VENICIA sits nervously at a restaurant table – the unfamiliar man about to walk through the door could one day be the father of her child.
But neither party are looking for love – they’re meeting for the first time with the sole purpose of seeing of whether they could have a child together.
Co-parenting is the booming phenomenon of having a child outside of the confines of a traditional romantic relationship.
Around 70,000 Brits are thought to be advertising themselves as potential co-parents online, looking to conceive and raise a child with someone they otherwise have no connection to.
A new Channel 4 documentary series, Strangers Making Babies, follows different would-be co-parents on their journey to finding a suitable match.
The four-part programme shows three women’s first meetings with potential partners – who they’re paired with by a Millionaire Matchmaker-style suitability expert – and their later decision of whether or not to have a child with one of them.
The mums-to-be include high-end nanny Venicia, who spent years caring for the kids of others.
“I do want to be a mum because I have a lot of love to give,” the 34-year-old says.
“I raise these babies every day and I’m ready to keep them!”
The online community of people searching for a co-parent is thriving – but it can be a bit of a wild west.
Some have extremely lax vetting processes, and others are simply organised as Facebook groups.
These can even end up being filled with blokes who aren’t really looking to raise a child – they just want to have sex.
To get around the pitfalls, Dr Marie Wren, deputy director of the Lister Fertility Clinic in London, created a more professional programme for prospective co-parents.
As well as rigorously checking applicants’ medical and criminal histories, Dr Wren also enlisted the help of expert matchmaker Gillian McCallum to help pair male and female candidates for introductions.
Factors like a person’s motivation for having a child, how traditional their values are, and what they say they want from others are all considered in the matchmaking process.
It’s up to the couples how they would actually conceive their child.
While candidates excitedly review the profiles of potential partners, Dr Wren is eager to remind them that this isn’t a dating service.
“It’s perfectly possible that people who meet through this process could have a romantic spark,” she says.
“However, romantic entanglement might just make it more complicated.”
‘Time isn’t on my side’
While Dr Wren’s programme aims to make co-parenting simpler, those who want to take part often have complicated reasons for doing so.
Venicia, who’s dedicated her career to caring for the kids of high-profile families, has spent years working 13-hour days making dating difficult.
Her glamorous job has taken her abroad to work in places like South Africa and Dubai – but the pain of no longer being needed by the kids when they go off to school has become unbearable for her.
“Every time I leave, it’s getting harder and I feel like I’m definitely ready to start a family of my own,” she says.
“I just feel like I haven’t got the luxury of years between dating and getting to know each other, and then having a child.
“I just feel like time isn’t on my side.”
Like Venicia, 38-year-old Sarah sought help from Dr Wren after finding the hunt for a co-parent exhausting.
“Trying to find a co-parent can be a little like shoe shopping because you end up looking for the shiniest of all of the options,” Sarah says.
Saving the family line
Because the point isn’t to fall in love, Dr Wren’s service opens the possibility of a gay person co-parenting with a straight person – which some candidates, like Sarah, even see as preferable.
“It means that the focus is all on the child and not on the co-parents,” she says.
One of the men she’s matched with is 47-year-old Chris from Manchester, who shares that he wants kids so badly that he’s even had dreams in which he’s pregnant.
“If I don’t have children, my family line will die out,” Chris says, tearfully adding that he wants to see his parents become the amazing grandparents he knows they’ll be.
Another man Sarah is matched with, also called Chris, explains he realised he wanted a child while in hospital after a near-death experience.
“I laid there thinking I want a family,” the 40-year-old Londoner says.
Whereas for Ian, he shows it’s not just women who worry about time-pressures when it comes to starting a family.
“It’s now or never – I have to make it work,” he says.
‘I did find her attractive’
Venicia’s male matches have totally different reasons for joining the programme.
Nigel from Hertfordshire couldn’t conceive with his ex-partner naturally or with IVF, and it was only once they began the adoption process they decided to split for good.
He still wants to have kids and is hoping co-parenting will be the answer – which is why he doesn’t immediately tell Venicia about his fertility issues.
“You don’t meet someone and go: ‘Oh and by the way, I’ve got slow swimmers’,” he says.
Whereas for 50-year-old Jean-Paul, who already has two teenage sons from a previous relationship, he just can’t get enough of being a dad and wants to have more kids.
“If I could choose any activity in the day, it would be to spend time with my kids,” the business trainer says.
But after his meeting with Venicia, it becomes apparent that Jean-Paul might have more on his mind than purely practical plans.
“I did find her attractive,” he says.
“I’m not in a romantic relationship, so I’m open to it. But it’s not a prerequisite.
“If it happens, that’ll be brilliant, but if the most that happens is that we co-parent, that would be mission accomplished.”
We’ll just have to wait and see how he gets on with his mission.
Strangers Making Babies starts tonight at 9.15pm on Channel 4