Layers three and above: This is really where things get complicated. Being a step-parent is always complicated from the start. On the one hand, it can kind of be like being the cool aunt or grandparent, spending a few intense and mostly fun weeks together before she goes back to her mom's house. I get a taste of both the fun and the not-so-fun parts about being a parent before I decide if I want to do that full-time. I get an adorable little 7-year-old who completely idolizes me and loves me and whom I love in return, and I get the chance to truly make an impact in a little girl's life.
But as a step-parent, I also have to watch the pain my husband feel each time he has to take her back to her mom's house, several states away. While I know my stepdaughter loves me deeply, I know I am not her actual parent. And I also know that I can't make all the decisions on how to raise her that I would if she were my own child. Even if my husband agrees with me.
If it were up to me, or if we had kids of our own, they would know from the beginning about our specific love configuration on an age-appropriate level, just as kids of straight, monogamous parents know about their relationship. But how does a step-parent address sexuality when the child's mother tells her the stork story when she asks where babies come from? Really? The stork? Even at five she didn't buy it, so when she stayed with us at Christmas that year, she asked me the same question. I paused a moment, my brain rapidly calculating that my parents had always been so open with me that I don't ever remember not knowing where babies come from, that I'm not her actual parent, but that I don't believe in lying to children because it is easier for the adult at the moment. I don't remember exactly what I said, other than something like "when a grown-up man and woman love each other, sometimes they decide they want to have a baby together, so they decide to make one, and the baby grows in the woman's tummy." That satisfied her and she didn't ask any more pressing questions.
If my step-daughter were my own child, the issues of bisexuality and polyamory would be no different than the "Where do babies come from?" question. I would simply explain that "sometimes a man and a woman fall in love with each other, but also, sometimes two women or two men fall in love with one another, and that's okay, too. And other times, people decide together that they can love more than just one person and share their love. And that's okay, too, as long as everyone is telling the truth about it."
People generally are more accepting the younger they are. They are less likely to be freaked out or grossed out by issues of sexuality if things are not kept a secret from them until they're at an age where they "have" to know. I remember the fateful day in fifth grade when the boys and the girls were separated into separate rooms so we could watch the video. Oh yes, that delightful video about how boys and girls are different and what happens to people's bodies when they are about their age. For me and many of my classmates, this was old hat, even though it hadn't happened to us yet. Our parents had informed us about such things gradually, so we knew what to expect. At age twelve, I was shocked to discover that there were a handful of kids in my class whose parents had never had the talk with them. There were girls who were distressed about what was going to happen to their bodies, and a few boys were grossed out by what they had learned and didn't want to associate with girls until the shock of the new information had died down a bit.
A similar situation was also illustrated by another poly couple that we know. When they told their children that they are polyamorous and at the time were dating another couple, the younger children accepted it and didn't think much of it, whereas the older kids were freaked out. Another poly couple that we know are also open about it, and even introduce their children to their other significant others if the relationships gets serious enough. A lot of poly couples just treat it like any other way of life -- go about life naturally and answer questions as they arise. I don't like the idea of keeping secrets from children if not necessary, as this could set a bad example or give the wrong impression. Honesty, openness and good communication are important values that I want to pass on to children.
In regards to homosexuality, kids that are brought up around it, or at least the ideas of acceptance, are just like any other kid, only they are less inclined to hating something they don't understand. My 13-year-old sister (who does not yet know about my personal life, as requested by my dad) came to visit me last winter, and it delighted me to hear her casually say, "Yeah, my one friends has three moms. How cool is that?" She went on to say that she doesn't think anything of it if her friends are gay or lesbian. I wanted to give her a huge hug and cheer on the next generation.
For now, however, my husband's and my main concern is that we don't cause any unnecessary custodial problems, at least until his daughter is old enough to have a bigger voice about her own opinions and preferences to see us. We don't completely avoid the subjects when we are around her but just talk to each other the way that adults do about grown-up matters. Such conversations usually go over the kids' heads and they tune out boring grown-up speak. We do, however, make an effort to not speak of romantic relationships as limited to only a man and a woman. We're not fighting to keep everything a secret, but we're not sitting her down to outright explain everything to her yet.
If someday she outright asks us about it? Well, I imagine that much like her questions about where babies come from, we'll pause a moment and answer her honestly, with age-appropriate detail.