The "Friends" reunion airs on US television this week and I don’t mind admitting that I will be one of the millions around the world who watch it. I have probably seen every episode of the original show several times, yet it was only fairly recently that it occurred to me that none of the main characters in the show follow what might be described as the traditional route to parenthood.

Of the six friends, Chandler and Monica adopt after struggling with fertility issues; Phoebe acts as a surrogate for her brother and his wife; and then there's Ross – serial divorcer and two-time co-parenting father, firstly with lesbian ex-wife Carol and then, of course, with Rachel. None of these could really be considered "traditional" family structures, especially not twenty years ago!

The show's depiction of the central characters' family lives and relationships is obviously over-dramatised for entertainment purposes. The reality of adoption, surrogacy and complex parenting relationships is very different to what you see on screen. The storylines do however give an insight into some of the reasons why people might find themselves on an alternative path to parenthood. Thinking about families in Scotland in 2021, it's increasingly evident that parenting has developed beyond the traditional family unit of mum, dad and full-sibling children. Evolving families can be complex from a legal point of view and may raise some difficult issues for parents and prospective parents to grapple with.


In many ways, Chandler and Monica fit the stereotypical image of adoptive parents – a heterosexual, married, thirty-something couple who find themselves unable to have children of their own. Many children are still adopted into that type of family unit, but in Scotland adoption is open to a much wider range of people than you might expect. Unmarried couples can adopt, as can single people. Some adoptive parents already have biological children. Couples who wish to adopt must demonstrate an enduring family relationship, but that need not be a marriage or civil partnership. Gender and sexuality are no longer barriers to adoption. Same sex couples, male or female, can adopt which means adoption is an increasingly more common path to parenthood for the LGBTQ community. The focus of adoption is matching a child to the right prospective adopters who will provide a positive and nurturing environment for that child as they progress through their childhood.

What you don’t see in the show is that adoption is a formal legal process by which the legal link between child and natural parent is permanently severed. There is rarely, if ever, the "friendly" relationship between natural and adoptive parents that you see in the show. Usually, the two never meet. An adoption order can provide for some limited contact between the child and their natural parents, but often that will not be appropriate or in the child's interests. Questions about natural parents must be handled carefully and sensitively for any adopted child, but perhaps even more so in single person or same-sex adoptions where it will be apparent to the child, probably from a much earlier stage, that they have a biological parent who isn’t part of their family unit.


Phoebe was what is referred to as a gestational surrogate. In such cases, the intended parents' genetic material (or that of a donor or donors) is used to create an embryo, which is then implanted in the surrogate via IVF. Phoebe explained the process quite succinctly when she said: "it's my oven, totally their bun". The other type of surrogacy is known as straight or traditional surrogacy, which uses the surrogate's egg but the sperm of the intended father or donor - meaning the surrogate has a genetic link to the child. With either form of surrogacy, there is a careful legal process to be followed. When the child is born, the surrogate will be the legal parent of the child until a parental order is granted by the court in favour of the intended parent or parents. In certain circumstances, the surrogate's spouse or partner may also be the child's legal parent. A parental order must be applied for within six months of the child's birth, and the consent of the legal parent(s) is required. Consents cannot be obtained until the child is at least six weeks old.

Although surrogacy is becoming more common in the UK, it is generally still viewed with a degree of trepidation. It's often perceived as a route only for the rich and famous, but in the UK surrogacy is not a financial arrangement. It is illegal to pay a surrogate, other than to compensate her for reasonable expenses directly related to the pregnancy and/or birth. It is possible to use a sibling or family member as a surrogate, such as in Friends, but there are also organisations  who can assist a couple or individual looking to identify a suitable surrogate.


Questions around co-parenting routinely arise in the context of a relationship breakdown, where one parent is concerned about how they and their ex-spouse or partner are going to share the care of their child following a separation. That can sometimes be fraught, particularly where the relationship has ended in circumstances of high conflict. In Friends, that isn’t Ross's route into co-parenting. He is not in a relationship with either Carol or Rachel during their pregnancies or after the birth of their children but despite that, notably, there's never any suggestion that he won't be fully involved in parenting. On the contrary, the portrayal of Ross as a father is generally a positive example of co-parenting - albeit in quite unusual circumstances. He maintains an effective, respectful relationship with ex-wife Carol but the show does touch upon the (sometimes difficult) dynamic between a natural parent and a step-parent, and the often crucial role that both can play in the life of a child.

When Ross becomes a father for the second time, he and Rachel navigate some of the issues which many separated co-parents face, such as the introduction of new partners, managing differing views on childcare and upbringing, and the struggle to balance personal lives and work commitments. Despite their history and unresolved issues, Ross and Rachel manage to communicate, co-operate and support one another to navigate these issues without the co-parenting relationship breaking down.

Friends is, of course, fictional and intended to be light hearted, so the absence of significant parental conflict and the brushing over of quite complex legal issues is hardly a surprise. The show does, however, highlight the reality that people often become parents in a way they did not expect , and that the path to parenthood may not always be straightforward. As family lawyers, we are not just involved when things go wrong in family life, but also in advising people who are about to embark on their journey into parenthood – whatever that might evolve to be.


Zoe Wray