Nick Farrow wanted what a lot of people do: a child, and a parenting partner. At 45, after a long-term romance didn't work out, he decided to take matters into his own hands, entering into a platonic open arrangement that has flourished for nine years, since daughter Milly was born.
Whether it's with friends, known sperm donors, or co-parenting connections made on so-called mating sites, more families are coming together platonically, without the pain of divorce or the added stress and expense of going it alone.
Choosing to parent together platonically, while living separately or under the same roof, is an idea that's been around for years among LGBTQ people. It has gained ground more recently among heterosexuals, and interest skyrocketed during the pandemic.
Farrow and his parenting partner live about 15 miles apart, he in the English seaside town of Brighton. Their daughter, conceived through insemination, shuttles between the two. Not unlike divorced couples with kids, the two come together for Milly's birthdays, and they sometimes alternate Christmases and other special occasions.
Explaining their arrangement to loved ones was a process. "When the time came, we got everybody to meet everybody," Farrow says of family and friends. “We invited them to ask all the difficult, awkward questions. There was the feeling that what we were doing was a bit odd, that it could be risky, that it could be dangerous. It really, really helped to get everybody on board.”
Farrow met his parenting partner on Modamily, one of a handful of sites and apps aimed at family building, as opposed to the hookup culture and endless swiping of dating services.
Since 2011, about 100,000 people from around the world have registered on Modamily. At least 1,000 babies have been born through partnerships created there, says founder and CEO Ivan Fatovic. About half involved known sperm donors from a database of nearly 10,000 that the site maintains, he says.
“We’re seeing people look at all the different alternate ways of starting a family because they've been thinking about it for many years,” Fatovic says. “Whatever they’ve been doing up to this point wasn’t working so they start thinking outside the box.”
There's no one scenario that defines elective co-parenting. Most, but definitely not all, platonic co-parents live separately. Some who seek out Modamily or similar services are in search of sperm donors they can meet personally, with or without the potential to share their lives once a baby is born.
Other parenting partnerships come together out of need for financial and care support in raising children. Still others involve two friends who want children without romance. And there are those like Farrow, unlucky in love with a burning desire to parent, but not alone.
Last year, TV commentator Van Jones welcomed a baby girl with a longtime female friend. He was already the father of two boys with his ex-wife, Jana Carter. Jones declined an interview request through a spokesman.
And there's Jones's CNN colleague, Anderson Cooper. He's the father of two boys born via surrogacy after he and boyfriend Benjamin Maisani downshifted to close friends. Cooper and Maisani are now parenting together.
The idea of co-parenting is, of course, nothing new among divorced couples, but more divorced women are leaning on each other to make it through.
About six years ago, 39-year-old Ashley Simpo and her son moved in with a friend and her two kids to share expenses and parenting duties in Brooklyn, New York. High rents and low salaries were crushing them both.
“I think that the alternative for both of us would have been homelessness or moving back in with parents and relocating. For parents, that means ripping your kids out of their schools,” she says.
Their “mommune” of five lasted about six months, until their finances stabilised and they amicably ended the arrangement.
“It really opened my eyes in terms of how mothers support each other. I had never really tapped into a mother ship or an intentional community network,” said Simpo, who had been divorced about two years at the time. “It was really healing for me.”
Also read: Is simply the label of being married enough?
Platonic co-parenting arrangements require thoughtful structure. That can get difficult when multiple parents are involved — after divorce, for instance, or when friendships change.
Many sign parenting agreements with the help of lawyers or family coaches to crystallize rules and lay out what is non-negotiable. There's religion, but also what happens if either co-parent begins dating or gets married? And there's the day-to day, like how finances are handled and what disciplinary approach will be taken.
“In platonic co-parenting relationships, I think people forget to plan for all of those little nuances,” says Alysha Price, who owns a firm offering parenting coaches. “It's not always going to be stars and rainbows and happy days."
In London, Patrick Harrison co-founded PollenTree.com in 2012 as a resource for people interested in platonic co-parenting. It grew quickly and now serves the U.S. as well. Users are split between people looking to meet and choose sperm donors without the option of co-parenting, and those “really focused on creating their own kind of alternative family,” Harrison said.
“People are looking at family life and thinking, ‘I want some of that, too.’ People have this kind of misconception that it’s all very alternative, but it’s deeply not. A lot of our members are really conventional. They want kids. They just want kids,” Harrison said.
The pandemic sent Pollen Tree's numbers soaring. Just before lockdowns began, Harrison said, the site had about 40 signups a day. The number shot up to 100 on some days in 2020 and 2021. Things have stabilized for now among its 100,000 members. Costs are in the $30 range monthly.
Tracy Smith, 43, is an immigration attorney in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She found Modamily in 2020 and has been trying to find a platonic arrangement with a stranger.
“I've always wanted to become a mother. I've always wanted my own biological child,” she says. “But I've really not had great luck in relationships. I'd been on the dating apps for 13 years.”
Smith has spoken to male friends about platonically parenting together. “I haven’t found anybody who's willing to take that leap. I mean, it’s a big commitment. The No. 1 choice is a romantic relationship that leads to a baby. But I mean, I’m 43 and dating is tough. It's exhausting.”