About eight years ago, Natasha Bakht decided it was time for her to take the big leap. “I wanted children, but was not in a romantic relationship. I figured that since I was financially stable, felt ready to raise a child and had the support of my family and friends, I should try using donor sperm,” says Bakht, 44, who teaches family and criminal law, and issues of multiculturalism in the law at the University of Ottawa, Canada, and is also a dancer and choreographer. The arrival of her son, Elaan, was a happy time for her. Her colleague and close friend, Lynda Collins, was her birth coach, and even though Bakht had to opt for an emergency C-section, it paled in comparison with the joy of holding Elaan for the first time. “We both fell in love with him immediately, even though he looked like a grey, slimy, tiny mutant,” says Bakht.
Perhaps, it was love at first sight that tied the two friends and Elaan together. Late last year, Bakht and Collins created legal history by becoming the first legal co-parents in Canada, and possibly in North America, who are not romantically involved with each other. The legality was merely the formalisation of a relationship that had begun much earlier.
Bakht had moved to Toronto during her maternity leave to be closer to her family. As he turned one, Elaan was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a condition that affects motor skills and muscle tone. It was around this time, once mother and child returned to Ottawa, that Collins became more involved in his care. She would spend hours with them, even accompanying them to his many doctors’ appointments. Eventually, she moved homes to live closer to them. In 2012, she moved into the unit just above theirs, where she still maintains her individual household. “We started travelling together, visiting our respective families together and eating meals together regularly. Our familial unit just came about organically such that we were parenting Elaan and making decisions about him together,” says Bakht.
Collins, 42, who teaches environmental law at the University, recalls the “awe, wonder, gratitude and elation” she felt when Elaan was born. She had considered having a biological child of her own and even adoption. “It was during that thought process that I decided that Elaan was the child I really wanted to adopt,” she says. “She asked me about this and because the reality was that Elaan already saw her as a parent, I said yes, let’s do it,” says Bakht.
According to the Child and Family Services Act in Ontario, one can adopt a child if the birth parent(s) gives up her parental rights or one does a step-parent adoption where one is in a spousal relationship with the birth parent. “Neither of these situations worked for us as I was obviously not going to give up my parental rights to Elaan, and, Lynda and I were and are not in a conjugal or spousal relationship. We could have constitutionally challenged this legislation as discriminatory on the basis of marital status, but decided it would be too lengthy and expensive to do this,” says Bakht.
Instead, the two sought a declaration of parentage. “We asked the court to rely on its inherent parenspatriae jurisdiction to protect vulnerable children to find that it is in Elaan’s best interests to have Lynda as a parent,” she adds. In April last year, they hired a lawyer to file their application in the Superior Court of Justice, Family Court. They received the declaration of parentage in November.
While the legal procedure went more smoothly than they expected, their case was an exception. “Weeks after we got our declaration of parentage, a new legislation came into force in Ontario that changed parentage laws in the province. The legislation is progressive in that it tries to recognise several different family formations. The new legislation still makes it possible for friends to co-parent a child, but they need to make the decision to parent before the child is conceived. Lynda’s intention to parent Elaan came about after his birth, so, as the legislation currently stands, we would not have been able to get a declaration of parentage,” says Bakht.
Legalities aside, both Collins and Bakht say their journey has been made possible because of immense family support. Though she was born in London, her parents — Bakht’s mother is a Bengali raised in Bihar and her father from Delhi — had immigrated to Canada when she was only two, and set up home in Toronto. They stood by her decision just as they had when she had decided to have Elaan using donor sperm. “It just made sense to everyone,” says Bakht.
Elaan, now seven, seems to have taken to it the most. “He is a bright, lively, fun-loving little boy. He adores music and will smile and laugh when he hears his favourite songs. He loves going to school, walking in his walker, and swimming. He has a fantastic sense of humour and will laugh and giggle at funny noises and also tends to join in if we start laughing, even if it’s at a nerdy law joke,” says Collins.
A typical day in Elaan’s life involves attending school between 8 am and 3 pm. Afterwards, his caregiver attends to his therapies till 6 pm. While Bakht takes care of his morning routine, Collins is responsible for his evening care that includes giving him his medication, feeding him through his G-tube and getting him ready for bed. The three make it a point to have dinner together. “In the evening, the three of us hang out together, we go for walks, sing songs — Lynda is an amazing singer-songwriter and Elaan loves music — and read books,” says Bakht.
Of course, as between most parents, there are rows on how to bring up a child. “But, we tend to be pretty good at resolving them. I’m probably more nervous in general, but the main thing is that Natasha and I worry about different things. We share our anxieties with each other and we are usually able to help each other to be calm and optimistic,” says Collins.
While they are open to the possibility that one or both of them might get romantically involved in the future, it’s a bridge they want to cross when they come to it. “Parenting is entirely unpredictable. People can tell you what it’s going to be like to have a child, but you really don’t understand the amount of work, the depth of joy, the level of fatigue and the immeasurable love you’ll feel until you’re in it,” says Bakht.