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When Jenica Anderson and Stephan DuVal clicked on one another’s online profile on Modamily.com – tagline “A new way to family” – neither was looking for romance. They were both in their late 30s, and their short bios indicated that they shared similar views on health and education, had solid incomes and were searching for the same thing: a non-romantic partner to have – and raise – a child with. A co-parent.
Anderson, 38, a geologist from Montana, US, had matched with and spoken to 10 different men, mostly via so-called mating sites – matchmaking sites for people who want a baby without a romantic relationship – when she had her first phone call with DuVal, from Vancouver, Canada, in spring 2019. Their conversations quickly started to run into the night and, that June, she flew out to spend the weekend with him. They talked, went hiking and jumped into a lake together. “It felt like a date,” says DuVal, 37, a camera operator. “Except we could be totally honest about wanting to have a kid soon, without the goofiness and flirting of a first date. You’re looking to achieve a common goal.”
In a world where biological science and equal rights have diversified ways to start a family, platonic co-parenting – the decision to have a child with someone you are not romantically involved with and, in most cases, choose not to live with – remains a relatively new phenomenon.
Well established in gay communities, along with egg and sperm donation, it is on the rise among heterosexual singles. Tens of thousands have signed up to matchmaking sites at a cost of around £100 a year. On Coparents.co.uk, which launched in Europe in 2008, two-thirds of its 120,000 worldwide members are straight. Modamily, which launched in LA in 2012, has 30,000 international members, of whom 80% are straight and 2,000 are British. UK-based competitor PollenTree.com has 53,000 members, split 60/40 women to men, and ranks its domestic market as its strongest. During the first lockdown, the latter two sites reported traffic surges of 30-50%.
Prof Susan Golombok, director of the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research and author of We Are Family, a new book examining the wellbeing of children in structures beyond the nuclear unit, has researched new family forms since the 1980s. She has studied families created via IVF, sperm and egg donation, and surrogacy, as well as lesbian mother families, gay father families and single mothers by choice.
Golombok’s team turned their attention to elective co-parenting as an emerging trend in 2015. They are now following 50 families in what they believe to be the world’s first study considering the impact of the arrangement on children.
She says: “It was a gradual realisation that this was a new phenomenon picking up speed. The main question for us is how does this relationship between parents, where there is no romantic relationship, develop, with each other and the child? Is the relationship breakdown rate higher or lower? Very early findings suggest that how well the parents communicate with each other and collaborate over childcare seems to make a big difference.”
The quality of parents’ relationships with one another, and their level of intimacy, has a large bearing on children’s welfare, she says. “It is possible, though, that taking away romantic baggage could even make for a more stable environment.”
Anderson already had a young son – she split from his father when he was one. She signed up to two websites in early 2019. She wanted the opportunities that having two parents in a child’s life could bring. However, she lived in a small community where there was no one willing to enter into a co-parenting arrangement, and had already considered and dismissed men she had dated before.
“I really didn’t want a romantic connection; I thought it would convolute things,” she says. “I’d seen the traditional recipe not work out. [Stephan and I] had a shared sense of direction – raising a happy child who makes it through life OK. My ex and I are very amicable co-parents, and that showed me there were real strengths to doing it this way. I wanted to tap into the stuff that’s good for the kid – a functional dynamic and a stable life. Stephan and I asked ourselves, ‘Can we be allies and ensure that any future kid gets the best?’ If it was just about parenting, we could remain pragmatic. I wanted to grow my family with somebody who wanted to be a doting father and wasn’t just having a baby for me.”
Her parents weren’t so convinced. “I’m pretty sure [they] lost a lot of sleep over what I was doing. My father worried about finances. On some level, they probably worried about the morality.”
More than 800 miles away, DuVal, frustrated by his efforts to meet someone who shared his desire for children, had also subscribed to Modamily. “I wanted a child to give life more meaning; a lot of people I know are married to their jobs,” he says. “I hoped that, maybe, I’d find romance eventually, but [for me] it was time to start a family.”
He met three other possible matches before connecting with Anderson. He admired her bravery, parenting style and family ties. “The big fear was that I’d match with someone who turns out to be a terrible human. But my fear quickly disappeared. We spoke a lot about child-raising scenarios. We were often on the same page. We talked about our own lives, what shaped us, past relationships.”
Anderson was drawn to his sense of adventure and flexibility. She says: “If unpredictable things came our way, [I felt] he could adapt. He had great dad qualities. I quickly felt confident in this really unknown and unconventional partnership.”
By the end of that June weekend, they returned to their lives having found the person they wanted to parent with. By September, they had conceived – naturally – and were pregnant. “Going into this, I presumed getting pregnant would be clinical, but once we spent time together we decided to try naturally,” says Anderson. “I tracked my ovulation, and we fell pregnant during a road trip on the west coast.” (Most co-parenting partnerships either have sex or choose the “turkey baster” method of artificial insemination at home. Some choose IVF.)
A year after their first meeting, their daughter was born.
As Golombok’s team were noticing the rise of this new family unit, Oliver and Kate were imagining what their own might look like. Oliver had tried for years to have a baby in his former relationship. In his 40s, the relationship ended, but his desire to become a dad did not, and he logged on to The Stork, a London-based site which has been responsible for 15 babies since it started matchmaking “people ready to be parents” five years ago.
“So many of my mates had children and ended up with disastrous, costly divorces, only seeing their kids irregularly,” says Oliver. “I thought it would be better to get on with somebody as a mate and have a baby without wasting time.”
He was introduced to Kate, and they scored 93% in a compatibility test through the agency, which sits at the top end of the market, charging £4k-£10k for its bespoke membership packages. These include Plan A, for prospective parents hoping to find romance, too, and Plan B, for those only wanting to co-parent. Oliver and Kate embarked on Plan A, but, after a few dates, and going to bed together, quickly switched to the platonic option.
“Nothing blossomed romantically,” says Oliver. “But our principles for raising a child were the same – fun and spontaneity; not too indulgent; education was important. It felt straightforward. Kate takes me as I am. She is compromising, undemanding and easy to deal with.”
Kate says: “I set out to meet someone I’d be with for ever, but I was in my late 30s, time was ticking, my fertility was not that great, and having a child was very important to me. Oliver’s kind and gallant; he would protect us both. We got on extremely well.”
Kate became pregnant four months later. As she and Oliver had already slept together in the early weeks of dating, having sex to try for their baby felt like the obvious approach. “During the pregnancy, we did all the things you would with a regular, long-term partner: scans, shopping for baby stuff, texts when the baby kicked,” says Oliver. “I was at the birth, too.”
But it was not entirely straightforward. Fearful of the prejudice that co-parenting families frequently face, Oliver and Kate (not their real names) have, to this day, pretended to family and friends that they were in a relationship from when they met until their son was 18 months old.
Kate says: “Oliver moved into my spare room until we faked splitting up. It was a farce. Both our families are quite conservative. Even now, only one or two friends know the truth. We should be able to live our lives without fear of judgment, but the reality is that having a child through a one-night stand probably feels more acceptable to people than this.”
Oliver adds: “People are judgmental about changing the course of reproduction, manufacturing a family, even when the typical way often doesn’t work out.”
Now aged four, their son spends every other weekend and one night a week at his dad’s; the pair live within an hour’s drive of each other. They go on family days out, and spend Christmas and birthdays together. Both describe their relationship now as one akin to best mates.
“We’re always laughing,” says Kate. “We’re on the same wavelength, and our priority is our son, who is an affectionate, physical, happy little boy. We respect each other. When Oliver picks him up or drops him off, he comes in for tea; I know plenty of divorced couples where the dad sits outside in the car. We both believe that men and women bring different things to a child’s life.”
Both now have new partners, who have children from previous relationships. Oliver says: “There’s none of the animosity that often comes with exes. We all spent last Christmas together; there were seven children there. I hope our son sees [in his parents] a great bond between two people who give him the love and support he needs. We will explain that to him as he grows up.”
Had she been 29, Kate says she might not have chosen this path to parenthood, but she adds: “I think there are far worse ways to bring a child into this world. I’ve got my baby and the love of my life, but through two different men. Our son doesn’t see mummy and daddy kissing and cuddling in the same house, but he sees that he’s loved and wanted, very much, by both of us.”
Unlike surrogacy, for example, which has percolated into the public consciousness, partly thanks to celebrities such as Elton John and Kim Kardashian West, platonic co-parenting remains little understood and less spoken about. Sites are overrepresented by members working in the media, senior civil service, law, medicine and banking, where privacy is prized, says Patrick Harrison, founder of PollenTree.com.
“There are a lot of people in this country who probably don’t share a view that it’s a great thing, and they can be vocal,” he says. “Our members keep a low profile because it’s nobody else’s business. They don’t need the rest of society to tell them it’s a good or bad thing.”
These concerns may not be completely unfounded, says Golombok, but there are upsides. “People still see the traditional family as the gold standard, and every other kind is measured against that. But the overarching finding of our research, over 40 years, is that these are well-adjusted families, sometimes more so than traditional ones. These are wanted children. The biggest concern is whether these children might be stigmatised, judged or bullied because of their family.”
Golombok writes in her book: “From our studies of new family forms that have emerged since the 1970s –– families that were considered threatening and objectionable when they first appeared –– it seems likely that many of the fears about future families will turn out to be unjustified.”
Despite the many changes in family makeup over recent decades, Golombok says it is hard to know, yet, whether elective co-parenting will become commonplace. It is not without difficulty and, as with any relationship, these partnerships can break down, too.
Amy, 37, had her daughter, Emma, six years ago after approaching a friend of almost a decade to raise a child together. They both longed to be parents, shared views on healthcare and schooling, and lived 15 minutes apart, in California. They talked over their plan for three months, before falling pregnant at the first attempt.
She says: “For years, I wanted the big love. I ended up with a very broken heart, but still wanted a baby. I could have paid $500 at the sperm bank, but I was pretty sure I could do it for free. If I couldn’t have the big dream, this felt like the next best thing.” The sex, she says, was “something I had to get a bit drunk for. I was so determined to make a baby, though – I was a woman on a mission. I did ‘enjoy’ it, but I wouldn’t do it again with someone I didn’t really want to have sex with, even for a baby.”
While Amy’s mother was excited about having a grandchild, her father thought it was an “awful” choice. “Friends of friends would tell each other they were outraged I was ‘starting from a broken home’,” she remembers.
When Emma was a newborn, Amy’s co-parent slept on her sofa to help with night feeds. As she grew, they established 50/50 parenting, working opposite ends of the day so both enjoyed daily time with their daughter. “There were moments when I thought ‘Thank God for him’,” she says.
“I had an open-door policy. I organised family photos, pumpkin picking on Halloween, and we spent Christmas and Thanksgiving together. I hoped my child would have a loving, engaged mother and father. We had our social, dating and professional lives; she had two families who love her. It seemed to work well.”
But, speaking days after mediation in a custody battle she describes as “the biggest imaginable nightmare”, Amy now recognises that cracks appeared before Emma was born.
“Having sex to conceive was probably confusing for us both. There was a shift. He started calling me ‘hun’ and ‘babe’. He was hoping for a relationship,” she says. Boundaries became a source of tension. “We went to therapy together soon after [Emma] was born. My big fear was being separated from her; his was being left out.”
In the UK, co-parents can draw up a private agreement of terms, but the paperwork is unenforceable in court – in a custody battle, a judge would only consider what was in the best interests of the child.
“If someone was to say now, ‘Should I co-parent?’ I’d say, ‘Absolutely not,’” says Amy. “People used to ask me how I’d protect myself: you can’t. I have a gorgeous, smart, empathic daughter, but it’s much like going through a divorce. The whole point of co-parenting was to avoid that.”
She adds: “I feel a lot of shame because I chose this. I thought I could make it work. Looking back, I wonder if I really felt my child needed a father, or whether that was societal pressure?”
It is impossible to calculate how many children have been born this way; bigger websites unscientifically guess that they have been responsible for about 1,000 births each.
In their 2015 study Friendly Allies, Golombok’s Cambridge team found that the main motivation for seeking a co-parent online was wanting a child to know both biological parents. Others included concern about getting older, and sharing the financial cost of parenting.
Sites invest a great deal in moderation, to eliminate scammers. For example, if a man using PollenTree specifies natural insemination only, he is treated with suspicion and his profile is closed down. “The stakes are very high, and we need to sleep at night,” says Harrison.
LA-based Ivan Fatovic worked in film and TV before he founded Modamily in 2012, after a conversation with a group of girlfriends tiring of the dating game. The site’s first baby was born the following year. Members pay $29.99 a month (£23), and are asked to rank what they value in a co-parent. They are matched by algorithms; fields include income, health, creativity and physical appearance. A bespoke concierge service, where the site vets potential matches for you, is available for $2,000-10,000 (£1,550-£7,750).
“Tinder caters for 18- to 25-year-olds; we cater for people in their 30s and 40s,” says Fatovic. “On a first date, saying, ‘I want three kids in the next five years’, is not something people, particularly men, want to hear. [But] everyone on the site is thinking about having a child sooner or later. The divorce rate means that living in two separate homes, when mom and dad might have new partners, is not unusual. Modern arrangements, like Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s ‘conscious uncoupling’ were already happening, there just wasn’t a name for it.
“People have started to recognise that the person you have kids with may not be the person you grow old with – but they still want the influences of both a mother and father in their child’s life. They want that consistency, financial help and support system.”
Like The Stork, Modamily also features a romance option, for those searching for a long-term partner too. “I find when two straight people meet on the site it often goes down the romance path,” says Fatovic.
Anderson and DuVal may not have clicked for love – but it followed anyway. By the time they said goodbye after that first weekend by the lake, there were the makings of deeper feelings. By the time Anderson was pregnant three months later, they were a couple, despite her intentions to the contrary.
“Ultimately, I ended up falling for Stephan for the same reason I chose to parent with him: it was easy to communicate, share information, be honest and vulnerable with one another,” she says.
“She’s the first girl my parents met in a decade,” adds DuVal.
They welcomed their daughter into the world on a sunny, mid-June day in Montana, where they’ve made their family home. They remain a couple, but wherever their romance takes them, parenting together remains their priority. “I think it’s possible to go into this without falling in love, but there are benefits of having fallen for each other,” says DuVal. “Without that, there would have been all these moments during the pregnancy, when I wasn’t needed, that I’d have missed. I wanted to be around and she wanted me there.
“Everyone asks how we met. If I don’t know them well, I just say ‘online’. If I had to date again, I would start in the open and honest way we did. It’s a stronger foundation.”
Gazing on her expanded family in the warmth of their newborn bubble, Anderson says she takes none of it for granted. “We have these ideas of what relationships or romance look like. I think deciding to co-parent is, in some ways, falling in love with someone – even if it’s not a romantic love.”
Names and some identifying details have been changed.
Deborah Linton is a freelance journalist and regularly writes for Guardian Weekend magazine.