There were times when getting pregnant meant that you had to get married, whether you were ready for it or not. Thankfully there are far more options available for parents-to-be now. If abortion and adoption are not an option, you can go ahead and have the baby, without feeling that you need to get married to do the right thing by your partner or your child.
That having kids without getting married is fast catching on in society is evident from numbers. More than half of births to American women under 30 occur outside marriage, according to a report in the New York Times1. While in the mid-1990s, a third of Americans were born outside marriage, according to the 2009 census, the corresponding figure stood 41 percent — and 53 percent for children born to women under 30, according to Child Trends, which analyzed 2009 data from the National Center for Health Statistics. Also, in the United States, the rate of unintended pregnancy is higher among unmarried couples than among married ones. In 1990, 73% of births to unmarried women were unintended at the time of conception, compared to about 44% of births overall2.
Even in UK, the change is palpable. According to the latest British Social Attitudes (BSA) Survey, which was conducted in 2008, almost two-thirds of people felt there was little difference between marriage and living together3. Just under half thought cohabitation showed just as much commitment as getting married. Only less than a fifth of the people surveyed believed that the level of commitment between married couples and those simply cohabiting was different. Even bringing children into the picture did not change the majority view since only 28% said they believe married couples make better parents.
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History as an example
While traditionalists see the rising trend of having kids without getting married as yet another new-fangled idea, it actually has support in history. Before the eighteenth century, in Europe, if couples cohabited or had children together they were as good as married in everyone's eyes. It was only after the introduction of the Hardwicke Marriage Act in 1753 that marriage became a legal concept and unmarried couples became stigmatised. The "golden age" of marriage was actually more recent - the 1960s and 70s, in fact - when more people got married than ever before. Marriage was seen as a passport to adulthood, when you were allowed to have sex and live together.
However no amount of historical examples or changing social mores would be enough to convince partners about the wisdom of having kids outside marriage if it did not enjoy certain safeguards in law. Scandinavian countries were among the first to grant co-habiting couples with children many of the same rights and responsibilities as those who were married. Over the years, many other liberal countries have followed suit and while co-habiting couples still do not enjoy all the rights and privileges of married couples – that would amount to erasing any difference between the two relationships - the numbers of the former are steadily rising. One important reason has been that civil reforms have now made it possible to grant the children of unwed couples legal recognition instead of growing up without a father’s name. Also in emancipated societies, if a cohabiting couple separate and there are children involved, then both cohabiting partners may have rights and responsibilities – even if only one of them is their biological parent. Thus now to get married is not so much about religion, or money, or security as it may be for people in other countries. With the law giving them important legal safeguards, couples can get many of the same rights and responsibilities as if they were married – this has made it easier to have and bring up children without being formally wed. Then there is also the option of civil unions for couples who do not wish to get married but place their relationship on surer legal ground. Though originally formulated to grant legal status to same-sex couples, in certain U.S. states like Hawaii and Illinois, civil unions are also open to opposite-sex couples as well. This has even further reduced the need for couples to get married just for the sake of having children.
Celebrities are doing it
Then again the trend of having children without getting married has been championed by some of the most successful celebrity couples. Nicknamed Brangelina by the tabloids, this high-profile couple from Hollywood is perhaps the most visibly successful of contemporary unmarried pairings. Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have been together since 2005 and are bringing up six children – three of who are biologically their won and three adopted. The trend seems equally strong across the Atlantic too. British director Tim Burton and his partner, actress Helena Bonham Carter, have been in a relationship since 2001 and have two children. The eccentric duo is renowned for living in separate homes even though they do have adjoining houses. But apparently the unconventional arrangement has worked quite well of which says Carter, 'It really is a great idea. You never have to compromise emotionally or feel invaded.'4
What are the concerns?
And yet, marriage still continues to be the choice of relationship the world over when having and bringing up kids. If couples do not make a hasty stop by the church on their way to the hospital for the birth of the baby, later on they have a very family-like wedding with their kids acting as the ring-bearers. Very often this is a public celebration of the completeness of their family – sort of putting the seal to a happy state of affairs. Sometimes though a couple could find real legal issues – mostly to do with inheritance, tax benefits, retirement claims and so on - clouding their status as unmarried parents which is why they start exploring the option of marriage.
Then again, raising children without being married is a feasible option only the most emancipated societies. The vast majority of countries and cultures still view marriage as necessary to have sexual relations and raise kids, or at least as the ideal institution for raising well-adjusted children.
Critics of marriage point out that the mere presence of a wedding band is no guarantee that the couple will be good partners, much less parents. But such a surety is neither present in case of co-habiting couples. Partners living together are more likely to evade real issues of sharing a life when they are not married. Practical responsibilities or domestic chores may be divided but core issues like joint financial management and deeper commitment may remain unsatisfactorily understood so that when faced by a serious challenge, cohabiting couples may prefer to go their own ways. Even those who have got married may be unable to cope with the demands and commitments that a marriage entails. Recent sociological studies reveal that living together before marriage does not guaranteed marital happiness. A study published in Journal of Family Psychology in February 2009, showed that couples who cohabited before marriage were more likely to get divorced compared to couples who moved in after marriage. Moreover, partners living together may be more insecure of each other’s commitment in a relationship and hence less likely to trust each other, thus leaving their relationship open to misunderstandings and infidelities. Finally when partners belong to different religious or cultural backgrounds their cohabitation may be unable to withstand the overt or unspoken disapproval of parents, family and friends and consequently crumple under strain.
In the end the matter of having kids without being married remains riddled with complexities. Bringing up kids in the healthiest possible way depends on an entire network of personal, social, legal and cultural support. While the personality traits needed to bring up children can be available to both kinds of couples – married or otherwise -, the social recognition and legal safeguards for children are a matter of particular society and can vary from one place to another. but what can be safely said is that the marriage is still the most widely accepted institution for raising kids even though the trend of having children outside its bounds is here to stay, at least in the more emancipated parts of the world.
- For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage
- Eisenberg, Leon; Brown, Sarah Hart (1995). The best intentions: unintended pregnancy and the well-being of children and families. Washington, D.C: National Academy Press.
- Why do people get married after having children?
- Mr and Mrs Mad Hatter: The very strange world of Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Burton