You’re in a committed relationship with someone you love. You both want kids. But you feel like marriage is standing in between this point, right now; and that point in the future when you can bin the birth control.
Before I start hammering out statistics, I’d like to set the scene. I firmly believe that different things work for different people and I refuse to judge you for your choices when it comes to relationships and parenting.
That being said, I’m pretty biased when it comes to the argument of whether or not getting married before making babies is a good idea. I’ll tell you more about my own story a bit later, but here’s a clue: I have a kid, and I’m not married.
This is a choice. My partner and I are together and plan to be together for the rest of our lives. I didn’t get pregnant accidentally, and we didn’t forget to get married before our daughter was born — we just didn’t want to. It was a non-issue for us, but unfortunately, it is an issue for lots of people around us.
I’m frequently asked questions like…
When are you going to get married? Why did you decide to have a baby without doing the marriage bit first? Isn’t having parents who are married much better for kids, though? What will you do if you break up?
And perhaps most frustratingly, when are you going to persuade him to make it official? — as if I, the woman in this heterosexual relationship, must be desperate for a ring and working endlessly to grind my man into submission so he’ll no longer be footloose and fancy-free.
That brings me to a quick note: I’m focusing on heterosexual relationships because marriage data for same-sex couples in most parts of the world is very limited; and because I’m a woman in a relationship with a man. If you’re in a non-heterosexual relationship and considering marriage before kids, you might still find this useful.
Time for me to throw those stats at you. Stick with me — read on to find out why having a baby first could be a really good choice (whether you decide to get married later on, or not).
What’s the big deal — aren’t far fewer people getting married anyway?
Yes. With 2020 fast approaching, relationships and marriage take place in a very different landscape than they did for the last generation. According to the US Census Bureau, in 1958 the average age for a man to get married was 22.6, and just 20.2 for women. In 2018 those average ages had risen drastically to 29.8 for men and 27.8 for women.
But people aren’t just getting married later — many couples are choosing not to get married at all.
- In England and Wales in 1940, 471,000 couples got married, compared to only 243,000 heterosexual couples in 2016
- In the US marriage rates have dropped by 8% since 1990; while the number of Americans living with a partner without getting married rose by 29% between 2007 and 2016
- Across the 28 countries in the European Union, the marriage rate fell from 7.8 per 1000 people in 1965 to 4.4 in 2016
The numbers show that marriage is becoming less of a priority for lots of us in the developed world. When it comes to having kids, however, the status quo still tells us that the right thing to do is to get married first.
As you’d expect based on the fact that marriage rates are going down overall, the stats that show that more people are having children without being married. In the US, for example, only 13.2% of births were to unmarried mothers in 1974. This had risen to 40.3% in 2015.
Interestingly, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 2015 was the third year running that unwed birth numbers had been on the decline; and in 2017 the figure had dropped again, with 39.8% of births being to unmarried women. So while all other marriage stats continue to show fewer people getting married and more people getting divorced, it seems that in very recent years, a growing number of people are waiting to be married before getting pregnant.
So there must be good reasons to get married before you have kids
You’d think. And, until recently, there were good reasons to get married first. A 2018 study found that until 1995, having a baby before getting married made it more likely that a couple would then break up, or divorce if they did get married after their first child was born.
But this is no longer true for millennial couples, who are no more likely to get divorced later if their first baby is born before marriage. Most importantly, social researchers have found that marriage makes no difference to children’s emotional wellbeing; kids do just as well with unmarried parents who are in a stable relationship as they do with parents in a stable marriage.
Marriage used to be important because it was such a central part of how our society worked. It was a necessary exchange because women and men didn’t have the same rights. Women weren’t able to work or own their own money or property, so the marriage contract ensured that the man would provide for the woman, while the woman would care for the home and children.
With huge changes in women’s rights which mean that women are now able to work, earn and own money, and own property, the value of marriage has changed. It’s cloudy; an institution built on possession and security is unstable when no one needs to be possessed or provided for. When it comes to children, a woman is just as able to bring in money for her family as a man is.
It’s all about attitudes and norms. People still have this deep belief that marriage is simply the right thing to do; that marriage provides the certainty and commitment that helps children to thrive. But that’s not true: nearly 50% of all marriages in the US end in divorce or separation.
Getting personal: marriage and commitment aren’t the same things
I’ll call my partner by his first initial: L.
Neither of us had ever been into the idea of marriage. I’m not anti-marriage, and he isn’t either, but it never felt important to us.
When we realized we wanted to start a family together it didn’t cross our minds that we should get married first. Other people mentioned it, but to us the idea that our commitment wasn’t valid until we’d put a ring on it was…well, weird. We both grew up in religious families who would have liked us to be married before getting pregnant, but we’d both rejected those religions in our own lives when we were teenagers.
We saw it like this:
- We are committed to each other. We want to be together, and we’re making that choice. The idea that we have to get married to prove our commitment before we have a baby makes us both feel strange. Because why would we make the monumental decision to have a baby together if we felt a need to prove our commitment first?
- Having a baby together is a bigger commitment than marriage. If we got married we could get a divorce. But if we have a child, we can’t give that child back if our relationship doesn’t work out. We are committed to being a part of each other’s lives forever because even on the very-small-oh-shit-please-don’t-let-it-ever-happen chance that we do break up in the future, we’ll still have to be a part of each other’s lives. We’ll still both be parents to our child.
If we’d loved the idea of being married and wanted to be married even if we didn’t have children, it would be different. I wholeheartedly, joyfully support marriage when people want to get married. And also, by the way, I love weddings.
It’s the idea that you have to get married before you have children, just because that’s what you’re supposed to do, that I disagree with.
Some people see marriage as a commitment. As the real start of the relationship — the start of their lives together. To me, that commitment has to be there first, with all of the other things that have to exist within it. The love, mainly (yes, I’m a romantic); and the respect, the trust, the friendship, the fun, the patience, the willingness to work things out and keep on getting to know each other. The willingness to let each other change and fall in love all over again. Marriage is a cherry on top; a really lovely thing to do to celebrate your relationship and enjoy being alive together. And sometimes a thing that adds some tax benefits to your already-committed-relationship.
Earlier this year, someone very close to me called off his wedding three hours before it was supposed to happen. He’d proposed to his girlfriend, she’d happily said yes, and they’d set about planning their big day. He told me they’d spent close to $40k, racking up debts they’d be paying back for years. When they got engaged everyone was thrilled that they were ready to commit to each other and excited for the life they would build. And when he called it off the shockwaves rippled through his family and friends.
What had happened? Why did he change his mind? How could you go from ready to get married to turning around and walking away?
He was brave. He had hoped that being engaged and getting married would solidify a relationship that he wasn’t absolutely sure about, and it didn’t. He realized this and made the incredibly painful decision not to go through with it — to tell her, to make those phone calls and cancel everything, and to deal with the grief of a lost relationship alongside the guilt of letting other people down.
Lots of people don’t call it off. Social worker Jennifer Gauvain writes that three in ten divorced women know, on their wedding day, that they have serious doubts about their relationship. But they go through with it; because they’re scared of what might happen if they don’t, or they feel too guilty or ashamed to change their minds. They thought that being married would solve their problems.
Getting married doesn’t solve those problems. Having children doesn’t either (and kids add a whole set of new challenges to test even the strongest relationship). But it doesn’t make sense that a marriage is still somehow seen as a more valid and real commitment — that even with rocketing divorce rates, people assume that you can’t have a solid monogamous relationship without being legally married.
You can be married and not be committed to your husband or wife. And you can be not married and be deeply committed to your partner.
The weight of a wedding ring
The weight of a wedding ring might feel grounding, steady, and safe. The public promise and your names together on that contract might feel completely wonderful in the good times. The symbolic union of marriage is a beautiful thing when you turn away from the traditions of possession and contractual obligations.
But what if that weight starts to hurt when the relationship gets hard? What if you blame the contract and the promises you made, and feel angry at the marriage itself, instead of focusing on what’s happening between you? What if you feel ashamed that it’s not working the way you thought it would, and struggle to open up to the family and friends who watched you get married?
I don’t want to persuade you not to get married if that’s what you want to do. I do want to empower you to step away from the pressure and feel confident that you’re not all wrong if you want to have kids, but you’re not sure if you want a legal marriage.
It’s OK. Other people will have opinions, no doubt — and they’ll probably share those opinions with you. Maybe a lot. But that’s something you’re going to get used to as a parent anyway. Have a baby and you’ll get loads of opinions and advice you haven’t asked for. About everything you do.
Your family and friends can think what they think, and you can have your life. You can continue to build your family and your life with your partner, making choices that feel right for you. Not choices that are based on pressure or other people’s expectations.
You’re always allowed to change your mind
Maybe you’ll decide to get married later. Truth time: I’m marrying L.
Our daughter will be five, and I’ll be thirty. We’re getting married because we want to now; because it doesn’t feel uncomfortable anymore; because we want to celebrate the life that we’re already building together, and because those tax breaks will be handy too. We’re not getting married because we’re finally ready to commit to one another. We’re in this world together and we’ve known that for a while now.
And you know what? I am certain that our relationship — our marriage — will be stronger because we decided to have a child first. We know each other. We’ve supported one another as we’ve been through the biggest change we’ve ever been through becoming parents. We’ve explored this whole new existence together and we know that we want to work through whatever comes our way. Marriage isn’t going to change that for us.
I suppose that’s what it comes down to. You can get married because you think it’ll give you the relationship you want, and create the stability you need to start a family — but there’s no guarantee that it will.
Or you can get married (or not) because you already have that relationship. You don’t need to prove it. You just want to live it.