-- Dani and Melinda’s home is a little more crowded these days, filled with the two of them, their husband Jon and their two babies, Ella and Oliver.
These two moms and one dad are polyamorous, or as they call it, "a triad."
Dani and Melinda were a lesbian couple living together in northern California. But four years into their relationship, Melinda said she began to realize she also desired a man. At first, Dani wasn’t sure about sharing her partner with a man.
“I kind of call it the ‘mano-coaster,’ the notion of Melinda needing to fulfill that need,” Dani said. “Melinda has probably been the most emotionally painful experience of any of my relationships. ... I was obsessed with her and when she was not as obsessed with me as I was with her, of course that hurts.”
"[But] we got really serious," Dani added. "And she was really direct, like 'I want a family, I need a man, and we need to make this happen.'"
So, the two women created a list of qualities that would make up their ideal male counterpart and started looking.
“We didn’t want a feminine man, just because we’re both very feminine, so we wanted someone that would hold that role of masculinity,” Melinda said. “In walks Jonathan and we’re like, ‘wow.’ All of the sudden we’re recognizing this beautiful man.”
From the start, Jon said having two women was “very fulfilling” and the three of them would have sex together often.
“It was very active," he said. "It was very shared."
But this triad said their unusual relationship wasn’t just about having sex with each other.
“It’s about family," Dani said. "It’s about working together as a team, it’s about accomplishing your dreams with people, with your partners.”
A strong family unit has been their goal since exchanging vows in an intimate three-way wedding ceremony last year.
“I’m married to Jonathan, he’s my husband. I’m married to Danielle, she’s my wife,” Melinda said. “I’m going to be committed to them with my heart and my body.”
Although their union is not legally recognized by the state of California, Dani said that marriage for the three of them goes "way deeper than a piece of paper.”
The family's two children, Ella, who is Dani and Jon's biological baby, and Oliver, who is Melinda and Jon's biological baby, were born just five weeks apart, which Dani said has been helpful because there’s natural teamwork between the three parents.
“I can double breast feed while Melinda is making food and Jon is cleaning the house,” Dani said.
For them, it’s about sharing parenting responsibilities equally too, balancing work life and family time. There’s almost always a parent watching the two children.
"There is always one of us that is able to be present with the children," Melinda said.
As hard as it was for her to come out as gay to her family, Dani said it was even harder to explain to them that she was in a polyamorous relationship.
“My family was a little shocked when I said I wanted to be with women from this point on, but they were fine with it, and they got used to it,” she said. “There’s a huge poly community but unfortunately a lot of them feel like they can't be open, to be closeted. And that goes to show you it’s a lot harder to be poly than to be gay or lesbian.”
But this triad wants to make it clear that they are not polygamous like the families made famous on hit TV series, such as “Big Love” and “Sister Wives.” The Phoenix-Steins openly talk about their family situation in their Web series.
“Polygamy is ... a man with two women and the women don’t share necessarily a relationship together,” Melinda said. “In polyamory everyone is openly sharing love with one another.”
The Phoenix-Steins are not alone. There is a polyamorous community where they live in the San Francisco area, and among them is 69-year-old Ann Valliant, who said polyamory is far from a new trend.
“This is not a new phenomenon,” Valliant said. “It's new to people who think the only way thing is 'one man, one woman' but that has not been true. Our ideas of monogamy and fidelity and commitment are pretty narrow as compared to what humans have been doing for a long time.”
Diana Adams, an attorney who runs a nontraditional family law practice in Brooklyn, New York, said her client list of polyamorous families has been growing, and she believes there is “a new frontier” in what defines “family” and “marriage.”
“In just 20 years we had a massive cultural shift in terms of our overall perception of whether or not it’s acceptable to discriminate against same-sex couples,” Adams said. “And what’s next is what I think is opening up the possibility to things like if we’re changing the idea of marriage can only be between a man and a woman, could it be between three people.”
But the Phoenix-Steins acknowledge that these relationships can be inherently tricky, and conflicts can arise when it comes to partner dynamics.
“In any relationship there’s parts where you give and take, and you also have to be fluid in what your particular needs are and the benefits of the relationship overall,” Dani said. “There have definitely been times where I feel like I needed more and I’m not getting that and that comes up in conversation.”
It was Melinda who wanted to expand their partnership to include a man, and Dani said there have been times when their family life has made her feel frustrated.
“I felt like we had a situation where Melinda has her guy and she has a girl and Jon has two women he’s attracted to, and I have a girl who’s pretty much straight, and ‘where’s my sugar on top?’ kind of thing,” Dani said.
But Melinda said she doesn’t feel guilty about bringing a man into their relationship and that she and Dani are “always in communication” about each other’s needs.
“I think it’s amazing that she evolved herself to that, to the potential of what we have now,” Melinda said. “It’s the version 2.0 that we had before, and we have kids and our life is incredible, and it’s shared with another human being. That’s also equally incredible.”
For now, the Phoenix-Steins say they are not planning to expand their “triad” but say adding more people isn't off the table.
“The family unit comes first and right now we just wouldn’t even have enough time, you know, to date anyone else,” Melinda said.
“But there are a lot of poly families that have kids," Dani added. "And let's say they are very much in the same structure as we are and have kids but they also have outside relationships. ... [But] just because you’re polyamorous doesn't mean you go and have sex with anyone. That’s not how it is at all, it means that you’re respecting love and you’re respecting it and it just happens to have more than two people.”