I held my breath as the sonographer pressed the probe into my belly. I could see something promising on the screen but needed to hear the expert say it before I could believe it. “There’s the heartbeat,” she said, and relief flooded through me. Next to me Tom, the baby’s father, squeezed my hand as tears rolled down my cheek.
We probably looked like any other happy couple the sonographer saw that day, about to embark on parenthood for the first time. But Tom isn’t my partner; he’s my best friend. We’re both single, he’s gay and soon we’re going to be platonically co-parenting that little bean on the screen together after years of separately experiencing the pain and longing of childlessness.
I first began to panic about having a baby when I turned 31. I woke on my birthday in a tiny box room in the small flat where I lodged, suddenly very aware that I had not hit any of the classic milestones. I was in the early stages of a new career, having recently retrained as a journalist, and was earning very little. I was also single. The scary age of 35, drummed into every woman’s head as the age fertility is meant to fall off a cliff, suddenly felt alarmingly close. That morning, my heart raced as I thought: how am I ever going to have a baby?
This question became the soundtrack to my life for the next seven years. At first, it was quiet and I could ignore it, but as the years rolled by, it became deafening. At the same time, I was feeling happier than ever about not being in a relationship. In 2019, I launched a newsletter called the Single Supplement and began to interview single people, especially women, about their experiences. I had become fed up with reading articles that assumed all single people are miserable and desperate. I felt really fulfilled on my own, and was revelling in the freedom and independence I had. The newsletter took off, leading me to a community of single people who also relished this aspect of their lives.
It was at this time that I also became painfully aware that my fear about never becoming a mother was not irrational but valid. One in five women in England and Wales are childless at midlife, with about 90% of those in that position not by choice. Research has shown that a lack of a suitable partner is a common reason why women end up permanently childless.
While many in the same boat as me throw themselves into dating, I hated the idea of hunting for a man purely to have a baby with. It felt too forced. I heard too many horror stories of women settling and feeling deeply resentful, or if they later broke up, having to co-parent their children with someone they wished wasn’t the father. I could find romantic love at any time, I reasoned – but the same wasn’t true for getting pregnant.
For a number of years, I’d been quietly researching fertility options for single women like me. Most articles pointed towards having a baby on your own with a sperm donor. I came across Liv Thorn, whose popular Instagram account @livsalone documents her experiences as a single mother by choice. I found comfort in Liv’s story, and others like her. But I also worried about how I would afford the treatment, given IVF is not usually offered to single women on the NHS. I also wondered how – if I did manage to get pregnant – I’d afford to raise a child alone. I was a freelancer without proper savings, with no rich family who could financially support me.
Five years ago, when I was 34, I heard about a different way. I served on the jury of a trial at the Old Bailey and during the long periods of waiting around, I befriended a woman with two children. She and her wife had decided they wanted to start a family and, as is common in the queer community, had asked their gay friend if he’d be willing to donate sperm. She told me that he said he didn’t just want to be a donor, he wanted to be a dad. They decided to platonically co-parent together. It was clear how loved the children were. I confessed that I wanted kids and was worrying about what to do. “Just ask one of your gay friends,” she told me with a laugh. “It worked for us.”
The idea of co-parenting stuck with me. The problem was I didn’t fancy procreating with any of my gay friends; although I love them, I couldn’t imagine spending so much time with them. I’m sure they would say the same about me.
But time passed and I couldn’t shake the idea. I had always been such a Daddy’s girl. If there was a way to provide my future child with a father and not do it alone, shouldn’t I try everything to do that first?
I first met Tom Hayes in 2020. He was in his late 30s and worked for the Hive, an arts centre in Shrewsbury where I was a trustee. We met via email and Zoom but got to know each other properly at the centre’s Christmas party in 2021, bonding over moving back to our home town – and how most of our friends now had children and were too busy to socialise with us as much as we would like. We clicked.
We grew closer, but it wasn’t until the next summer that I started to think Tom would be a good person to raise a child with. He was kind and empathic, funny and optimistic. I felt comfortable and safe in his presence. He’ll hate me for saying this, but another reason is that he treated his dog like a baby, often wrapping him up in a blanket and cradling him when got cold. He was creative. He cared about politics and positive social change. He loved to cook and had travelled and lived abroad as I had. We were both oversharers who enjoyed nothing more than spending an evening on the dancefloor. We’d both been single for a while and were living alone.
I began to ask questions – essentially interviewing him for a job he hadn’t applied for. I asked him about his childhood, his relationship with his parents and sister, his future plans and whether he wanted to stay in Shrewsbury long-term.
Eventually, I asked the crucial question: did he want to be a dad? My heart leapt when he told me he was looking into fostering or adoption as a single gay man. Shortly afterwards, I met Tom’s parents and witnessed them offering to take his dog home with them so Tom could have a night out. “We’re babysitting!” his mum said cheerfully, and I imagined her saying it about a grandchild.
I couldn’t shake the idea of asking Tom to have a baby with me, but I was too scared to take action. Instead, over a cup of tea, I told my mum that I was considering solo motherhood. She promised to support me but expressed concerns about how I would manage financially and practically. I had the same worries. My preferred way of parenting was together, with Tom, but I still hadn’t asked him. I was worried that if he said no, it would ruin our friendship. There would be no way of unringing the bell once I did it.
I ended up approaching it in the most British of ways: first I put off asking him for as long as possible; then I got extremely drunk. We’d been at the Hive for the launch of LGBTQ+ history month. It felt fitting to ask him after an evening celebrating gay rights so I began to knock back the wine. When I had enough dutch courage, I told him I had something to ask him and pulled him into a hug. Speaking directly into his ear – partly because it was really noisy and partly because I was too much of a wimp to look him in the eye – I began a long monologue about the friend I made during jury duty and what platonic co-parenting is (none of which he remembers as he had also drunk a lot).
Finally, I said the words: “Would you like to have a baby with me?”
“Do you mean as a donor?” he replied.
“No, not as a donor. We’d raise the baby together,” I said, before adding: “Obviously, it’s a big decision and we’d need to discuss a lot, so you don’t have to answer right away. Have a think … ”
Before I could finish, he cut in: “Shall we do it? Shall we have a baby together?”
It wasn’t for another week that we saw each other again. It felt as if the week lasted a lifetime. I was both afraid he’d been too drunk to remember the conversation and I’d have to do it all again and afraid he did remember but had changed his mind. The next Tuesday, he asked if I wanted to go for a drink at the bar of a Thai restaurant which overlooks the River Severn. I was nervous but after catching up, asked if we should address the elephant in the room. He laughed and said it wasn’t an elephant, and I was relieved to realise he hadn’t only remembered but had spent the week thinking about the idea. What followed was a beautiful conversation about how it could work. He told me how he’d given up hope of ever being a biological dad but had never heard of co-parenting as friends. We talked about how sharing custody could work and how we could create our own blueprint, because we wouldn’t be co-parenting after a breakup with all the baggage that comes with it. I couldn’t stop smiling.
When we got home, the conversation continued over WhatsApp. He initially proposed we spend the summer together before making the final decision. Famous last words. By the time we met again four days later, after sending each other articles and videos on the topic of platonic coparenting, he confessed he’d already told two colleagues at work. I burst out laughing, to which he replied: “Well, we’re about 85% sure, aren’t we?”
We were, but we still had much to discuss. We met regularly, often in the same riverside bar. There were difficult conversations where we shared our worst fears about how it could go wrong, such as the awful possibility of some kind of ugly custody battle. We discussed everything from the legal side of things to finances (we agreed to split everything 50/50). We talked about where the baby would live in their first year of life (at mine, with him here, too). We talked about our approaches to parenting; what would happen if we had trouble getting pregnant and how we’d support each other if we had a miscarriage. We talked about how we would manage when one or both of us got into a relationship. We discussed how we would tell the child about how they were brought into the world (deciding that honesty was the best policy). We researched childcare options and even decided how we would spend Christmas Day (together, splitting time between our two families). We planned how we would share custody equally after the first year, but because we are best friends, rather than a former couple, we knew we would do lots of things together including holidays and Sunday roasts.
We found out that any co-parenting agreement we could write wouldn’t be legally binding as judges in custody battles will make decisions based on the best interests of the child. Nevertheless, we decided to write a statement of intention as something for us to refer to in case of future problems. We even chose our favourite baby names (I already had a long list but gave him veto power). It was pretty painless, although he did nix my favourite boy name because it was the same name as his best friend, which he thought would be weird. All this was before I got pregnant.
We like to joke that no baby has ever been as discussed or considered as much in advance. After all, most parents who do things “conventionally” don’t feel the need to go into the same level of detail. It all felt good. Crucially, our values aligned, we could be open and honest together and we wanted the best for each other. We discussed what surname the baby would have, and decided it would be both our names, hyphenated – and that even though we aren’t in a relationship, we would be a family. One family, two households, we said. Our baby would grow up with two parents who loved each other very much.
Next came telling other people. My parents have always longed to be grandparents and as my sister is happily childfree, I was their only hope. I knew I had their support to do it solo, but was still terrified to tell them the new plan. I should have remembered my sister’s advice, who years before had said: “At this point you could get impregnated by an alien and they’d be absolutely thrilled.” She was right. Of course they had questions but seemed satisfied that we had thought things through. His parents, who had also believed they would never be grandparents, reacted positively as well. They quickly wanted to know what we were waiting for and why we didn’t just get going with trying.
The response from our wider circle of friends was more mixed. They ranged from absolutely thrilled to emotional, bemused and worried. Tom’s gay friends seemed to know horror stories about times when platonic co-parenting situations haven’t worked out, and the dad had ended up not seeing their child. I was more at the receiving end of negativity about how the turkey baster method of conceiving would never work, that I’d probably have to have IVF, and how I’d end up being the one “holding the baby”. But the naysayers were outnumbered by the overwhelming support and love we have received. Even before getting pregnant, we knew we had had created an amazing village of people who are behind us. Some mums even eyed me jealously, saying: “You’ll actually get a break. This is like the holy grail of parenting.”
By the time we made the decision, my broodiness was off the scale. I could barely concentrate on work and had read the whole internet – and five books – on how to conceive. I was also keen to start trying as soon as possible, because I was hurtling towards my 39th birthday and the sooner we started, the sooner we would know if there was a problem. I decided to forgo a fertility check because I thought it might only make me anxious. Tom agreed to start trying in the summer.
The turkey baster method of conception actually involves a specimen pot and a syringe. I ordered a kit online, although we didn’t need anything fancy. Most people assumed that the process would be awkward as hell. Instead, it was hilarious. On the first try, Tom came over before work and headed up to my bathroom with the empty pot. When he came back down, he gave me the filled pot and said: “I think this is what you’re after.” We couldn’t stop laughing and as I was seeing him out, I forgot I was holding the pot and soon realised I was chatting away and waving it around in full view of my neighbours. After he left, I took it up to my bedroom and used the syringe before putting my legs up against the wall, in case gravity helped the process. We tried seven times over eight days and laughed so much each time.
We ended up being incredibly lucky to get pregnant really quickly, in the first month of trying. I’ll never forget the feeling of standing next to him in his bathroom on a sunny Saturday in July and seeing that second line on the test. I felt giddy. Tom alternated between saying he couldn’t believe it – but that he knew it was going to work. We celebrated by having a dance round his living room to one of our favourite songs, a house track called Brighter Days that I’d sent him when we first made the decision. In the kitchen afterwards, I said: “Tom – you’re going to be a daddy.” He started to cry.
Discussions of potential fertility problems were replaced by new anxieties. Would this little bean make it? At five weeks, I started bleeding and cramping and we ended up in A&E. After two scans over a two-week period, we were told everything was fine. But this was our first experience of encountering a medical professional that didn’t know our situation. When the A&E doctor asked who Tom was, I blurted: “He’s the daddy”, then began to ramble: “But we’re not together. We’re best friends. It’s this thing called platonic co-parenting and, err, we’re both actually single. And he’s gay.” We couldn’t help but laugh at how awkward I had made the answering of a simple question. Afterwards Tom suggested we didn’t need to tell everyone; we could just say we are partners. “We are partners in this,” he said.
After the 20-week scan, we realised that while we had spent a lot of time discussing how we would share custody of a child, we didn’t spend much time talking about how we’d do the same with a baby. We knew the baby would be with me in the first year and that Tom would be here a lot, but it became increasingly obvious that he wouldn’t want to be far and that I was going to need all the help I could get – not least with my rent, given I’ll get only statutory maternity pay as a freelancer. Tom is now moving into my place this month. We imagine we’ll continue living together for at least the first 18 months – and then both of us hope to buy somewhere. We dream of buying on the same street although we will settle for the same area. Having lived alone for years, I’m now trying to make space not just for a new housemate but also the baby and all their gear, most of which we have been lucky to have been given by friends. As well as a few mates with older kids, we are lucky to be friends with a lesbian couple who are about 10 weeks ahead of us in their pregnancy – we’re really excited about our child growing up around another family that looks different from the status quo.
Recently, I got to know some of Tom’s friends a little better at a party at his place. Towards the end of the evening, the baby started moving and I instinctively reached for Tom’s hand. We’d both been excited for him to feel what I was feeling. The baby kicked, right on cue. “I felt that,” he said, grinning. We both welled up. Neither of us can believe this is really happening after years of thinking we might never have children. But there really is a little baby in there – and this spring we will finally experience parenthood, all by ourselves.