About 5 years ago, as a 33-year-old divorced mother of one, my live-in partner and I decided to call it quits. Which meant my 5-year-old son and I needed a new place to live.
In Brooklyn, New York, where the average cost of rent is around $3,000 a month and the average single parent salary is just over $50,000, my options were incredibly slim. A solution came about while comparing apartment-search war stories with my best friend, Tia, a newly divorced mother of two with an apartment she could no longer afford now that she was on her own.
Why not live together?
A month later, Tia and I were unpacking boxes in her three-bedroom apartment in Bed-Stuy. We decided to temporarily live together, to share expenses down the middle, and to generally lean on each other for all those moments that arise in parenthood where you can use a hand.
We tag-teamed on meals, homework, and even correcting the kids’ behavior. In other words, we chose to co-parent, platonically, intentionally committing to raising our children together even though we weren’t romantically involved.
After 6 months, we decided to move on amicably when our financial situations changed, but the experience made a permanent impact.
Instead of going into debt to stay afloat, I was able to share the daily parenting load with someone I trusted as much as, if not more than, a romantic partner.
Today, I am a financially independent single mom, sustaining a comfortable living in Brooklyn as a freelance writer and editor. I credit co-mothering as the thing that got me through what was potentially life-altering financial distress.
The experience also forever changed how I define family, driving home that the traditional nuclear family — two married parents raising their bio children — is outdated and not the only model to aspire to. It shifted my understanding of what co-parenting means, too.
I’d never imagined there were other people like Tia and me who would intentionally enter into a co-parenting arrangement without the context of a romantic relationship. But I learned that this kind of co-parenting was not only a thing, it was gaining traction. Now, years later, it’s on the rise.
Platonic co-parenting includes a lot of scenarios: ex-lovers downshifting into friends to raise their kids in harmony, single women who select sperm donors instead of husbands, best friends who both want kids but haven’t found the right partners, and even single people who use “mating” sites to meet platonic partners to raise children with.
“In the same way that in the last 50 or 70 years we have decoupled sex and reproduction, I think we are in the process of decoupling love and relationships from parenting,” said clinical social worker and family therapist Arlene Istar Lev.
Now that families have started to think differently about how to raise their kids, the next question is how on earth this can be done successfully. So, I asked other platonic co-parents and a few experts that burning question. Here’s what they had to say.
“I credit co-mothering as the thing that got me through what was potentially life-altering financial distress.”
Jamaine Smith and Tanisha Barnes are two best friends living in Philadelphia who have been raising Tanisha’s 7-year-old son, Atum, together since his biological father stepped out shortly after he was born. The transition happened pretty organically for them. Smith, already Atum’s godfather, seamlessly moved into the role of father.
“When Atum’s father decided not to be in his life, Maine just stepped up,” said Barnes, an administrative coordinator who moved from Brooklyn to Philly to be closer to Smith. While Barnes is the custodial parent, Atum moves freely between her house and Smith’s, just a few blocks away.
Rather than sticking to a static co-parenting schedule, Smith and Barnes, who practice gentle parenting, lead with their son’s needs and their own strengths. For example, Barnes admits that as Atum gets older, he craves more male attention, so there are times when he chooses to spend more time with Smith, who always makes himself available.
“For me, that was one of the best things about this process,” Barnes said. “As a parent, I’m really realizing my weaknesses. And there’s some things I don’t want to deal with, or I’m not as gentle as I feel like Maine is.”
Instead of splitting tasks down the middle in the name of fairness, or giving Tanisha the bulk of the responsibility because she’s the bio parent, Smith and Barnes simply focus on what each person does best.
“When we talk about co-parenting, both of you have your own identities and your own sensibilities that are going to show up here,” Mercedes Samudio, LCSW, author of “Shame Proof Parenting,” said. “I think it’s really important to talk about this because you start to realize, ‘I do good at this, they do good at this — let’s work together.’”
When it comes to mental health and therapy, this one applies to all parenting.
Even when there is a long-standing friendship at the core, there will be tough times, big reveals, and hard truths to heal from. This is why, when I look back on the experience of co-parenting with a friend, my biggest regret is not partnering with a therapist or coach to help us navigate.
While the notion to seek therapy occurred to me naturally as I transitioned out of my relationship with my ex-husband, it didn’t when I transitioned into co-parenting with my best friend. I assumed our 10-year friendship would effortlessly absorb the new parental dynamic, that our cadence of cocktails and banter would be enough to help our families gel.
But, in fact, the opposite happened. Suddenly we were diving into invasive personal details, like finances and parenting styles, and we both had to learn to advocate for ourselves in new ways and communicate differently. Our short-lived experience might have lasted longer if we had considered family therapy.
Alysha Price is a co-parenting coach who helps parents work together to make all kinds of family structures function in healthy ways. Price explained that co-parenting therapy or coaching is “a very useful tool, especially in platonic relationships, because it can help parents articulate shared values and establish family norms.”
She added, “The therapy or coaching space provides a structured environment and support to work through just how to set up a co-parenting dynamic that works for your particular family structure.”
“In the same way that in the last 50 or 70 years we have decoupled sex and reproduction, I think we are in the process of decoupling love and relationships from parenting.” — Arlene Istar Lev, LCSW-R
Amer Woods, an Atlanta-based writer, creative director, and mother of one, was never seriously entangled with her 12-year-old son’s father.
In the Black community, this designation typically carries the title of “baby mama” and the stigma of a toxic relationship that blurs the line between romantic and platonic. But Woods refused to align herself with the idea that their “no strings attached” past meant they were relegated to an unhealthy future together.
After Woods found out she was pregnant, the two played with the idea of being a real couple, but it was undeniably not a fit, and they decided to move forward platonically.
“We were not in a relationship, and we were very clear. We were not going to move in together,” Woods said. “The context of our relationship allowed me to unattach from emotional things with his dad, which led to less fighting.”
Lev admits that different things work for different families, but generally platonic relationships are easier to manage.
“When a marriage ends, there’s pain and there’s often betrayal,” Lev said, “so it’s kind of hard to get back on track to what we’re doing, raising a kid together.”
When I was co-parenting with my best friend, there was no jealousy to contend with when one of us had a date, no conflict when we wanted space, no hurt feelings over mixed signals or residual romantic affection.
Unlike romance-rooted parenthood, platonic co-parents can skip the emotional triggers that can get in the way of parenting effectively.
While married couples tend to parent as a unit, platonic co-parents are often two separate entities, perhaps with separate friends, beliefs, and perspectives that will show up in how they want to raise their kids.
Co-parenting with my ex-husband, for instance, is very different from what co-parenting with my best friend was. With my ex, any choices we make are just between the two of us, but with my friend, our decisions also reflected the ideals of the co-parents that didn’t live in our house, which in our case, included three biological fathers.
So, some rules, like what our kids were allowed to eat or how religion was discussed, were drawn with strict boundaries, while others, like when homework should be done and how bedtime was handled, were more flexible and based on what worked for each home.
In certain families, the rules are looser, which is fine, as long as parents are on the same page about that, as Smith and Barnes are.
“I’m a vegetarian, and for the most part, Atum is also,” Barnes said, “but I allow him to eat chicken and turkey when he’s with Jamaine because he likes it.”
“Unlike romance-rooted parenthood, platonic co-parents can skip the emotional triggers that can get in the way of parenting effectively.”
This one is so obvious it might get overlooked: Your kids, who are at the center of all of this, have to be properly informed and empowered.
Similar to the conversation I had with my son when his father and I got divorced, I remained open and transparent about what it meant to co-parent with my best friend when we took the plunge.
Is she my other mom now? What should I call her? Is she replacing Daddy? What should I say to kids at school when they ask if I have two moms? Is it OK to have two moms? These are some of the questions my son had for me when Tia and I embarked on our arrangement. And answering them honestly was important to me.
Speaking frankly helped my son advocate for himself when I wasn’t around. It also opened up a bigger conversation about what family means to different people.
Since the experience, my son has always been incredibly empathetic and accepting of the kids he encounters who also come from different family models — a win for the whole community.
The biggest takeaway from my conversations with Woods, Smith, and Barnes, as well as my own experience co-parenting with my friend, is this: The kids will be OK.
Whether a family has two married parents or five rotating co-parents, the most important metric is the health and development of the children they are caring for, and being raised by romantic partners has never determined the outlook of a child’s future.
Regardless of our origin story, platonic co-parents are just as uncompromising on the ultimate goal as traditional families are: raising kids who thrive.