Families Are Forming Between Friends—Here's How Platonic Parenting Works
First comes an internet search. Then comes co-habitation. Then comes the baby in the baby carriage. No longer are love and marriage precursors to baby-making. In fact, more people are opting in to platonic parenting arrangements, a dynamic where two (or more) consenting adults who are not romantically or sexually involved are co-parenting.
While the idea of platonic parenting might seem unique, or even unusual, the truth is that the trend toward alternative forms of parenting—breaking from the so-called traditional, nuclear families—has been shifting for some time. CNN commentator Van Jones recently welcomed his third child with a longtime platonic friend. Some call this dynamic conscious co-parenting or elective co-parenting. No matter the title, these alternative family dynamics are becoming more common.
In fact, more than 16 million non-married Americans are raising children, and increasingly with a live-in partner, according to a 2018 social trends survey by Pew. It's also less taboo than ever to access fertility treatment, with one-third of people having utilized it or knowing someone who has, according to a different 2018 Pew study. Combined with fewer people having sex than ever, according to multiple studies, platonic parenting, or co-parenting with a friend, feels like the natural evolution in family building.
"In today's world, couples are getting married later in life. However, a woman's biological clock is not always able to wait," says Jenny Yip, Psy.D., ABPP, executive director of the Renewed Freedom Center of Los Angeles. "Many people are choosing platonic parenting because it still allows you to have a child without having to worry about a committed partner."
While some platonic parents are finding each other as virtual strangers on websites like Modamily, Coparents, Family By Design, Pollen Tree, and Pride Angel—not unlike dating sites or gig work sites—others enter into non-romantic parenting arrangements with friends or people already in their networks.
Take Jessica*, 44, and Naomi*, 42, who both live in Seattle and have been friends since elementary school. They agreed they had similar philosophies around parenting and actually talked about it for 10 years prior to entering into a platonic co-parenting arrangement in order to have their kids, ages 1 and 3. They all live together and so far, it has worked out fantastically for them all.
"I've always known I wanted to be a mom. I was also married and divorced young, and one of the things I was grateful for was that I wasn't connected to my ex by kids. After that, I'd think about whether I'd want to parent with the people I was dating, and the answer was usually no," says Jessica. "I think it's a lot to match with someone on parental philosophy, willingness to actually share the tasks of parenting, and then add in sexual and romantic chemistry. Naomi and I get to focus on our friendship and our parenting, and I feel like that's plenty all by itself."
There is no one way to become platonic parents, as parents-to-be are pursuing everything from adoption to assisted reproduction like IVF or surrogacy with donor material, to biological reproduction (leveraging sperm, egg, and uterus from the co-parents to make a baby).
With the average cost of raising a child from birth to age 17 at $233,610, according to an Expenditures on Children by Families report completed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), not counting the potential thousands you could rack up if you use fertility treatments, it doesn't take a leap of faith to understand why someone would want a co-parent. That says nothing of the mental, physical, and emotional commitment to caring for a baby and then raising a child. Many exhausted parents would agree—the more, the merrier! Some platonic parents are shacking up together—albeit, minus the shared bed—while others live separately and coordinate child care not unlike separated or divorced parents might, sans the bitterness.
What about sex, you ask? If you don't need sex to make a baby, might you still need it to make a long-lasting relationship? Some may say it's the romantic attachment and emotional commitment, and yes, even sexual desire, that enables romantically connected couples to simply survive the intensity of being new parents. Others say sex is precisely what gets in the way of otherwise rational co-parenting rapport.
"Children need to see committed partners who are nurturing and loving. If both parents can role model that, then there wouldn't be much downside," says Dr. Yip. "In a platonic partnership, both parents are making a conscious decision to be involved in the child's life. If a child is living in a well-functioning and healthy environment with platonic parents, it's much better for the child than living in a toxic traditional family."
Plus, who is having sex with a newborn baby around, anyway? I don't know about you, but I wanted to dedicate every spare moment to sleep that I could muster.
"Every straight, cis-gender woman I talked to about this understood why it might be easier to parent with a friend than a romantic partner, and that was truer the older they were," says Jessica. "Every queer person I talked to totally got it. I would guess that some people might want to decry the end of the family or some other thing that isn't actually happening, but oh my God, we are so family-oriented. Our family is our favorite thing."
It appears platonic parents may be far more prepared for successful child-rearing than any old married couple who finds themselves with child. Hannah*, a Toronto-based 31-year-old whose first child was born in January, planned her platonic parenting journey with Markus*, 30, and Andrew*, 31, in a process that took more than six years.
"We wanted to plan this slowly and carefully, with many steps along the way to ensure it would be stable," says Hannah. "Before we agreed to do this, we sat down and talked parenting philosophies and timelines. We talked about what we would want for our child in terms of schooling, religion, discipline, and thoughts on vaccines, to name a few subjects."
There are some additional legal considerations when it comes to protecting your family in a platonic parenting arrangement. If both platonic parents are biologically connected to the child, including carrying the fetus to term and being present at the time of birth, they can both get listed on the birth certificate. Some states in the U.S. will not add the parent to the birth certificate unless those circumstances are met. A birth certificate, though, is not a universally recognized legal document, and so experts recommend securing legal parentage through second-parent adoption, a process that differs by state and can, in some cases, be quite cumbersome and time-consuming (not to mention costly) effort. Experts also recommend signing a pre-conception parenting agreement, a document that sets guidelines for how the arrangement will work and is agreed upon by all co-parents involved. While this agreement is not recognized as legally binding by the court system, it can still be reviewed by a judge when considering parental intention and custody. Advocacy organizations like Lambda Legal offer comprehensive resources to help guide parents to securing legal protections.
*Last names have been withheld for privacy.