In 2014, Charles Bourne, a then 43-year-old nurse living with his husband in Philadelphia in the US, started to think seriously about having kids. At first, he considered adoption. But after hearing about ‘platonic parenting’ from a colleague, he decided to set up a profile on Modamily, a website that helps connect people who want to start a family.
In September, he was contacted by another Modamily member, Nisha Nayak, a psychologist then aged 40. Throughout the next few months, Bourne and Nayak met over coffee and pizza to explore their mutual desire to become parents.
In November 2015, Nayak underwent in-vitro-fertilisation (IVF) and conceived fraternal twins. Bourne and Nayak are now proud co-parents of two-year-olds Ella and Vaughn.
Platonic parenting, also referred to as ‘co-parenting’, is a term used to define people who are not romantically involved with each other who decide to raise a child together.
Reasons to become platonic parents vary. Sometimes, it’s spurred from LGBT people who decide to get together and form a family that departs from the traditional heterosexual household, like in the case of Bourne and Nayak (who identifies as queer).
In other cases, co-parenting arrangements come from long-time friends who decide to raise a child together. That was the case for Canadians Natasha Bakht and Lynda Collins. The two colleagues and friends successfully fought to set a legal precedent in Ontario family law to allow for Collins to be recognised as parent to Bakht’s son. Canadian law only allowed ‘conjugal partners’ to be recognised as parents, but the women convinced the jury that signing Collins as parent satisfied the legal principle of “acting in the best interest of the child”.
This new trend has not come without criticism.
Some point out that commuting between different homes can be stressful for children whose parents live apart. Bourne and Nayak live 20 minutes away from each other and split time with their kids equally, not unlike a divorced couple might. They work out issues including commuting and other delicate decisions that may affect kids together with the help of a family therapist.
Rachel Hope is the author of Family By Choice: Platonic Partnered Parenting. She raised her first child with a co-parent who lived in a separate home within the same property, and thinks it is best to live independently but under the same roof or in very close proximity.
Critics also worry that kids may miss out on witnessing romantic love between their parents. But she says that the worry is unjustified as kids can be exposed to that type of love through their parents’ romantic partners, or by witnessing other romantic couples around them.
There are no official statistics about platonic parenting yet, but throughout the past decade, participation in online communities for prospective platonic parents has been steadily growing.
Ivan Fatovic started Modamily in 2011 after realising that many of his friends and colleagues were interested in having kids and starting a family, but didn’t have a partner with whom to do so. Today, the platform has 25,000 active members from around the world, and Fatovic estimates that 100 babies have been born out of matches on his site. He also says around 100,000 people combined are registered on co-parenting sites such as FamilyByDesign and CoParents.com.
The law is slowly evolving to accommodate these relationships, in the US and elsewhere. In 2013, California governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that allows for more than two people to be legally recognised as parents. A handful of other US states currently allow for this option either via legislation or court proceedings. In Ontario, birth-parents can form a legal agreement to co-parent their child with up to four people.
In the UK, the law allows for just two parents to be recognised as such, but a recent ruling allowed two people who live in separate homes to be recognised as platonic parents of their child (UK marriage law does not make co-living as a necessary pre-condition to grant parenting rights).
‘The next big shift’
With a growing interest in platonic parenting, the next big shift will occur in language, says co-parenting author Hope.
“We lack a vocabulary to match these types of families,” she explains. “People hear ‘husband’ and think he is the father of your child when that may not be the case.” Charlie and Nisha have gone around this by using ‘Daddy’ for Charlie and ‘Papa’ for his husband Lynn.
Hope even believes the physical architecture of homes and neighbourhoods will change, too. “Right now our homes and neighbourhoods are designed for the nuclear family unit,” she says. “But going forward we may need new communal space, like compounds where platonic parents can co-exist in close proximity to collectively raise children.”
Additional editing by Bernadette Young.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.