If anyone were to glance at 34-year-old Venicia and divorcé Nigel, the man joining her at the table in a dimly-lit restaurant, it would appear like any other first date. Except it isn’t.
The pair are discussing their life stories over a cocktail. As a nanny for well-off families, Venicia has spent the past 20 years travelling around far-flung countries including South Africa and Turkey. Nigel, on the other hand, is a keen musician. So far, so normal. But the pair aren’t just here to swap stories about yachts while giggling. They’ve been matched by experts for one purpose: they both want a baby, and fast.
Both are taking part in Channel 4’s latest series, Strangers Making Babies, a reality show that matches up (you guessed it) strangers wanting to have children, minus the baggage of a romantic relationship.
Programme makers say the show is driven by a rising phenomenon of platonic co-parenting – the decision to have a child with someone you are not romantically involved with and, in many cases, choose not to live with – and the series follows a group of single women as they are matched with several men (picked by fertility specialist Marie Wren and matchmaking expert Gillian McCallum) in the hope of selecting a potential ‘mate’.
The show has already been described as “a reality show too far”, but the premise has merit. After all, in normal times, baby-craving singles are often faced with small talk, several dates, and awkward fumbles in the sheets for weeks, possibly months, only to find out their partner ‘just isn’t ready for a serious relationship’.
Perhaps cutting to the chase is no bad thing. And when in your mid-thirties and above, as many of the women on the show are, there is less time to faff about for those who are keen to have children.
Dr Wren recognises this. “Society has changed so much,” she said recently. “People seem to struggle to meet someone to have a child with.” She also suggests that sperm donation for single women and surrogacy with egg donation, which is an option for men, is not ideal for all. “The hope was that by providing this thorough and considered framework [the show], we’d give possible co-parents greater reassurance and safety.”
Platonic co-parenting is well established in gay communities, along with egg and sperm donation, but as a trend amongst heterosexual singles, the movement is on the rise.
In the UK alone, there are over 70,000 people signed up to co-parenting sites. Coparents.co.uk, which is based in Europe, notes that two-thirds of its 120,000 worldwide members are straight.
53,000 member-strong PollenTree.com, however, is split 60 percent women to 40 percent men. In fact, the site ranks the domestic market as its strongest. During lockdown, both sites reported traffic surges of up to 50 percent.
When using these sites, it helps to have a set of questions. Some examples, set out by one site, are: “are they [your potential co-parent] financially stable?”; do they have a strong family behind them that might be able to step in if you guys need help (if you don’t have this yourself); “Are they of the same religion (If this is important to you)”; and “how do they cope with stress?”
Participants on Strangers Making Babies have the luxury of their partners being vetted on their behalf (via fertility tests and sessions with legal advisers) but some websites are unregulated, which can result in moral, ethical and legal issues. This is one scenario in which thorough research is absolutely essential.
So what are co-parents and how does it work?
According to Modamily, a co-parenting website with the tagline ‘a new way to family’, co-parents can be: “straight or gay, single or in a relationship, childless, or already a parent.”
The site goes on to say that “raising a family with a like-minded and responsible person who, just like you, is ready and excited to have a baby, enables you to assure a stable and loving family environment for your child.”
One Modamily user, then 40-year-old Nisha Nayak, who appeared on a platonic parenting BBC documentary in 2018, as part of the Generation Project, describes the what it’s like finding a suitable co-parent online.
“A challenge is that you don’t know the person,” she told documentary makers. “You don’t have the history. It’s kind of like taking a big leap of faith.” Luckily, she eventually found Charles Bourne, a then 43-year old man living with his husband Lynn in Philadelphia.
After feeling “positive” about each other, the pair were able to conceive fraternal twins, Ella and Vaughn, through IVF. The pair split their time with the children every three days.
Charles’ husband Lynn admits that he’d not given much thought to having children before, but looking after the twins gives him “a deep sense of satisfaction”. He also stresses the importance of family therapy and open communication when co-parenting. The twins now have three loving, present and stable parents.
For Professor Susan Golombok, director of the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Family Research and author of We Are Family, there is merit to the element of ‘stability’ when co-parenting.
Her recent book examines how the family unit has extended beyond the traditional nuclear format since the 1980s, and she and her team have studied families created via IVF and sperm donation, as well as the dynamics of lesbian mother families, gay fathers, and single mothers by choice.
“I first noticed the phenomenon [co-parenting] when I came across a website named Pride Angel in 2014,” she says. “Though the site was used to source donors, women were also looking to meet potential co-parents. It was something I hadn’t heard of before and an entirely new way of forming families.” Golombok and her team organised a survey with the site that revealed over 100 participants were looking for just that.
“I have an open mind with all of this,” she says. At the moment, the psychologist and her team are hoping to research up to 50 co-parenting families, interviewing parent and child about the dynamics of their relationships. “So far, we’ve got 20 families and it’s still quite early.” The study is raising interesting questions, such as: “is this a relationship with the father that endures?” and “what is the nature of the child’s relationship with each parent?”.
If both parents are able to form a strong parenting bond without the emotional side, she suggests, that could form the foundation of a healthy and stable family unit. “My colleague pointed out that, in many ways, co-parenting is like sperm donation with added benefits. The children grow up with a closer relationship with their father.”
It’s helpful to note that, for many, the ethos behind platonic co-parenting is raising a baby with a friend rather than a stranger but, despite the fact that friends may be less critical than romantic partners, disagreements can and (let’s face it) probably will arise when looking after children.
Platonic co-parenting is a relatively new concept for many, but, the challenges that come with the arrangement will be familiar to any parent who has been through a divorce or relationship split. Though choosing to co-parent at the outset is not the same as doing so following a break-up, potential co-parents can learn from websites such as the following for advice.
Helpguide.org, an online site offering co-parenting and joint custody tips, suggests that successful co-parenting, particularly for divorced couples, lies in a degree of distance. “The key to successful co-parenting is to separate the personal relationship with your ex from the co-parenting relationship,” the site says.
“It may be helpful to start thinking of your relationship with your ex as a completely new one – one that is entirely about the well-being of your children, and not about either of you.” Keeping children at the centre of all discussions is probably a wise idea when parenting, especially if you’re in a co-parent arrangement. And this comes in handy if disagreements arise, too.
What to do when problems arise
It comes as no surprise that co-parenting is greatly influenced by the reciprocal interactions of each parent. And even in the best of platonic relationships, it is natural for fractures to occasionally appear. As Charles’ husband Lynn noted earlier, communication is key for success.
Deborah Serani Psy.D of Psychology Today recommends two methods that co-parents can keep in mind: strategic problem solving and social-psychological problem solving.
In short, strategic problem-solving focuses on the issues at hand; co-parents using this model are generally advised to address any childcare issues objectively and without emotion. Each parent is directed to resolve conflict through the following processes: exchanging information about needs and priorities; building upon shared concerns; and, eventually, searching for solutions.
Social-psychological problem solving, on the other hand, is based around emotion. Using this model, parents are advised to look at the emotional reasons for co-parenting issues and assumes that parenting conflicts are bound to arise – a look at co-parenting blogs suggests that jealousy is a common issue. Serani says that co-parents using this model should approach with empathy, compassion and “authentic concern for the children.”