Things are going swimmingly for the handsome couple having a few drinks in a cosy restaurant. They barely know each other but this first ‘date’ is changing that.
They are discussing music, TV shows, holidays taken, who will stay at home with the baby and who will go back to work.
This all sounds a bit intense for a first encounter. Not a date at all then?
‘No, it wasn’t,’ admits 40-year-old Trinity. ‘There are obviously similarities to a blind date. You are getting to know the other person, assessing if you get on.
‘But with dating, there are sort of ground rules. You have to build up to talking about whether the other person wants kids. You don’t do it on a first date.
‘This was the opposite: we were here to talk specifically about having a child together.’
Episode one of Strangers Making Babies, a Channel 4 series matching strangers to have children. Pictured: Sarah and Ian
Welcome to Strangers Making Babies, a new Channel 4 series which matches up strangers wanting to have a baby. Bonkers as it may sound, the phenomenon is called ‘co-parenting’.
Every divorced or separated parent will be familiar with accidental co-parenting, where a child is raised by two parents living in separate homes.
Deliberate co-parenting has the same end result but starts in a very different place — with two people who are not romantically linked, and have no desire to be so, committing to start a family together.
This controversial series, which would have been unthinkable a decade ago, is reflecting a growing trend, say the programme makers.
For in the past few years, there has been a huge rise in the number of internet sites and forums claiming to match potential co-parents. An estimated 70,000 people in the UK are signed up to such sites, seeking platonic parenting partners.
Episode one, JP and Victoria (pictured)
These sites are unregulated, however, and negotiating them is to tiptoe through a legal, moral and ethical minefield. One of the men who has already been on Facebook co-parenting matching groups sums it up thus: ‘****ing hell. There are some nutters on there.’
What Channel 4 claims to have done, however, is to take the idea and — they insist — make it less risky for those involved.
Three single women, all of whom feel deafened by the ticking of the biological clock, are matched with a selection of potential ‘dads’ for their as yet non-existent babies.
The men hoping to find a female co-parent include younger chaps who are desperate to be dads but haven’t yet met a wife-to-be, a divorcé who had struggled with fertility, and a man who already has a brood of teenagers but fancies another little one (or two).
Professional matchmakers — one from the online dating industry, one from the fertility sector — assess which men and women might make good co-parents, and the paired couples then have a series of meetings. Drinks are the first step.
Fertility tests are also carried out to assess the chances of the two matched souls actually being able to make a baby together
Then, as the women narrow down the field of men, comes meeting families. Finally, it’s a weekend spent with their potential co-parent.
If they do decide to go ahead and have a child, help will be given with the legalities. While co-parenting contracts — addressing such issues as how much contact each parent will have with the child and where he or she will live — are not legally binding, they can help clarify expectations at an early stage.
Fertility tests are also carried out to assess the chances of the two matched souls actually being able to make a baby together.
How would this all-important deed be done? That is up to the couples, but while there is jokey mention of a turkey-baster, the reality is that conception would more likely be via clinical artificial insemination.
So is this a case of Brave New World — or is it a step too far even for a broadcaster known to push the boundaries?
Well, the fact a leading fertility expert is involved does raise eyebrows. Dr Marie Wren is deputy director of the Lister Clinic. She devised the programme with help from medical and legal experts.
The vetting process is similar to that which prospective adoptive parents undergo. Every aspect of their lives are examined. Criminal checks are done. Questionnaires cover everything from hobbies to values.
Dr Wren says she felt there was a need because she was seeing more and more clients seeking fertility treatment to have a baby with a stranger. ‘Society has changed so much,’ she says. ‘People seem to struggle to meet someone to have a child with.
‘Anonymous sperm donation is not ideal for all single women and surrogacy with egg donation might be an appropriate option for some men seeking to be parents, but co-parenting is for some a far better option.’
She warns that many online sites for co-parents to meet are ‘totally unregulated’, adding: ‘I would always be concerned about the welfare of the potential children who might be born after parents have randomly met via an internet site.
‘The hope was that by providing this thorough and considered framework, we’d give possible co-parents greater reassurance and safety.’
The four-part series was filmed over the space of a year, with Covid interrupting proceedings but not derailing them. (The couples continued to talk, via Zoom, during lockdown.)
Do we hear the patter of tiny feet? Well, while we have agreed not to give away the outcome, we did speak to three of the wannabe parents involved, who explain why they want to have a baby with a total stranger.
Trinity, from Essex, says she agreed to take part because she desperately wants a child and simply did not want to go it alone. ‘I’d had relationships but none of them had worked out.
‘My mum had died the previous August, and that was a real pivotal moment for me. I think I was mourning both her and the children I might never have.’ She’d contemplated becoming a single-mum-by-choice, getting pregnant through a one-night stand or with the help of a sperm donor — but in the end she ruled that out.
‘I was quite ill with pneumonia, which scared me, because I thought, ‘What if I was a single mother in this situation’,’ she explains.
‘I’ve also always had a career that is important to me, but working five days a week and having a child on your own seemed difficult too. I came to the point where I realised I wanted any child to have a father in its life, too — but if I waited to find love, well it might not happen.’
For all the women, it came down to this difficult question: do I wait for love, or choose the man without it?
Venicia, 34, is from Croydon but she has spent the past 20 years enjoying a fabulously glamorous life nannying for very high-worth individuals (yes, there have been yachts involved). She is currently working in Dubai but has also lived in South Africa and Turkey. All in all, it hasn’t left much time for meeting a soulmate.
Like Trinity, Venicia always wanted to have children but simply never settled down. ‘I have no problem in that area,’ she says, when asked about finding a romantic partner, ‘apart from time to do so.’
How did she even get involved in this show? ‘A friend of mine saw a post on Instagram and tagged me in, saying: ‘This sounds like you.’ After chuckling about it, I said: ‘You can laugh, but I am going to apply.’
‘It was an opportunity to be paired with potential fathers who had been vetted by experts — doing a better job than I could do on my own. I didn’t know co-parenting websites existed, but I liked the idea of taking control of my fertility and future.’
She, too, had long considered going it alone. ‘I had researched sperm donation, and had every confidence that in every practical way I could provide for and care for a baby.
‘Emotionally, though, it is something that was harder to determine. Yet I didn’t want to rush a relationship in order to have a baby.’
The actual journey did prove to be emotional, however. The experts narrow down the potential dads for Venicia’s baby to three men.
Life has thwarted divorcé Nigel’s desire to be a dad. He had IVF with a former partner and even embarked on adoption, but the relationship collapsed. He is a keen musician and is up front about how he’d like to be a stay-at-home dad.
‘I’ve ironed a shirt and put on aftershave,’ he says ahead of their first meeting, clearly wondering whether this is the done thing.
He and Venicia share a cocktail and their life dreams, and laugh a lot. She later declares him her ‘mirror’.
But there are obstacles: Nigel does have fertility issues.
Vic is younger, Scottish, quite earnest, and shares her family values and ethics. Then there is Jean-Paul. Older at 50, he’s already a dad, with teenage sons from a previous relationship, but he ‘always wanted more children’.
He sums up why so many people think this match-making process should work. ‘Romance is lovely but it has a way of making people lose their minds. In this process, they are thinking quite clearly.’
However, many will argue that the best thing for a child is for his or her parents to be in a happy — and traditional — relationship.
Harry Benson, research director of the Marriage Foundation, commented: ‘U.S. studies show that cooperative co-parenting arrangements like this have much less benefit for children than most people assume. This programme appears to be treating children as secondary consumer goods rather than as the product of a loving relationship.
‘UK and U.S. evidence shows that children tend to fare best with both parents under the same roof. That’s most likely to happen if the parents are married.’
But back to Venicia. How to chose? She admits she was overwhelmed. She tells me that had she been looking purely for romance she would have ruled out an older man like Jean-Paul, but in this situation perhaps his experience would be useful?
Yet it was the laying bare of her own broodiness that caused the most anguish. ‘A lot of the time, I was in tears. When it came to discussing how much children meant to me, the floodgates opened. I hadn’t realised how ready I was until I was asked.’
Sobering, too, was having to commit to paper her thoughts about what she was looking for in a potential father. ‘It’s not something you necessarily think about.’
And then she was hit with a bombshell. Her fertility checks showed she had fewer eggs left than the doctors would expect at her age.
‘That really was a shock,’ she says. ‘I am a relatively healthy woman — ok, I could afford to lose a few pounds — and just on the right side of 35. I thought the odds weren’t going to be too bad.’
It was a jolt, but perhaps a required one. ‘I think it gave me the reality check I needed to put my dreams into action. I’m a ‘silver linings’ type of person, but yes, the journey to become a mother suddenly became very difficult, and possibly very expensive.’
The third woman in the series (each goes on ‘dates’ with three men) is amateur ballroom dancer Sarah, 39, from Surrey. She argues that although it may seem as if she is doing a very untraditional thing, she has a very traditional view of family life. She has a father she adores, and ideally wants a dad in her child’s life.
Sarah says that looking for a co-parenting partner in this way can be, believe it or not, ‘a little bit like shoe shopping. You end up looking for the shiniest of all the options’.
Much of the process is spent thinking about the practicalities. Who would live where? Trinity has an instant connection to one man, but he lives in the North while she is in Essex. ‘You have to start thinking ‘How would that work?’ ‘
Another issue is conflicting ideas about who should stay at home with the child. One of Trinity’s choices shares so many of her parenting values, but confides that he sees himself staying at home with the child, while she goes back to work. Not in her game plan!
Jean-Paul, a business trainer, tells me he had never heard the term co-parenting before, but when he read about this programme it immediately appealed.
He has been successfully co-parenting with his ex-wife for a decade (their sons are 20 and 15), but he admits that in the years immediately after their split, things were difficult. ‘Emotions are high, aren’t they?
‘I always knew I wanted more children — and this would be a way of having more without the complications and the arguments.’
How on earth to explain this to his children though? ‘I think they were quite keen. They thought it would get me off their backs!’
One of the most fascinating parts is watching how the couples cope with the total removal of romantic expectations. Is it even possible to go on a ‘date’ and keep it entirely businesslike? Spoiler alert: sometimes it isn’t.
Jean-Paul holds his hands up to the fact that he found Venicia attractive. In the show he even tells her this, saying that it wouldn’t be out of the question to have a baby together — then start a relationship.
‘I wanted to keep an open mind,’ he admits. ‘She’s beautiful and bubbly and funny. And I’m a red-blooded man. I can’t turn that off.
‘I think it’s almost impossible to look at a woman as a mother of your child without thinking of them as a physical person and whether they’re attractive.’
Does Venicia appreciate his candour? She becomes suddenly prim. ‘From the beginning, I was mindful about keeping conversations platonic and staying true to the process. That’s how it was designed.’ A brave new world indeed.
Strangers Making Babies starts at 9.15pm tonight on Channel 4.