Platonic parenting? How some start families when romance isn’t happening or wanted
A growing share of adults are looking for partners to help with parenting — but aren’t counting on finding “the one”
Robin Mock is trying to figure out how she wants to become a mom. She knows she wants to have a child — and soon. She’s 43, in the final stages of divorce and keenly aware that her longtime longing for motherhood has not only not happened, but gets less likely with the passage of time.
So the Los Angeles doctor of audiology is looking seriously at her options, from fostering a child to adoption, from sperm donation to the increasingly popular platonic parenting.
The latter option involves prioritizing partnership above romance, so instead of finding someone you hope to spend the rest of your life with in a couples-focused relationship, you look for someone you feel would be a good parent with whom to share raising a child.
While the practice is growing, critics warn that children do best when their family life is stable — and that’s more likely when they’re being raised by their own married parents who are committed to the children and to each other.
“Children benefit from being raised by two stably married parents,” said W. Bradford Wilcox, a scholar at the Institute for Family Studies and director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia. “And, frankly, married parents have enough challenges sticking together for their kids and one another. Without the bond of married love, platonic parents are much less likely to stick together and give kids the stable, loving family that is best for them.”
Platonic parenting, according to Naomi R. Cahn, a law professor and director of the Family Law Center at the University of Virginia School of Law, is an international movement that probably got a boost from the pandemic because dating slowed down and the ticking of the biological clock may have seemed much louder.
Platonic parenting is also more established within gay and lesbian communities, but as a recent Guardian article notes, it’s increasingly popular with heterosexual singles, too. The news site notes tens of thousands of people have signed up on the matching website Coparents.co.uk, while U.S.-based Modamily.com has 30,000 international members, two-thirds of them heterosexual. In the United Kingdom, Pollentree.com has 53,000 members, three-fifths of them women. Some on those sites seek a parenting and romantic partner, others a parenting partner only. The big goal for all members is becoming a parent.
Platonic co-parents could have children a number of ways, including though intercourse, surrogacy, in vitro fertilization and adoption.
People thinking about forming nontraditional parenting partnerships don’t tend to trumpet their decisions, said Patrick Harrison, PollenTree.com founder. “Our members keep a low profile because it’s nobody else’s business. They don’t need to rest of society to tell them it’s a good or bad thing,” he told the Guardian.
As noted, there are lots of opinions on the topic, but the phenomenon is driven by a real yearning for parenthood by both men and women who have not found “the one.”
Mock is more than willing to talk about her efforts to be a mom. And she’s trying to be realistic. She is preparing to be ready if she decides to try having a baby: taking prenatal vitamins, checking her fertility and hormones. She’s read avidly about options and she seeks out folks with experience in different ways to have children, including a potential sperm donor and a woman who fostered then adopted a child.
“I’m prepping, prepping prepping,” she said. “And I still know that rationally, everything could look good but I may not be able to get pregnant or, if I do, maybe I can’t carry a child. The likelihood that I’ll do IVF is pretty low, because it’s ridiculously expensive,” she said. “I think I have a couple of years — maybe until I’m 45 — to figure this out.”
Some family experts are leery of having children with someone absent romantic and marital commitment.
“No other institution reliably connects two parents, and their money, talent and time, to their children in the way that marriage does,” Wilcox wrote some time ago in a blog post for the Institute for Family Studies. “Can anything be done to increase the odds that every American child has an equal opportunity to be raised by his or her own parents in a strong and stable marriage?”
Interest in how kids flourish or falter has sparked numerous studies not directly related, but still relevant to platonic parenting outcomes.
A Brookings Institution report from Kimberly Howard and Richard V. Reeves explored marriage’s impact on kids, asking whether it’s higher income or two committed spouses that better provides consistent parenting. Parents who stay married have more time, education and income to contribute to raising children, compared to single parents, they said, and more money and more engaged parenting are both responsible for the benefits enjoyed by children who are raised by their married parents. If other family formations could provide that, they added, the advantage of marriage could potentially disappear from children’s lives.
Couples who work hard to get along and parent together following divorce are effectively platonic co-parents, said Cahn, who also has friends who went directly to platonic co-parenting to start a family.
But “legally, there are all kinds of challenges,” said Cahn, who suggests anyone serious about it should outline expectations in a document that addresses things like how time with the child is divided, financial contributions, how the pair will work out differences on raising the child, living arrangements, what kind of school the child will attend, whether day care is an expectation, health care decision-making and more.
A more basic question is whether both parties want to be recognized as legal parents — and it’s now possible in some states for three or more parents can be on a birth certificate. A Florida court ordered that after a man helped a same-sex couple conceive, thinking he would be involved in parenting, too. The couple assumed that just they would be the parents. In resolving the dispute, the court also ordered that all three parents listed on the birth certificate have some parental rights.
Dr. Fran Walfish, a Beverly Hills psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent,” said she’s treated a number of platonic parents who were “originally friends and chose to have and raise a child with love in two separate homes. This seems to only work temporarily. Every one of the cases that I have treated has turned from friendly to foes fighting over custody, visitation schedules and different discipline styles.
“The cost is high to the child, and in the end both parents carry the burden of added stress and strain due to relationship conflict.”
Complex family structures can create complex challenges, said Cahn. Some platonic-parent couples have faced what happens when one or both of them fell in love with someone else, or wanted to move away. Platonic couples, like more traditional counterparts, can be vexed to find their parenting styles or family values don’t mesh.
Mock knows she might end up raising the child alone and that worries her, but she said she still might prefer that to battling over decisions that are common when couples split. When she confided to a woman she consulted that she most feared raising the child entirely on her own, Mock recalled the encouraging response: “Believe it or not, your tribe will show up. You will build your family support network.”
Cahn thinks some issues might be resolved by being very clear from the beginning. “It’s important to set out understandings because you hope the relationship will stay together but it may not,” said Cahn, who said avoiding court is a good goal, but may not be possible.
And even the most well-planned document showing how the two people initially thought their arrangement and relationships should work is not the final authority. Courts decide based on their perceptions of the child’s best interests.
Focusing on family, rather than romantic love, is not a new idea.
During a panel at the 2015 World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, experts dissected the history of marriage and family. “For most of history, marriage was not about love. It was considered antisocial to disobey parents’ wishes and marry for love,” Stephanie Coontz, author of numerous books about family and marriage and director of research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, said at that event. Marriage was a social structure and economic arrangement for centuries.
Families are not always traditional. Coontz recently used the Hawaiian word “hanai,” which both describes someone informally adopted and also means nourish. A hanai relationship is “at least as close as a biological one. ... In many foraging cultures, children circulate through households other than their own family’s very freely, and even infants are held by people other than the mother for 40%-60% of daylight hours.”
Meanwhile, others are more cautious in this regard, pointing to research suggesting that introducing non-related adults (particularly men) into home life can increase a child’s risk of being abused.
Raising a child outside a romantic relationships requires both great thought and careful planning, said Coontz, also a professor at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. Something unexpected will occur at some point: Perhaps one wants to move in with a romantic partner or later have a child with someone else. “How do you protect the continuity for the first child?” she asks. What happens if the platonic parents have a falling out?
“If they DO realize that, and do the planning, they may well end up better off than people who rush into marriage and childbearing without careful discussion and planning and then subject their children to a bitter divorce,” she said.
Professor Susan Golombok, who directs the University of Cambridge Center for Family Research, wrote about children in different types of families in the book “We Are Family.” Her examination of family formation includes in vitro fertilization, sperm and egg donation, surrogacy, families headed by lesbian mothers or gay fathers, and women who choose to be single mothers. Right now in America, about 40% of babies are born to unmarried women, including couples who cohabit.
Her research team is tracking platonic co-parenting families to see the impact on children.
In a 2015 study in the journal Human Reproduction, Golombok and others set out to define characteristics, motivations and expectations of the men and women who sought a co-parent online. They found most would-be parents sign on for platonic parenting largely because they believe children should know and benefit from both their biological parents. Other driving forces included worrying about running out of time to have children or hoping to find someone who could share costs and provide various resources to benefit the child.
The researchers noted that about a third of the men and half of the women seeking co-parenting arrangements in the study were heterosexual. Nearly 7 in 10 were single.
They noted that the survey involved potential co-parents on just one matching website, so findings might not represent others hoping to co-parent. And they emphasized the need to do more studies on how well platonic parenting serves children born and raised in that arrangement.
Nine years ago, Ivan Fatovic, also in Los Angeles, was dining with friends when talk turned to traditional dating apps. Many were worried their 40s loomed and they were still childless. His single female friends were “frustrated with guys and their casual short-term relationships.” They wanted to start families, but having a spouse wasn’t a priority or some had given up. They joked they needed a dating app that wasn’t about dating, but about having children.
He soon after launched Modamily, a website that says it caters to a “community of people who are all ready to have kids.” Fatovic said some want romance, too. He said Modamily presents people with an array of options for starting a family.
About 300 babies have been born through connections made on Modamily so far, he said. He estimates about half the members find partners for parenting and many form romantic, not simply platonic alliances. The other half end up using in vitro fertilization from either anonymous or known donors.
“Slow down,” he counsels would-be parents on Modamily. Even those not looking for romance should take time to know the person with whom they plan to raise a child, he said. “Successful arrangements are where they’ve gotten to know each other, become friends, really,” said Fatovic, who notes the visions and values each brings to the relationship are important.
Fatovic, who has two teenage stepchildren, and Cahn both see pluses and minuses to platonic parenting.
“Because it’s not an unintended pregnancy, you can go into it knowing and understanding what your relationship is,” Cahn said. “I think if the adults are all clear on who has which responsibility, then children will grow up in a caring and committed environment.”
“We know from historical and cross-cultural research that healthy kids can be raised in a very wide variety of family relationships (and non-family ones). But the parents have to be committed to the child’s needs,” said Coontz, who emphasized the importance — regardless of personal opinion about particular arrangements — of others welcoming children and their parents into communities, rather than stigmatizing them.
Mock said she has a lot to think about. The one thing she’s sure of, though, is she would work hard to be the best mother she could, putting her baby’s interests first. She’s grateful she has parenting options.