally thrive with more than a single caregiver, and if you don’t have multiple fathers and mothers like sensible people then hiring someone to be your child’s caregiver is fine. My primary objection is that it costs literally ten thousand dollars a year. How is a normal family supposed to afford this?
Third, you are all so isolated. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which has a housing crisis, so there are group homes and I am fortunate enough to approximate a normal lifestyle. But outside of San Francisco, people generally live in nuclear families, if they don’t live alone. (You don’t even have boarding houses for single people!) I was appalled to read The Ferrett’s article about how not being lonely is hard work. No, it isn’t! If you live in a normal extended-family environment, then you have social interactions with half a dozen people without having to leave your house. And your family members will invite people over and you can spend time with them without constantly having to do the work yourself. Your culture has completely eliminated all normal means of social interaction, and then you wonder why you’re so lonely and isolated and depressed and why everyone spends so much time on social media. I’ll tell you why: because social media is a place where you can talk to people without having to put on pants. If you had a healthy family life, then you would get that in face-to-face interactions.
Fourth, your culture is appallingly incapable of responding to divorce or child abuse in a remotely functional way. Divorce is far more common in Patria than in yours, because of the number of potential breakups that are possible. In a small family of five adults, there are ten potential relationships that could go bad and result in someone wanting to leave the family; I don’t even want to think about how many potential conflicts there are in a family of twelve.
But the results of divorce are far less bad in my world. I have personal experience with this, because my children’s secondmother’s secondfather (your language does not have enough words!) left our family when my daughter was five. Of course, it broke my daughter’s heart that he left; she cried, regularly asked for him to come home, and absolutely refused to read any Greek mythology for a month, which had been his favorite thing to read to her. But her life stayed stable: she lived in the same home and did not move between houses. (When a family breaks up, children generally stay with the largest fragment of the family.) And she wasn’t poor. In your culture, after a divorce, you have to maintain two households, which is almost twice as expensive as one household. In Patria, you still only have to maintain one proper household; the person who left lives inexpensively in a boarding house, in which dinner, laundry, and cleaning is typically provided by the landlord.
And don’t get me started on child abuse. Most children in Patria have huge extended families. At the age of ten, children legally acquire the ability to switch to any guardian in their extended family who consents to have them. (“Extended family” means the family of any adult descended from any of your grandfathers and grandmothers, and can easily be one of several hundred people.) Normally, children are fine with their parents and don’t go to the bother of switching. However, if a child is being hit, neglected, or called names, they will almost always switch to a different relative who doesn’t do that. Children’s extended family members can also file for custody (which is done when the child is younger than ten or is being abused such that they don’t feel comfortable leaving), in which case the best interests of the child is decided by the judge. In your universe, a child who objects to their parents has to go into the foster care system, which is so awful that many teenagers prefer to be sex trafficking victims instead. In Patria, foster care only happens in the rare case in which a child’s entire extended family is appallingly abusive; since there are very few participants, it is actually adequately funded and can provide good foster care.
Finally, and most importantly to me: I miss my daughter Grace. I miss my secondfather’s children Sarah and Michael. I miss my family. I miss waking up snuggled between my husband and my boyfriend. I miss being able to go to parties easily because I can ask the child’s secondfather to watch the kids. I miss tutoring Michael in reading while my child’s secondmother taught them math. I miss my boyfriend’s cooking. I miss being able to talk to my family about the people I love. I miss not being a freakshow. I miss my home.
Both of the previous people who wrote these confessions left shortly afterward. I hope, yearn that I, too, shall leave soon, and be with my family again. But given what has happened in the past, I suspect I shall spend the rest of my life alone, without my children, wandering through dozens of worlds, none of which understand family at all.
Ask me anything, I guess, and I’ll talk about it in the comments.