Is 'platonic parenting' the future of motherhood?
When Natasha Bakht and Lynda Collins are out with their seven-year-old son Elaan, they are often mistaken for a same-sex couple. "I think for the most part, people assume we're together," says Natasha. "One of our close friends spent a year thinking we were in a relationship until she finally asked us directly."
But 44-year-old Natasha and Lynda, 42, are not romantically involved with one another, and never have been. They are simply two best friends who decided to become co-parents and raise a son, Elaan, together.
Their unusual family set-up has just made legal history: they are the first pair of best friends to co-parent a child in their home country of Canada, and across the world, there are only a few known cases of such an arrangement. The premise is certainly unique, but it could soon become the future of motherhood.
In recent years, traditional relationships in the UK have declined, with ONS figures from 2014 reporting that in the UK, more than a third of people are single or have never married - up three per cent from a decade earlier. Arrangements previously reserved for couples are increasingly being co-opted by platonic pairs. Home ownership and legal guardianship of friends' children, for example, are now no longer reserved for those in a relationship. Two single best friends raising a child together, then, seems to be the logical next step.
For Natasha and Lynda, two successful law professors at the University of Ottawa, the decision arose naturally when Elaan was still a baby. He was born to Natasha, then 37, after she decided to have a child using an anonymous sperm donor. "I was in my mid-thirties, I wasn't in a relationship and I thought if I want to have a child biologically I should really get going with that," she explains.
At first, Lynda played the traditional role of a supportive best friend. She was thrilled to hear Natasha's news, went along with her to various appointments, and even offered to become her birth coach. "She was there the whole way," says Natasha. "When we found out I needed to go to the hospital, it was Lynda I called to say: 'I think we're having this baby'."
Elaan's birth had complications and he was eventually diagnosed with spastic quadriplegia, a type of cerebral palsy, along with asthma and epilepsy. His complicated medical condition meant Lynda became more hands-on, giving up hours each evening, and most of her weekends, to care for him.
"She was there all the time," says Natasha, "doing the nitty-gritty of parenting. Over the course of months and years, we realised she wasn't just helping me, she was parenting."
Lynda agrees: "I was parenting for years before I put that label on it. I remember the moment when I realised what I was doing. I'd told a colleague how we all had a cold, and she said: 'I hope you and your family feel better soon'. I thought, 'Wow, I have a family. It's a miracle.'"
Still, it was only after Lynda turned 40 that she contemplated making her position as a co-parent official. She had always wanted to be a mother, but after being largely single in her thirties, had begun to consider a sperm donor or adoption, "contemplating it seriously for the first time after Natasha did it", she recalls. "I thought deeply about it but decided I didn't want to do it alone." That was when she realised she didn't have to.
"I had this moment of revelation out in the woods," she laughs. "I thought, why would I adopt a stranger when I already have Elaan?"
When she shared her thoughts with Natasha, their agreement was instant. "I didn't even think about it. I just said, 'yes, absolutely'," says Natasha. "Lynda has been in love with Elaan since the moment she saw him come into this world in the operating room. It was right that she could say, 'I'm his mum' to doctors and friends, rather than fumbling around with 'I'm his mum's best friend.'"
They enlisted the help of another lawyer friend to draft the necessary documents less than two years ago, and in March, were granted Lynda's declaration of parentage. What started as a "matter of the heart" for Lynda to celebrate her relationship with Elaan has now brought with it numerous legal benefits.
Elaan is entitled to Lynda's health insurance as well as Natasha's, and under their university's policy, will also receive both of their pensions if they die. Lynda also has the ability to make medical decisions alone if Natasha is away, and if ever their relationship was to deteriorate, she would still have a legal right to see the boy.
The pair are thrilled with the decision and now refer to each other as "co-mumma". They still don't live together, but for the past five years, Lynda has been living above Natasha's flat.
"I decided to move into the building because I was commuting back and forth, so it was a lot more convenient," explains Lynda. "But I couldn't live with Natasha. We're great friends and good co-parents but we're not cut out to live together. I'm pretty free-form, messy, lots of chaos, while Natasha is the tidiest person I've ever met. I also need alone time, and I think it's good for us to have some personal space."
Their arrangement has now settled into a routine: Natasha takes care of Elaan's mornings, while Lynda is in charge of evenings, and they often travel as a three. Their families have also come together: the two sets of grandparents now spend time with each other even without Elaan or his mothers. And both women have been able to continue their careers and hobbies.
The only challenges they face are the typical ones most parents will recognise - minor disagreements over what is best for their child. "We definitely have differences," says Natasha. "We'll probably be mad and silent for a while, then we talk. We're like a normal couple in that way."
In some ways, their arrangement is made easier by the fact that they're not in a traditional relationship. They can remain detached when making decisions. As Lynda puts it: "We don't have romantic fights, so that's easier."
So far, neither of them has been in a serious relationship since Elaan was born. "We've only dated," says Natasha. "Elaan takes up a lot of our time." And neither wants any more children. Yet they recognise that a new serious relationship could potentially disrupt things.
"It will present some logistical challenges," accepts Lynda. "But on the other hand, divorced couples deal with those every day. I'm sure there are some people who would be daunted by the situation, but a couple of people I've dated have said, 'this is one of the things I really love about you, that you formed a relationship with this wonderful child.'"
For them, co-parenting has been the best way to recognise their unconventional family, and they hope now that courts across the world will start to recognise such arrangements. "It would be wonderful, even when families are formed in ways that are not typical, for the court to say, this is what will be in the best interests of the child," says Natasha.
- The Telegraph, London