Elective co-parenting: Putting a new spin on friends with benefits

Drawing up a contract to raise a child with a non-romantic partner is not very, well, romantic, but it’s an increasingly popular model for parenthood.

Photo: iStockphoto

After connecting online, Tatijana Busic, an organizational consultant, and Brendan Schultz, a university administrator, met at a café in Toronto on a bright autumn day. “We shook hands and then hugged, and I instantly knew that we were going to have a really nice time,” recalls Tatijana, 42. “We just had chemistry.”

Brendan, 45, ticked off a lot of items on Tatijana’s wish list: He was financially stable, seemed psychologically healthy, didn’t smoke and only drank in moderation. He was warm but didn’t want to move too fast. He was even a snappy dresser. They made more dinner and wine dates, and as things progressed they both felt more and more that the fit was right. The next major step happened at the Christmas Market in Toronto’s Distillery District: Brendan met Tatijana’s daughter, Isadora, from a previous relationship. That went well, and soon Brendan’s parents were flying in from Winnipeg, keen to meet this seemingly perfect match. About six months in, over dinner in a softly lit restaurant, Brendan looked into Tatijana’s eyes and proposed: The two of them—Brendan, a gay man and Tatijana, a straight woman—should make a baby together. They spent the next six months figuring out logistics and a mutually agreeable timeline, before initiating the process. And then in the summer of 2016, Milo was born.

This kind of arrangement, when two people who are not romantically attached decide to raise a child together, is called elective co-parenting. Call it a twist on friends with benefits—the benefits, in this case, being a partner to share in the emotional, physical, psychological and practical gauntlet of raising a child. Many of the individuals who make this decision have been unable to find a suitable romantic partner to help fulfill their wish to form a family. And the social and legal legitimacy of such arrangements is on the rise: Ontario’s All Families Are Equal Act, which came into effect in January 2017, allows a birth parent to enter into a pre-conception agreement to establish parental rights for up to four people.

A number of services have subsequently surfaced, including websites such as coparents.com, modamily.com and familybydesign.com, which function as platforms to register profiles and matchmaking services. “The elective co-parenting pairing I see the most is a gay man and a straight woman,” says Ivan Fatovic, founder of Modamily. “Like if Will and Grace decided to have a kid.”

Thousands of LGBTQ2+ and straight Canadians, mostly in their 30s and 40s, are registered with these websites, seeking everything from sperm and egg donors to shared custodial parents. A premium membership with Modamily starts at US$24.95 but Modamily’s ‘VIP Egg Donor or Surrogate Concierge’—a matchmaking service—can cost up to US$8,000.

The search for a platonic partner sheds some light on the differences and similarities between a parenting relationship and a romantic relationship. While there are no concerns about sexual chemistry or grand romantic gestures, many co-parents do describe the early stages of these relationships as strangely like courting. Some also report a sort of liberation in this process: a release from the idea that the people we parent with also have to be our lovers, best friends and everything else—a tall order that many find impossible to fulfill.

But just because a co-parenting relationship is platonic doesn’t mean that people aren’t still looking for a spark—a feeling that rises from the gut and seems to indicate that this stranger could, over time, become family. Instead of focusing on appearance or any of the conventional trappings of romance, instead of waiting for the butterflies to kick in, there’s a different kind of chemistry involved for prospective co-parents, and one that tends to be far more pragmatic: How do you manage your finances? Which holidays do you celebrate? Would you let our kid sign up for hockey or do you consider it too violent?

And, equally importantly, what these co-parents really want is someone similarly enthusiastic, who will also marvel over first steps and homemade costumes worn on an elementary school stage.

illustration of stick people family How to rock at co-parenting At a semi-detached house in the east end of Toronto, the domestic scene is familiar but a little different. The place is divided into two: Sarah MacDonald, 36, lives on the main floor and in the basement, while Mubein “Bino” Tarahi, 43, lives on the top two floors. A door divides the two floors, but it’s typically open so their two year-old son, Adaan, can come and go as he pleases. But he typically sleeps in Sarah’s apartment.

Over mint tea and organic gummy candies, Sarah, a social worker, and Bino, a construction manager, explain how they met through Modamily.com. Adaan shifts to his father’s while MacDonald prepares a bagel for him, then leaves to dance to a favourite Wiggles song before returning for a brief session where everyone pretends to be a dinosaur. It seems like a happy household.

The pair is still surprised at their luck in finding each other. Sarah has always had a close relationship with her own father and wanted that same adoration for her own kid. But the search for a co-parenting partner was still a bit daunting with no clear social template to follow. But then Sarah and Bino met and “definitely had a spark,” she says. “I don’t know how to describe it other than this: Imagine love at first sight for the person you want to be the father of your child.” Instantly smitten, the pair spent that first afternoon discussing everything from religion and schooling to home vs. hospital birth.

“We were both ready and we just put everything on the table: Here are my finances, here’s my sexual health history, let’s go,” says Sarah. They started trying to conceive three months after they met—which might seem fast to many but, as Sarah points out, straight people can just go to a bar and have sex. Sarah and Bino submitted to criminal background checks before they started trying to conceive. While they initially planned to maintain separate households, they bought a duplex together shortly before Adaan was born to maximize access (and minimize separation) for both.

Take a moment to consider how most people find the partners they end up parenting with. They start with tasting menus and lingerie, splitting ice-cold beers while staying up late on hot summer nights, or perhaps a crisp fall day strolling over cobblestones—all lovely, for sure, but hardly related to the nuts and bolts of raising a family and running a household together. With romantic entanglements, couples tend to frontload carefree fun and backload many of the inevitable conversations that can lead to relationship ruin after years of dating: wildly different ideas about children or money.

And romantic couples who have children together also have to grapple with a sometimes-painful shift in their organizational structure, with children easily displacing lovers as the primary partners in a family. And while watching your spouse lean in and smell your newborn daughter’s head for the first time might offer a special kind of magic, there’s also a reason that tired sex with someone who just cleaned up spaghetti-filled barf isn’t a staple of female erotica.

But elective co-parents don’t need to rekindle something that was never aflame—which can be a relief. “We have family time and we have time where one of us really needs to go get a haircut,” says Sarah. “But we never have to carve out time for Bino and I to go for a romantic walk on the beach. Everything we do together revolves around what’s best for Adaan.”

And while we often want romantic partners to be our best friends, lovers, model parents, financial planners and warm, cozy places to hide from the world, it’s a heavy ask that can sink even mostly working unions. Some co-parents report that disconnecting parenting from romance makes things simple. “[Brendan] is a really good friend and co-parent, but he doesn’t have to be everything else,” says Tatijana, who shares equal custody of Milo with her co-parent. Or, as Fatovic notes, “with co-parenting, you’re not meeting them and thinking about whether this is the right person for me. You’re thinking about whether this is the right person for my kid.”

Physical attraction and sexual chemistry are typically dropped from the equation—for better and worse. Tatijana says that when she and Brendan fight, they can’t just paper over their difference with makeup sex. “Because you can’t default to romance, we have to sit there and really work through it.”

The path to resolution is typically set well in advance of a child’s arrival. Many elective co-parents have uniquely formalized agreements, spending months discussing the minutiae of childcare, religious and education expectations, summer holidays, bedtimes and even what might happen if one parent falls in love and wants to get married.

One template provided by Toronto’s 519 Community Centre suggests that “although your desire to be a parent may be huge, it is critical that everyone involved be as honest with themselves and each other as possible, even if it means having to face disagreements, conflict or a decision that your needs are not compatible.”

Compare this, for a moment, to the world of romantic matching: Any 35-year-old woman who acknowledges her desire for marriage and children in the first several weeks of dating is still often branded a desperate lunatic with boundary issues. Still, the creation of boundaries is important in any relationship. When Martin Cohen, a 50-year-old business manager in Toronto, agreed to have a baby with his friend, Beverly Bennett, and her partner, Tammy Rasmussen, they spent two years discussing the details. And so they felt prepared for certain changes, such as when Martin unexpectedly fell in love with his partner, Joe Ferrara, just two weeks before his son was born, and when a daughter with Beverly followed three years later.

The two sets of co-parents live just blocks from each other in Toronto’s east end, making it easier to shuttle the kids—now 13 and 10—to hockey practice, guitar lessons and school commitments. “We never set out a schedule, nothing about everything second weekend the kids are with you,” says Martin. “It really is a natural division of roles and tasks based on the kids’ needs.”

Still, the family has established clear protocols and rituals over the years. The co-mothers provide a primary home, but the kids spend much of their summer at Martin’s cottage with “Daddy” and “Papa Joe.” The six always spend Christmas Eve together, while the kids spend Jewish holidays with Martin and his partner. “We’re all very good friends and we’re really in sync when it comes to the kids,” says Martin.

That division of labour can, at times, resemble an amicable divorce with parents who support one another, accept additional partners and reinforce family traditions—but also have distinct time both alone and with the kids. “I love parenting, I love being a mom but I also love having a break,” says Tatijana, referring to the periods when Milo is with Brendan. “And I think those breaks make me more grateful.”

For Marilou Daigneault, a business analyst currently on the hunt for a co-parent in Montreal, that balance is appealing. “I want someone to share my values but also to share the workload,” says Marilou, 37. “A lot of women I know do so much more of the work, and I’ve noticed that a lot of the happiest women I know are divorced or separated because they get a break. As a woman, I feel like my odds at equality in a relationship are better with this path.”

While the intense, detailed and pragmatic negotiations entered into by co-parents might seem cold and formulaic to some, the risks of leaving too much to chance can be significant. Julie Windsor (not her real name), a 41-year-old who lives in Ottawa, met her fellow co-parent through a website, and they decided to proceed despite the fact that they live in different cities. “I kept using the word ‘access,’ not ‘custody,’ and I just sort of assumed he would be like an uncle,” she says.

But now, seven months pregnant, Julie says that those expectations have changed and that her partner is seeking shared custody—a particular challenge between different cities. “You can’t just put a nursing baby on a bus,” says Julie. “In hindsight, I wish we had sat down a lot earlier to look at a contract.”

But it’s worth noting that while contracts can facilitate conversation, helping co-parents figure out how aligned they are on details both key and trivial, Ottawa-based lawyer Marta Siemiarczuk points out that they are not necessarily legally binding and courts typically defer to whatever is established to be in the best interests of the child, especially when it comes to custody.

Despite a heavy preference for formalization shared by many co-parents, having a child with someone is also an undeniably intimate act that requires a good gut feeling—and some interested parties simply never get there. “I started out looking for Claire Huxtable, and now I just want the mother of my child to be happy, healthy, sane and financially sound,” says David Lewis Peart, a 33-year old community worker, contract lecturer and writer in Toronto, who has been looking for a co-parent, on and off, for almost a decade. “But I feel like I’m standing against the wall at the ball, hoping someone will pick me.”

But being picked doesn’t always mean the process will move smoothly. Two years ago, Charlotte Osler, 37, discovered that she had low ovarian reserve during a fertility check, and doctors advised her to get pregnant in the following six months—a particular challenge without a significant other. “My whole life, I wanted to grow up and have babies,” says Charlotte, a nurse in Toronto. “I just felt like I didn’t have a lot of options.”

Not long after, Charlotte found herself at a cozy little Italian restaurant with a complete stranger introduced by a fertility lawyer, drinking wine and discussing whether or not to circumcise their prospective child. Earlier in the day, she had Googled “what to ask potential co-parents” and printed out an instructive list. “We really cut to the chase with where the baby was going to live, how do you see it working,” says Charlotte. “I was talking about things with him that I’ve never even gotten into with some longer romantic relationships.”

But as they got closer to the task at hand, Charlotte had cold feet. “I would cry in front of him and he would ask me if I was sure this was what I wanted,” she says. “I told him that I had to grieve the fact that I can’t have a traditional family, but I was trying to talk myself into it.”

But the doubts grew insurmountable when they visited a fertility clinic together. Over two hours, they went through all of the options, including the costs and success rates of intrauterine insemination and in vitro fertilization. “I was just tearful the whole time,” says Charlotte. After the appointment, she headed to Iqaluit to see some friends and decompress in nature—and there, while riding a Ski-Doo on a clear day, she realized she had to call it off. “I just didn’t want to be in this situation,” she says. “Maybe it wasn’t the right person and you have to shop around. But I felt like I was marrying someone I wasn’t in love with.”

Like any other relationship, co-parenting relationships are imperfect and can deteriorate in a fog of misunderstandings or explode in a collision of discordant expectations. But they can also be loving and mutually beneficial. The desire to have a baby, to nurture a child, is a uniquely powerful drive, and a growing number of Canadians are realizing that this is another model for doing just that.

More than two years later, Tatijana says she has no doubts that she made the right choice in partnering with Brendan. This particularly hit home recently, when she had the flu and her son went to spend several days with his dad so she could recuperate. “I had no separation anxiety about being away from my baby because I trust Brendan so much,” she says, a feeling she also has for the former spouse who is her daughter’s father.

“I think I’ve made some very good choices when it comes to the fathers of my children, who I love and admire,” says Tatijana. “Now, as for my romantic life—that’s a whole other ballgame.”

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