Babies Before (Or Instead Of) Marriage: What’s Your Opinion?

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Does it matter when Baby comes?

The just-released State of Our Unions report tells us that the percentage of kids born outside of marriage rose from 18% to 40% just since 1980. Not only that, but the number of kids whose parents are “just living together” rose from just under half a million to over 2.5 million during that same period. But that doesn’t mean that marriage is on its way out. The same report states that among high school seniors, 71% of boys and 82% of girls said that “having a good marriage and family life is extremely important” to them. But at the same time, over half also said “having a child without being married is experimenting with a worthwhile lifestyle or not affecting anyone else.” (Except for the child, of course.)

In data collected by The National Campaign, 47% of 18 to 24-year-olds say they expect to marry and have a baby with their current partner, but not necessarily in that order. Certainly, the example set by celebrities is that it’s almost the norm to have one or more children–or at least getting pregnant–before marrying (if they even marry at all).  Are young people today following the lead of those who are in the public eye, or are the celebrities merely mirroring the changing norms of society? Or is it a little of both?

It might sound like I’m disapproving. And I am, a little. I can understand an unplanned pregnancy precipitating a wedding. I can even accept a woman having a baby when she doesn’t have an ongoing relationship with the father. But if you’re going to get married anyway, why have your baby before the wedding? Wouldn’t you rather be husband and wife before you’re father and mother?

I recognize that it’s partly my age that contributes to my attitude. It’s amazing to me that just a few short decades ago it was still considered to be aberrant (and immoral) to have a baby out of wedlock. All the girls I knew in high school who had babies got married first. To do otherwise was unthinkable. And to not get married at all–to raise the child alone–wasn’t even considered to be an option, at least not where I came from.

And yet, even though I’m a product of my era and my socioeconomic class, I have to say that my views have changed about single motherhood. That’s partly because of my own experience: I was a single mother because of divorce for at least half of my children’s growing up years. I also have a daughter who got pregnant (by chance, not by choice) but who chose to have the baby and raise him by herself. I now believe that a child’s happiness does not depend on having both parents living together with the child. My hangup is about parents who are together choosing to stay single. What kind of message does that send to a child?

But if a child can handle being raised by one (unmarried) parent, why can’t he or she handle being raised by two parents who aren’t married? I agree that it’s the commitment that counts, not the marriage license. Children are a lot more resilient than we give them credit for. They can tell when a relationship is or isn’t working, regardless of whether or not their parents are married. In fact, you could argue that it’s easier on children when their parents don’t have to go through a divorce if or when they split do up.

On thing I’m very glad about is that children who are born out of wedlock or whose parents don’t live together are no longer branded as “illegitimate” or “products of broken homes.” It’s not their fault how they came into the world or what their parents do after they’re here. I don’t believe that such children are at a disadvantage, I just question why their parents wouldn’t want to do all that they could to make their situation as normal as possible.

What do you think of parents who put off marriage, sometimes permanently? Do you think a child is harmed by his or her parents’ not being married, or not marrying until after he or she is born? Do you think that parents owe it to their children to make it legal (unless they’re not together in the first place)? Do you think divorce is more harmful than a break-up of unmarried parents?

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Ellen Keim

Ellen is a freelance writer, essayist and copy editor, living with three cats and a husband in Columbus, OH.

4 thoughts on “Babies Before (Or Instead Of) Marriage: What’s Your Opinion?”

  1. I believe that the basis of a good society is a good family. However if people want to have children without the benefit of the social contract of marriage….go ahead, let them knock themselves out.,..just don’t reach into my pocket to care for them……wanna have kids?? pay for them yourselves like my family has for every generation we can count.

    1. I agree with you about a good family being the basis of a good society. However, I don’t think you have to be married to be responsible about taking care of your offspring. It’s just that, because marriage is a social contract it protects all parties to some extent. If there’s a divorce, it’s easier to set custody and visitation arrangements and child support and who’s going to be responsible for medical bills and health insurance. But these things are still enforceable even if there’s never been a marriage.

      The bottom line is: marriage does not guarantee that a family will stay together. We should be working on enabling families to function better no matter what their legal status.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. “All the girls I knew in high school who had babies got married first.” – Sorry? How many girls having babies did you know? And who cares whether these girls are married mothers or not, it’s bad enough that they even are mothers at that age.

    Seriously, here in Germany you would be marked a “Hinterwäldler” even just by bringing up such a discussion. Well, it’s probably because here, people don’t make a fuss about teenage sexuality (and we still have one of the lowest teenage pregnancy rates in the world), topless women are a regular sight on the beach, and you can get an abortion without having to fear being killed by Christian fundamentalists.

    See, I really try not to be prejudiced against Americans, but how can I achieve this if even American feminists manage to be conservative? If even women who fight against structures that restrict them just brainlessly repeat the nonsense emitted by exactly these structures? It’s no surprise why so many marriages end up being divorced if people keep sticking to the dogma of “marriage keeps families together” instead of actually trying to work on their (unmarried?) relationships.

    1. You have a point. I wasn’t saying that marriage keeps families together. I was saying that if a couple plans to stay together anyway, what do they have against getting married before they have children? I qualified my perspective by admitting to some generational bias. Having said that, I agree that Americans can be quite conservative and I’m sure that in some ways I am no exception, even though I don’t feel like people have to get married to have a legitimate relationship.

      I guess my real question is: Does marriage stand for anything anymore? If it makes no difference in how a couple feels toward each other or how any offspring feel about their family unit, then why have do we still get married? Is it just for the legal benefits (which, in this day of recognized domestic partnerships, are fewer than they used to be)? Or is it just to satisfy “Hinterwaeldler”?

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