Where Mother's Day Strikes Thrice

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Douglas C. Pizac / AP

Since last fall, eight-year-old Sam Jensen has been nurturing a seedling, along with his other classmates at school, to give as a Mother's Day gift. This Sunday, he'll proudly present the thriving plant to his moms — all three of them — who will also receive corsages from their husband, and a giant card from their 11 children. Sam Jensen is not his real name; nor are any of the others used in this story: That's because polygamy is illegal in the U.S., although the sheer number of polygamists and the limited resources available to investigate and prosecute the crime has resulted in the authorities tending to focus their efforts where more serious crimes such as child abuse, domestic violence and fraud have occurred in polygamous communities.

For the Jensens, being outside the law is simply the price to pay for a lifestyle consistent with their faith. Robert Jensen, like his wives, grew up in polygamous households. "This isn't something frivolous — it is deep-seated in us to do this," he explains. They follow the original teachings of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, which include the practice of polygamy. The Salt Lake City-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. Mormons) abandoned polygamy in 1890, and now excommunicates members who practice it. Still, a poll conducted by Principle Voices, a polygamy advocacy group, found at least 37,000 polygamist fundamentalists living in the Western United States, mostly in Arizona and Utah.

And Robert Jensen believes they've gotten a bad rap. Disgust crosses his face at the very mention of Warren Jeffs, the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, who is currently under arrest and facing charges on two counts of being an accomplice to rape — prosecutors claim he officiated at the marriage ceremony of an unwilling 14-year-old to her 19-year-old cousin. Robert makes it clear that his community did not follow Jeffs. "To stereotype polygamists as all one way, is like picking one monogamous family and saying they are all like this," says Robert, visibly irritated by the question.

His own wives see one another as an indispensable network of emotional support and load-sharing. "I wouldn't be the mother I am or the wife I am without my sisterwives," says Abigail. Since marrying at age 18, she has shared a life with her husband his two other wives for 14 years. The intimacy of their sisterwife relationship has been forged by sharing the experience of witnessing births, weathering deaths, caring for the children, running a household, and sustaining a good marriage. "You are closer to them than your own sisters," says Regina, as she dishes hash-browns and fried eggs on to plates for all the family's fresh-faced children streaming in, hair parted, pigtails still wet, shirts tucked in.

Like girlfriends, they go shopping, to the pool and on vacation together. Like sisters, they share their clothes and shoes, and the same maternity wardrobe. Like mothers, they veto each other's wardrobe choices and provide perspective checks on minor problems. And the bond with her sisterwives saved Regina's marriage when her four-year-old son was killed in a car accident. Men deal with death differently than a woman, she says, but her sisterwives grieved with her, reinforcing and validating her emotions, which they shared because of their intimate involvement with the child she had lost. "Without their support through this, I would have been in the 90 percent of marriages that end in a divorce after a child's death. I can see why they don't make it," says Regina, mad and sad and pausing for breath. The kids have left the kitchen; only Robert hears this.

Regina sees other advantages in the polygamous relationship: "This lifestyle helps things from becoming overwhelming and it has given all of us more choices," she says, spontaneously handing a stuffed garbage sack to one child while simultaneously passing an empty one to line the can to another passing by. The women rotate household responsibilities and the children — who range in age from a newborn to 16 — are raised with the expectations that they will take on their own household "jobs" such as cleaning the bathrooms, sweeping, and sorting the masses of laundry produced by a 14-person household.

Judy, who has a new baby, is the designated stay-at-home mom. Regina is a successful home designer whose job requires travel, while Abigail recently began work as a teacher after the family agreed that a third income was needed — her sisterwives covered for her at home, allowing her to earn her associate's teaching degree in one year rather than two. In fact, the women constantly cover for one another on many of the commitments familiar to any suburban parent, from piano recitals to Little League games. When any of them gives birth, the others take two-week blocs of leave in order to allow the nursing mother to rest.

Despite the number of children and parents involved, the sisterwives make sure there is still plenty of one-on-one parenting in the Jensen household. When a child is hurt or arguing with a sibling, they turn to the first mom they can find. The arrangement helps with the homework, too, says 16-year-old Jason: "If one of them isn't good at math or English, chances are another one is."

"Of course," Regina adds with a laugh, "that also means they have three of us telling them what to do, and three of us to play."

Three for now, that is. There is always the possibility of a new sisterwife joining the family, and plenty of room in their elegant 15,000 sq.-ft. home for more children. Each sisterwife has her own room, with a balcony and bathroom, and they take turns spending nights in Robert's room.

Robert, who is now in his thirties, did not date any of his wives prior to marrying them. "We go down the road of marriage very carefully and slowly, and get to know each other this way." He met Regina through work and Abigail through his first wife Judy, her sister.

Despite the appeal of sharing the burden of motherhood, sharing a husband would be a deal-breaker for most women. Judy, who was Robert's first and only wife for several years, however, prefers sharing him with her sisterwives. "There are too many advantages for me and my children and quite frankly, I'd be lonely." Sharing her husband's needs with two others seems a relief. "It's almost a kind of freedom," she says.

Lest their picture of domestic bliss seem too idealized, Judy points out though that not all polygamist families work as well, and that the husband sometimes pits one woman against another. "Some of my friends have loved it and others hated the plural marriage lifestyle."

The women give each other a lot of emotional support, but each is also encouraged to focus on her individual relationship with Robert. To that end, each has one-on-one time with her husband, sometimes taking solo vacations together.

So do the Jensens watch the HBO sitcom Big Love, ostensibly about a family not dissimilar to their own? They've seen it, says Judy, but are not impressed. "It makes light of something we take quite seriously, and it's not at all on target."