Kody Brown seems to have it all. He's a happily married father with a good job and a reality television series. If you saw him at a PTA meeting or in the produce aisle, you may never guess that Kody is also a polygamist. Instead of having one loving wife, he has four.
These women and their 16 children are starring alongside Kody on TLC's controversial series Sister Wives. "I like marriage," Kody says. "I'm a repeat offender."
Growing up, Kody was raised by monogamous Mormon parents, but when he was 21 years old, he says he converted to fundamental Mormonism. "I have adopted a faith that embraces that lifestyle," he says. "In fact, it recommends it and likes to reward good behavior. So if you're good with one marriage, they figure you'll be good with two. I hope they think I'll be good with four."
For the past 20 years, Kody has been legally married to his first wife, Meri. After they said "I do," Meri introduced her husband to Janelle, a woman who's lived as Kody's second wife for 17 years. Christine, Kody's third wife, has been part of the family for 16 years, and Robyn, his fourth wife, joined the family just five months ago.
"This is essentially, for lack of a better term ... spiritual relationship[s]," Kody says.
Meri says she was raised in a polygamist family and always knew that's what she wanted when she got married. "When we were talking about marriage and stuff, at that point, [Kody] and I both knew that eventually we would take another wife or wives into the family," Meri says.
Unlike Meri, Janelle grew up in the mainstream Mormon Church, which does not practice or promote polygamy. But, after getting to know Meri and Kody, Janelle adopted a new belief system. "I met Meri's family when I was 19," she says. "I actually met Kody a few years after that. I think I was 22 when I finally thought: 'Wow, Kody's a great guy. Maybe I'm okay with this plural marriage thing.'"
The third woman to join the family, Christine, grew up in a polygamist family and wanted that lifestyle for herself as well. "I never wanted to just be married to a man," she says. "I honestly wanted sister wives more than a husband. I wanted the whole family. I didn't just want Kody."
For 16 years, Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine and their 13 children lived together as one big polygamist family. Then, in 2010, they added Robyn, Kody's fourth wife, and her three children to the mix.
"I just fell in love, and then I fell in love again," Kody says. "And then I fell in love again."
Their reality series, Sister Wives, premiered in September 2010, but until then, only family members, close friends and a few co-workers knew about the Brown family's alternative lifestyle. Now, millions of people are paying attention...including the local police department.
Since the first episode aired, police in their home state of Utah have launched an investigation into this polygamist family. If they are charged and convicted of felony bigamy, Kody could face a maximum of 15 to 20 years in prison. His wives could face up to five years.
According to Utah's bigamy statute, "A person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person." This law applies to people who obtain multiple marriage licenses, as well as people who are legally married to only one person while also engaging in other marriage-like relationships.
"It's scary," Kody says. "I didn't [expect it]."
Kody says he has a marriage license with Meri, but he wasn't expecting the state to accept or recognize his other relationships. "We weren't looking for the state to do that," he says. "This is strictly a family unit, [and] we didn't feel like we needed that."
Janelle also points out that she and her sister wives were never forced into plural marriage. "We've all chosen this life," she says. "We are free to choose it."
Despite the risks associated with going public, Kody says they invited cameras inside their homes to dispel misconceptions about polygamists.
"The [polygamist] society tends to be fairly closed," Kody says. "We figured that just by being an example of that, by showing our lives, we'd actually help the society be more transparent, have other people in the lifestyle feel safer about being transparent."
Kody may have more wives and children than most men, but he says they're just like any other family. The children attend public school, have a Wii and ask to go to the mall. One of the wives even curses—"I've heard [Janelle]," Kody says—and some work outside the home.
"There's no difference in the things I talk about at work with my with my co-workers, the things I worry about," Janelle says.
Kody, who works in advertising sales, says going public about his personal life has not affected his professional relationships.
"I've been in this career for about 10 years, and I've been fairly private about it," he says. "I had good friends. They understood me, and I was their token polygamist friend." Eventually, the entire company found out that I was [a polygamist], and the tolerance and acceptance has been beautiful."
On the other hand, Meri's former employer wasn't as accepting. After Sister Wives premiered, Meri says she was terminated from her position in the mental health industry.
"They felt that they needed to protect the company, I think," Meri says. "It actually makes me really sad because I loved my job. It breaks my heart, definitely. ... But I understand where they're coming from."
While some wives have jobs outside the home, Christine is the designated stay-at-home mom. "It's beyond me to not like it," she says. "I love it."
Some people may not be accepting of the polygamist lifestyle, but many are intrigued by their relationships with one another...especially the interactions between the sister wives. "We're most fascinated with the relationship the women have with each other," Oprah says.
The title of the series—Sister Wives—is the term Meri, Janelle, Christine, Robyn and other women in plural marriages use for one another.
Oprah likens the bond these women have with one another to a sisterhood of sorts. "In being in the same family, you have to sort of develop a sister relationship or friendship in order to all get along," she says.
Meri agrees. "It's definitely a very bonding experience," she says. "We're sisters in that sense, and we're very close."
Janelle says the wives, all of whom have strong personalities, work together toward the same goals, and when times get tough, Kody says there are more people to shoulder the burden.
Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn may be sister wives who share a husband, but at home, personal space is premium. The Brown home is made up of three apartments that are connected under one roof. Each wife has her own bedroom and space to spend time with her children.
"This home is actually built by a polygamist, and this is probably typical of what you'll find in most polygamist families," Janelle says. "Separate living spaces but interconnected. So the family functions as a whole, but we all have our own autonomy."
Kody says he keeps a schedule of where he sleeps on which nights to ensure that he spends the same amount of time with each wife. "Christine and Janelle and I each have our own bedrooms, and Kody is welcome in each of those bedrooms alone," Meri says. "That's just how it is. We don't go weird."
Since Robyn and her children are new to the family and the main house is full, she says they're currently living in a nearby home.
Kody's wives say they know he loves each of them, and it's important for the wives to support each others' relationships. "We also realize how important it is for each of us to have a great relationship with him," Christine says. "Each relationship needs to be good with him in order for the whole family to work well."
When one couple is fighting, the other women say they feel that emotional pain. "I care for all of these people in my life," Janelle says. "If somebody's not happy, you feel that."
If you marry into a polygamist family, Janelle says you're not just marrying your husband...you're marrying the family. "I really knew I was getting the whole family," she says. "That's what I wanted."
Oprah says she believes this is true for every married person. "I think that's the mistake a lot of people make when they marry into a monogamous traditional family," Oprah says. "You think you're just getting the person you're marrying, but you really are marrying their family—especially if that person has children."
Now that the family's in the public eye, rumors have been flying that Janelle and Christine want out. Is it true? "It is a rumor," Janelle says. "I'm not going anywhere." Christine says she doesn't want out either.
But, if they wanted to leave the family, Janelle says they have that option. "We have the choice to leave, to stay," Janelle says.
In 2010, these sister wives welcomed 30-year-old Robyn and her three children into the family...but not without some mixed emotions. Robyn was in a monogamous marriage for eight years before she divorced and decided she wanted to be part of a polygamist family.
When Kody and Meri met Robyn at a party, the two women hit it off. After that day, Robyn and Kody began talking and developed feelings for each other. Every other weekend for four months, Kody drove eight hours round-trip to spend time with Robyn.
"There was a couple times where I'm like, 'You really can't go,'" Christine says. "'You can't leave me. You can't leave your family. You are here. You are replacing your family with Robyn and her kids.'"
When Kody was courting Robyn, the sister wives definitely shared their opinions about her. "[If they didn't], it wouldn't make it tough—it would make it hell," Kody says. "They've got to love this individual as well."
Kody eventually proposed, and Robyn accepted.
The wives approved of the proposal, but the addition of a fourth wife sparked jealousy issues for some. "I'm not going to lie—there are jealousy issues," Meri says. "Those are natural. Hopefully that's something that I can overcome."
Kody and Robyn's engagement upset Christine because she says they broke a fundamentalist Mormon rule. "I found out that Kody sealed the engagement with a kiss, and I freaked," she says. "We didn't kiss until over the altar. ... So, to me, the fact that he had kissed Robyn was devastating."
Just weeks before Robyn's wedding to Kody, Meri and Kody celebrated 20 years of marriage. During their anniversary dinner, Meri confronted Kody about her jealousy and asked him how he would feel if she were giving attention to another man.
"That's just not something I'm comfortable with imagining," Kody said. "The vulgarity of the idea of you with two husbands or another lover sickens me. It seems wrong to God and nature. I understand this seems somewhat hypocritical, and I don't know how to get around it."
Meri admits that her jealousy issues weren't just because of Robyn—she's had these feelings with each of the wives. "I have to work through them," Meri says. "We've had a lot of time together, so I don't get them as much with them [Janelle and Christine]. I get them more now."
The other sister wives also say they've felt jealous in the past. "I realize that [those feelings] are there, and I work through that. I get over the jealousy," Christine says. "I get over my feelings of selfishness or insecurity, whatever."
Robyn says plural marriage helps you work through issues like these and learn to think of other people before yourself. "It rubs off all of your rough spots," she says.
At times, Robyn says she feels like a home-wrecker, and she even considered not being part of the Brown family. "They had a really wonderful thing, and I've stirred it up," Robyn says. "I'm so sorry. I know I'm making you struggle. I'm so sorry. I hate this."
Now, five months into Kody and Robyn's marriage, the other wives are dealing with their emotions and learning to embrace Robyn and her children.
"We really like having her in our family. It's worked out very, very well. She gets along with my teenage daughters. They have a great bond," Christine says. "My kids want to go over and hang out at her house all of the time."
The Brown family says there are defined rules about dating in a polygamist household. For instance, they do not approve of Kody fooling around with other women outside of the marriages. "Absolutely taboo," Kody says.
Robyn says she was very careful when she started seeing Kody. "There are very strict rules that I followed, and he followed out of respect for their marriages," she says.
"So you're dating a married man, but all of his wives know you're dating?" Oprah asks.
Kody clarifies what dating means for him. "Dating to other people might be going out and having a good night dinner and going to one or the other's apartment and spending the night," he says. "That doesn't happen."
Polygamists are not supposed to have sex before marriage. "I know that you all don't want to say the word, but I will say it," Oprah says. "There is no sex before marriage."
Kody's teenage children, Madison, Mariah, Logan and Aspyn, say being raised in a polygamist home has its ups and downs. Janelle's son Logan describes his family as "intense," but this lifestyle is all he knows. "My dad had three wives before I was even born, so I can't really compare it to any monogamous relationship," Logan says.
Logan's house may be filled with children and get noisy at times, but he says he wouldn't want it any other way. "I've grown accustomed to it, but I still wouldn't trade my family growing up experience, because I had a very happy childhood," he says. "I just liked all the events that always went on, that came along with having such a big family."
Mariah, Meri's daughter, says living in the Brown household is fun because she has so many siblings. "I'm my mom's only child, so I would be an only child if we weren't in a polygamist family," she says.
Introducing Robyn into the family was a little strange for some of Kody's children. "It was a different thought because you grow up with four parents, or three moms, your whole life," Madison, Janelle's daughter, says. "Then Robyn comes in, and it messed up things a little bit."
But, over time, Madison says she grew to love her. "I was really happy Robyn came in because Robyn and I get along really well," she says.
Many people ask the children if they'll choose plural marriage when they get older, but Logan says he's focusing on being a teenager now. "I'm still thinking about: 'When's my next sport meet? What grade do I have? Oh, I have homework after I get home from the show,'" he says. "I'm just going through life, day-by-day."
Their mothers may deal with jealousy issues sometimes, but the children say they never feel like their father is giving one child more attention than the others.
"We have our mom who gives out the attention," Madison says. "Then, we have three other moms now who give us attention and then our dad. We all get an equal amount. When we need attention, they give us attention."
Kody and his wives work hard to support their large family, and they have to get creative with how they spend their money. "We just have to learn how to stretch our dollars just like any other American family," Meri says.
One thing that helps out is Christine's home-cooked meals. "We don't eat out a lot," Janelle says. "How could you with as many people as we have?"
Will there be any more Brown family members added to the dinner table anytime soon? "We'll have children," Robyn says.
But, when Oprah asks if Kody will take any more wives, everyone agrees they are pleased with what they have now. "We're happy with our family how it is," Meri says.