In 2009, Natasha Bakht had a life full of friends, family and career. At 36, she was on track to become a tenured law professor at the University of Ottawa. She was lauded for her skills in contemporary Indian dance. Yet something was missing. “I wanted to have children,” she says, “and I wasn’t in a relationship. But I didn’t feel like that should impinge on my dream of having a kid.”
Bakht decided she would try anonymous sperm donation through an Ottawa fertility clinic and was elated when she conceived on the second try. She also quickly realized it would be wise to accept the help of a good friend and colleague who offered support during the pregnancy and childbirth. That person was Lynda Collins.
“I have always loved babies,” says Collins, “and I knew I wanted to have kids myself. I thought it would be good to experience birth as a helper the first time.”
When Bakht went for a routine ultrasound in February 2010, doctors found her baby wasn’t moving and ordered an emergency C-section. Scared and stressed, the friends rejoiced when Bakht’s son, Elaan, was finally born. But they learned his umbilical cord had developed a knot in utero that deprived his brain of oxygen. Elaan started having seizures at six months old. He was later diagnosed with cerebral palsy, cortical visual impairment and epilepsy. Bakht worried how she would manage caring for a child with special needs as a single parent.
Collins, meanwhile, didn’t scare away. “From the day he was born, I just lost my heart to him,” she says. She helped Bakht with child-rearing duties — everything from diaper changes to just coming over to play with Elaan. Eventually, Collins bought a condo in the same building as her friend so she could continue to help.
Besides their adoration of Elaan, the two friends found they shared parenting values, such as “lavishing the kids with affection and kindness,” says Collins. They made decisions about Elaan’s care together and organized their schedules to share duties. Collins developed a strong bond with Elaan, who refers to her as “Lindy-mom.” She was more than a family friend or godmother — she had become Elaan’s parent.
A couple of years ago, the women felt it was in Elaan’s best interest to make the arrangement legal. Bakht wanted to ensure he would be looked after if something happened to her. It would also help define Collins’ role. “I wanted the clarity,” Collins says. “Almost for the emotional reasons, to say, ‘This is my son. I’m his mom.’” But the court wouldn’t allow it, since Collins and Bakht were not in a conjugal relationship — their friendship is, and has always been, platonic.
With the help of their lawyer and sworn letters of support from their community, they made a declaration of parentage for Collins, which the court ratified. In January 2017, they earned a place in Canadian legal history as the first platonic co-parents to be named on a child’s birth certificate. The women call each other “co-mommas.”
While the details of their story are unique, Collins and Bakht are part of a growing number of single Canadians who are taking an unconventional path to parenthood: raising children with a platonic friend. “No sex, no marriage, just the baby carriage,” as one platonic co-parent put it blithely. And these avant-garde co-parents are causing Canadian lawmakers to officially redefine what “family” means. Exact numbers are hard to come by because such families often occupy two households, and the census doesn’t recognize friends who were never romantic partners as “parents.” Instead, it would consider the household where the child resides as headed by a single parent.
But existing data does show that Canadian family structures are changing. In 1961, married couples headed 92 percent of households, according to Statistics Canada. By 2011, that number had dropped to 66 percent. Instead, common-law couples accounted for nearly 17 percent of all families, and single parents represented 16 percent. As well, surrogacy has been on the rise since the early 2000s. Canadians may still value coupledom, but these numbers suggest it is no longer the only acceptable arrangement for child-bearing and child-rearing.
“Historically, there has been no shortage of children born into marriages that aren’t romantic,” says Stephanie Coontz, professor and author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage. Coontz points out in her book that, for most of human history, romance often took a back seat to more practical concerns like family alliances, political strategy or economic security. But the idea of having a “non-marriage,” as she calls platonic co-parenting, where friends or acquaintances raise and even conceive children together, “is pretty much unprecedented.”
Finding a co-parent can happen in many ways. Single people who want a baby connect through social circles or online. Stories range from asking a trusted longtime friend to finding someone on websites like Modamily.com or CoParents.com that match prospective parents all over the world.
“I noticed a good portion of family and friends spending their 20s and 30s focused on their careers and putting off marriage and children,” says Modamily owner and founder Ivan Fatovic. “Yet, as they approached 40, especially in the case of female friends, there came an enormous amount of pressure for finding a partner, often resulting in rushed marriages ending in divorce. . . . I felt there had to be another viable option.”
Fatovic says Canada is a co-parenting hotspot, with about 2,000 registered Modamily users. Globally, 20 percent of users are LGBTQ, and two-thirds are women. Some matches fall in love and go the route of traditional marriage, but many don’t. For everyone, the goal is simple: find a baby daddy or a baby mama — one the child will know and have a relationship with.
Fatovic says a lot of people want to meet the donor rather than use a sperm bank, where the father’s identity is often not revealed until the child is 18. In many cases, “the kid wants to know who is their bio-dad before that.”
This is exactly how Dawn Pieke happened upon a co-parenting website one night in 2010. She was at home in Omaha, Neb., 39, single and badly wanting a child. A nine-year relationship had just ended, so Pieke wasn’t ready for romance, but she knew she had to have a baby soon if she was going to have one at all. She thought about becoming a parent alone but didn’t want to use an anonymous sperm donor. She herself was the daughter of a single mother and wanted her child to grow up knowing both parents.
“There are a lot of people who are starting to buck the system,” says Pieke. “They’re saying, ‘You know what? I don’t have to just get married to have a family.’ You don’t have to settle. . . . You could find that perfect somebody for the first time when you’re 80 years old, but in the meantime, you could still have children.” She posted her profile and connected with Kal-Elle Jagger, a transgender woman who also wanted a baby. Jagger, who went by the name Fabian Blue at the time, is American but was living in Australia. They got to know each other long distance, discussing how and where they would raise their child, methods of discipline, spirituality and practicalities like money. Their personalities clicked, and they fell in love — not with each other, but with the idea of having and raising a baby together.
“Our intention was always to live in the same house or live next door to each other and co-parent. We were setting up this perfect scenario,” says Pieke. But not long after their healthy girl, Indigo, was born, Jagger’s mother became ill, and she moved back to New York City to take care of her. Pieke’s mother also had health problems, so she stayed in Nebraska to help.
Then in 2015, Jagger came out as trans and revealed her intention to stay in New York, where she could get the treatment she needed to transition. Pieke struggled with the distance at first, but says she fully supports Jagger, who regularly Skypes with Indigo and visits her in Nebraska when she can.
Pieke points out their scenario could happen even in a traditional marriage and doesn’t mean platonic co-parenting provides children with less stability. “When you’re choosing a co-parent, it is a commitment. It’s giving and taking, like in any kind of relationship. You’re still making that commitment to the other person and putting your kids first.”
Family law is having to play catch-up to recognize these commitments. In November 2016, Ontario passed the All Families Are Equal Act, which allows up to four people to be the legal parents of a child they plan, conceive and raise together. The first of its kind in Canada, the legislation protects the relationship between the children and all their parents, including non-biological ones.
Before this change in law, managing disagreements between co-parents could get messy. One lesbian couple in Toronto, for example, had cohabitated for about five years when they decided to try to conceive. Rather than find a sperm donor through a clinic, Mary* and Camille* asked a mutual friend, Dean,* who was gay and wanted kids. They drew up their own agreement declaring all three of them parents.
“We felt that it would be hard enough for a child of two lesbians to have a mystery biological link,” explained Camille in court as to why they wanted their child to know his or her father. “We thought it would be good for the health and well-being of a potential child. . . . But certainly with parameters.” A healthy girl was born in 2002 to three loving and engaged parents who lived in two households — Mary (the biological mother) and Camille in one and Dean in the other. Their agreement stated that the couple would be the custodial parents of Alice,* while Dean would have access to her on Thursdays and for one weekend per month when she was ready.
They operated as a family — coming together for Christmases, birthdays, Pride weeks and school social events. From time to time, they shared dinners at each other’s homes or with friends. In summer, they went to cottages; in winter, they skied. In February 2004, Dean and Camille waited in line from 4 a.m. to register Alice for preschool.
But as the years went by, Mary and Camille took issue with what they called the “lack of structure” in Dean’s life, which, they say, exposed their daughter to new men as he began and ended relationships, seeking a lifelong partner of his own. Mary and Camille also alleged numerous violations of their agreement. For example, they said Dean did not advise them or five-year-old Alice in advance of his marriage or of his plans to have a child with his new husband. He also wanted to spend more time with Alice.
Mary and Camille went to family court, seeking for Camille to legally adopt the girl, which would have cut out Dean since the laws of the day only permitted two legal parents. Dean, for his part, said that for the court to allow the couple to do so would render him “a friendly uncle” in Alice’s life. He went on to argue that the adoption order “discriminates against fathers, and in particular . . . gay fathers, because it says you’re a second-class parent. You are little more than a sperm donor we control. It will have a chilling effect on the reproductive choices available to the gay and lesbian community.”
In the end, the court found the best interest of the child was to preserve the relationship with all parents, including her father, and did not allow the adoption.
Today, the All Families Are Equal Act would likely protect the relationship between Dean and Alice and between Alice and her non-biological mother, dispensing with the need for their initial co-parenting agreement or a court battle.
Little is known about how these platonic co-parenting arrangements will affect the children. The authors of a small 2015 study in the journal Human Reproduction asked members of the co-parenting website Pride Angel to respond to a survey. Among the study’s conclusions was that, because they often straddle two households, the living arrangements of co-parented children may mimic those of kids who have experienced parental separation — often the mother is the custodial parent, and the father has access rights.
But unlike the children of separated parents, the study’s authors point out, co-parented children “may not experience the negative factors associated with parental separation or divorce, such as marital conflict, separation from a parent with whom they shared their daily lives, a drop in household income, parental distress or the need to adapt to a new stepfamily.”
The psychological health of children in platonic co-parenting families will also depend on the quality of the parents’ relationship. According to the study, kids are at greater risk of psychological issues if the co-parents aren’t supportive of one another. Basically, the more the co-parents co-operate in child-rearing, the better it is for their children’s emotional well-being.
Platonic co-parenting relationships are like any other family. Full of the same joys and trials, and prone to the same conflicts. The difference is that prospective parents today probably have more freedom than at any point in Canadian history to choose how, when and with whom they have children. They are no longer dependent on the institution of marriage to do so in a “socially acceptable” way.
“As we see more people choosing different life courses, people are freer to design one that suits them best,” says Nora Spinks, CEO of the Vanier Institute of the Family. “There’s more tolerance in the community and respect for differences. There’s more open discussion for different ways of parenting and living. We can separate parenting from coupledom; we can separate intimacy from a [parenting] relationship.”
One thing that isn’t separated, however, is love. Bakht and Collins’ relationship is platonic, yet there is clearly a lot of care, support and co-operation between the women. They keep Elaan’s best interests at the forefront of everything they do. “Our goal is to bring joy and fun and laughter and fulfilment into Elaan’s life,” says Collins. “And kind of roll with the punches of whatever comes up.”
This story first appeared in the June 2018 issue of The Observer with the title "Family ties."
Raizel Robin is a writer in Toronto.
Get The Observer’s latest stories on justice, faith and ethics by signing up for our e-newsletter. It only takes a few seconds to join and we’ll deliver award-winning content to your in-box.