There are successful co-parent families in our community, but co-parenting does not fit any legal ‘box’, and can challenge mainstream notions of family. It is absolutely critical to talk through the issues extensively, and to learn from the experiences of others, before attempting conception.

Some men are interested in creating their family as co-parents with a lesbian couple or single woman. Co-parenting means sharing all significant parenting responsibilities, such as living with (whether in one household or two), providing for the child, and making both day-to-day and longer-term decisions about them, for example around medical treatment, spirituality/religion, educational choices and every aspect of how they are raised.

A brief note on language: in this section we talk about mother/s and father/s, as those are usually the roles people have in co-parent families. Co-parent families do not fit neatly into any available ‘box’, in terms of the law, social security, tax and so on. ‘Co-parent’ is a social term, not a legal one. Since the recent reforms, a child’s legal parents (and the only people legally able to be listed on the birth certificate) are their birth mother and her partner if she has one, although other co-parents can have their roles recognised through court parenting orders (see below). In addition, children born via a fertility procedure (whether conceived via a clinic or home insemination) must have their biological origins registered by the Victorian Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Thus the details of the child’s biological father (legally their donor) will be included in the child’s birth record (but not on their certificate) if they were conceived by home insemination, or in the Central Donor Register if they were conceived via a clinic.

At present, co-parenting is a less commonly-chosen option than being a known donor to a single woman or lesbian couple, or becoming parents through surrogacy, fostering or permanent care. There are certainly happy, successful families in our community with two, three, four or more co-parents. However, co-parenting challenges the very strong notions that mainstream Australian culture, at least, has about family. It is difficult enough, sometimes, to negotiate parenting in a couple, let alone with people with whom you are not in an intimate relationship.

Co-parenting is a lifelong connection and commitment to each other and your child/ren. Being co-parents requires a deep level of trust, respect and goodwill towards one another, and a commitment to shared values and maintaining your family relationships when times get tough, as they can do for every family.

Make sure it is what you all really want

When considering co-parenting, it is critical to be sure it is what everyone involved truly wants. Do you want to share every aspect of parenting, from daily life to the big decisions? The Options for gay men to have a baby without female co-parents are not easy; overseas surrogacy is prohibitively expensive, and altruistic surrogacy in Victoria requires men to find both a surrogate and an egg donor. But it is important to ask yourself: would you choose co-parenting if you (and your partner, if you have one) had an easy option to become parents on your own?

Be very clear that this is what your prospective female co-parents want too, whether you are single or a couple, before going too deeply into negotiations.

Try to challenge any beliefs, even deep within yourself, that ‘all children need a mother and a father’. You may well decide that this is what you want, but in particular remember that three decades of research clearly show that children are not disadvantaged by being raised by two mum or two dads, and that the disadvantage that children of single parents (most often mothers) experience is related to the poverty many are forced into, as well as conflict between their separated parents.

Ask questions of as many people as you can whose families include co-parents. Read books and websites, seek out groups and online forums, and go to counselling. Try not to be influenced by fear of what other people might think of your decision, including your prospective co-parent/s. This is a critical life choice, and it has got to work for you.

You might decide you don’t want to co-parent because you want to parent on your own, whether you are single or a couple. On the other hand, you might decide that you want children in your life, but don’t necessarily want all of the responsibilities of parenthood. You might decide you actually want the role of known donor.

How does co-parenting differ from being a donor?

Co-parenting is about sharing every aspect of what parenting is: day-to-day life, and the responsibility for raising small human beings to adulthood.

Being a known donor is very different. As described in the section for prospective sperm donors, the term ‘known donor’ covers a huge variety of relationships and levels of contact. Some are just happy for the child/ren to know their name, see their photos, and perhaps meet up when the child/ren are old enough to show an interest. Some live overseas or interstate, and may exchange cards, emails, Skype chats and the occasional visit. Some may visit a few times a year, others more often. Some become a significant part of family life, spending regular time, perhaps holidaying together and becoming regular baby-sitters. Some children call their known donors ‘Dad’, even though they do not share parenting responsibilities and are not legal parents or fathers. Some do not. Again, the diversity of people’s choices and journeys is endless.

If you are a known donor, rather than a co-parent, this does not mean that your role in a child’s life is not important or protected by the law. Australian family law clearly protects the relationships between children and significant people in their lives other than their legal parents. As a known donor, you can make any agreement you like with the woman or couple you donate to, and we recommend that you do make an agreement. These agreements are not legally enforceable, but they are an important tool for ensuring you all agree on the key issues. If a dispute should arise, they also show everyone’s initial intentions, which is an important (though not the only) factor in a court’s decision-making.

As a donor, you and the parents have the option of seeking parenting orders by consent (without a dispute arising) that recognise your role, for example your level of contact with the family. And in the event of a dispute, a court could grant you contact, and in some cases, even some parenting responsibilities, if they consider it in the child’s best interests. Find out more under Information for prospective sperm donors.

If you are thinking of being a known donor, take your time deciding whether that is what you really want. Talk to men and women who have made families as parents, co-parents and known donors. You can be very involved in a child’s life as a donor, but it is a different role. However much you might see the child/ren, you will not have parenting responsibilities or be their legal father or parent. If what you actually want is to be a parent/father, find a way to make it happen, through co-parenting, surrogacy, fostering or permanent care. If you compromise a deeply-held desire to be a parent by becoming a donor, but do not ‘make peace’ with your decision, the evidence is that it can too often result in heartache for everyone concerned: you, the mother/s, and most importantly the child or children.

Finding and talking to prospective co-parents

Some men explore the possibilities of creating a family with someone they have known for many years. Others find someone through friends, colleagues, support groups, personal advertisements or the internet.

Any of these options can work, but it is very important to get to know each other well (perhaps for about a year) and have talked through all of the issues many times before you decide to go ahead, and certainly before you begin trying to conceive. We also highly recommend making an agreement (see below). If you find yourself growing uncomfortable with your prospective co-parents as you talk things over and get to know them in this context, it is critical that you do not go ahead. You can find someone else, or explore other options. It might be wise to seek assistance with this process, for example from a counsellor. Some fertility clinics offer a paid service of a counselling ‘information session’ prior to committing to any treatment, which could be useful.

Some people who have an existing friendship with their prospective co-parents may be less likely to really thrash through the more difficult issues, because they feel that ‘they can always work it out’. However, this is not always the case, and sometimes the most intimate, longstanding friendships can end, or even turn into bitter disputes in this context. You may feel impatient to make a baby, but remember that this decision is critical and irreversible. If you conceive a child with someone, you are connected to them for life. Most importantly, the decision you make will affect not only you, but also the one or more children whom you create.

So take your time to get to know each other in this new context, reflect on your own needs and feelings, and talk about the issues many times before begining. It might be useful to put on ‘different hats’ when engaging in these discussions. It is very different talking as friends than as prospective co-parents. You need to be able to be honest about where your views differ without feeling that it reflects on your care for each other.

See Discussions and agreements with prospective co-parents for more on issues to consider and things to include in agreements.

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