At 40, Dawn Pieke had just broken up with a live-in boyfriend who cheated on her, but she was ready to have kids. She didn't want an anonymous sperm donor — "because I hadn't grown up with a dad myself, it was important to me to have my child know who their dad was." So she started looking online, and eventually found a Facebook group devoted to something called coparenting.
"Single mothers by choice" have gotten a lot of attention in the past few years, and most discussions of single women — a topic of much recent scrutiny — include at least a nod toward women who go the sperm-donor route. But a growing number of single people want to have kids with someone else — and that person doesn't have to be a romantic partner. Instead, it can be a coparent — someone they meet online or in life and agree to raise kids with, in a relationship that can be very close but isn't sexual. And some coparents say this system has big advantages over the more traditional one.
Historian and family studies scholar Stephanie Coontz notes a growing feeling around the country that marriage isn't "the only way to meet people's social and emotional needs," especially since people are spending more and more of their lives single. Meanwhile, coparenting, while still relatively rare, is becoming more popular — it's not clear exactly how many Americans are doing it, but coparenting website Modamily, launched in February, already has 3,000 users. And as more and more people look for ways to live full lives outside a traditional romantic relationship, it may offer a new route to family.
Pieke ended up meeting Fabian Blue, now 41, who was as driven to have children as she was. A few years before, he says, "I literally woke up out of a dream and had this vision of a newborn child, like a mission." But, he wondered, "How was I going to accomplish that, being an out gay man and not successful in my relationships with men?" He didn't want to be a sperm donor for a couple — what he wanted was to be an equal partner in raising a child.
Coparenting turned out to be the answer. After they met on Facebook (Blue had explored a coparenting website called Co-ParentMatch as well), the two started talking on Skype about their spiritual beliefs, their medical histories, their families, and what kind of parents they'd like to be. Pieke says it was "even more intense than when you first start dating somebody." Blue agrees. "Dawn reminded me of my youth," he says. "She has a very '70s-mommy look, and that [felt] familiar and warm." As they talked, he says, "we were just jumping off walls, having this great connection. It was one of those things that was meant to be." After many conversations, Blue decided to move from his home in Australia to the U.S. so they could try to have a baby.
People who want to follow their lead have more resources than ever. Ivan Fatovic, 36, started U.S.-based coparenting website Modamily in response to his own ticking biological clock — he wanted to have kids before 40, and saw coparenting as a possible option. The site is like a dating site for prospective coparents. It includes a compatibility quiz to help users find people with similar values, but once they're matched up, the rest — from choosing a method of conception to working out custody arrangements — are up to them. Fatovic says Modamily now has about 3,000 users, roughly two-thirds of them women. The majority are in their thirties, but about 30% are younger.
Fatovic sees coparenting as a growing trend the world over — gay people have long conceived and raised kids with non-romantic partners, he points out, and now straight people are catching on. He thinks media portrayals of non-romantic partners having children, like the movie Friends With Kids, in which platonic friends decide to have a child together, have made more people consider it as an option. And for his part, he thinks of coparenting with someone you're not dating as a better option than marrying someone you're not sure about just to have kids, then getting divorced later. He notes that coparents are still free to seek romantic relationships if they want to.
One Modamily user, Rachel Hope, is a coparenting veteran — she has a 22-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter, both from coparenting partnerships, and is hoping to find a third coparent, as neither dad wants more kids. Her first coparent was a close friend and coworker 18 years her senior — they decided to have a child together as non-romantic partners because the divorces they'd seen among friends and family led them to believe the entire nuclear-family system was broken. Hope says they asked themselves, "How insane is it to lay eggs in a burning nest?"
Her first coparenting partnership worked out wonderfully. "I get all the benefits of being married but I didn't have all the weather patterns of sexual-romantic destabilization," she says. He was the primary caregiver, she was the primary earner, and though they both had romantic relationships with others, they remained totally committed to their family. "He was late twice in 20 years," she says of her coparent. "And my son is extraordinary."
Now Hope lives with her daughter, her second coparent, and her best friend, who recently moved in. They're still looking for more people to move into their household. Ideally, Hope says she'd like an arrangement she calls "tribal parenting," in which lots of adults live near each other and all share responsibility for several kids.
While tribal parenting may not have caught on yet, she says she's seen much more interest in coparenting recently. "It seems like we're in some kind of landslide. Maybe it's just that there's so many horrible devastating divorces that are so public, or maybe people are just looking for alternatives, but there's all these young people, 40 and under, saying, 'How am I going to make a family?'"
Mary Shanley, a political science professor who studies bioethics and family formation, says coparenting could have a lot of advantages — after all, child-rearing is hard work, and a partner, romantic or not, can be immensely helpful. However, she cautions that the relative uncommonness of coparenting could present challenges: "For unmarried persons coparenting, there isn't a social expectation that they're going to keep doing it." Married people feel a certain social pressure not to abandon their kids, but coparents, who are already going against the social grain, may not — and that could make it easier for one parent to split if things aren't working out.
There may be legal strictures preventing them from doing so. In most cases, says family law professor Nancy Polikoff, the law treats biological parents the same whether or not they're married — so a coparent who was biologically related to the child couldn't simply leave without being liable for child support. If the coparents aren't both biologically related to the child — if they use an outside donor, or adopt together — then things get a bit more complicated. Their situation, legally, would be more like that of gay parents.
Polikoff, who knows of one pair of non-romantic coparents herself, says that the biggest challenge for many coparents may be more about values and personalities than about laws — especially if the coparents haven't known each other for very long. "I would actually advise them to go through some kind of counseling process to assess whether they are compatible in their approaches. And I know people get married without counseling being required, but it could be a good thing before marriage too."
Coontz, the family studies scholar, also says married people can learn from coparents, specifically when it comes to setting expectations and discussing roles. Couples can slide into habits without really talking about them, like when wives end up shouldering the majority of child care and then resent it. "The traditional terms of marriage made a lot of assumptions about what men and women could and did want," says Coontz. "So we have all these habits and expectations that no longer fit our modern egalitarian lifestyle."
Some coparents retain a lawyer to help them discuss custody and finances, while others hash out these details — and things like where to live — on their own. But no matter what, they have to talk about it. What married couples can learn from them, says Coontz, is that "our roles have changed so much that we also have to be much more mindful and conscious" of what each person brings to and needs from the relationship, even in a traditional institution like marriage.
Pieke and Blue haven't consulted a lawyer, but they don't rule out doing so in the future. For now, they live in the same house, though they may get their own places later on. They each also hope to have romantic relationships someday, but for now their focus is on their daughter, Indigo Pieke-Blue, who was born Oct. 3. Pieke says she and Blue don't know anybody else who's coparenting the way they are, but she has met several women over 40 who, after hearing her story, said, "Maybe I should try this." Blue adds that the two of them hope to serve as an example of another way to make a family.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misquoted Ivan Fatovic. He was describing another potential coparent's feelings about having a child.