Why Get Married? More and More Couples Choose to Have Kids Out of Wedlock
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According to Nicky Grist, the executive director of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, despite changing attitudes, the view that unmarried parents are bad for kids is still common. She explains that her organization hears regularly from unmarried parents who are experiencing disrespect and discrimination. This can include the inability to put a partner on the family’s health insurance plan, hostility from family members and colleagues, and even court orders requiring unmarried parents to live separately, or risk losing custody of one parent's children from a previous marriage. As she says, “The stories range from heartbreaking to infuriating.”
Given this climate, it is probably not surprising that I have encountered regular inquiries about my family’s choice. From my first pregnancy, when numerous people automatically asked when my boyfriend and I were getting married, to each of my deliveries at a Manhattan hospital where an awkward social worker turned up to provide mandatory counseling and a declaration of paternity, to questions I still field today about my plans for my near decade-long relationship, the implication is that my situation is not the norm. I don’t really mind talking about why I’m not married (though I have to say, I don’t think I have ever asked a married person exactly what was behind the motivation to wed), but I have yet to come up with an explanation that I can give in one easy sound bite.
That’s because, in reality, there are multiple reasons behind the decision, and at different times different ones have seemed more or less important. I care about things like equality, gay marriage and feminism. I find it pretty amusing that in a country where reality show contestants can win a spouse, get married, and then get divorced, all over the course of a few primetime seasons, marriage is still held up as the ideal. Plus, there’s the complicated matter of viewing marriage as a requirement for parenting when upwards of 40 percent of these unions end in divorce. (Not my parents; they recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary).
And while my partner and I have to think about things like health care proxies and inheritance taxes, right now not being married just works for us. Plus, I’m pretty sure it works for my kids too. Once or twice my 4-and-a-half-year-old has asked if we were going to get married. But she seems content with the answer that we aren’t, and when the subject comes up, she likes to point to families we know who are married -- like her maternal grandparents, or my cousin, whose wedding she participated in as a flower girl. And families who aren’t -- like her friend Ginger, who has two moms, or her buddy Oliver whose mom and dad aren’t married either.
That we have a number of unmarried parent couples in our circle speaks to the increasing acceptance of what was once an utterly taboo subject. But ultimately, it remains to be seen whether the number of children born into such family structures will continue to rise, and how this cohort of kids will turn out. I’m willing to bet, though, that whether or not they are a significant percent of the population, most of these children will turn out as well as their peers, and that if they do make bad choices in the future, these will have relatively little to do with the fact that their parents never bothered to tie the knot.
Ellen Friedrichs is a sex educator based in New York City, where she teaches high school and college classes.