A growing number of couples are choosing to have children before thinking about marriage. But does your wedding ring affect your parenting?
Not marrying before having kids may have raised eyebrows a generation ago, but it’s fast becoming the norm. The latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that in 2015, more than 1.6 million births were to unmarried women, which is part of the trend dubbed "carriage before marriage." Compare this to four percent of children born out of wedlock in 1938, and it’s clear just how the landscape of family life has changed.
"Women are settling down later, so starting a family becomes the bigger priority," says clinical psychologist Dr. Cecilia D. Felice. "Plus, we are now more financially independent. It isn’t to our advantage to get married in the same way it would’ve been in the past."
But it’s not just about finances — some couples simply see marriage as an outdated institution they’re not interested in. Plus, the family politics involved in a wedding can also act as a deterrent. Sprawling families, often underpinned by previous divorces (39 percent of couples marrying today will divorce, compared to less than 10 percent in 1973) can make planning a big day more daunting.
"After 10 years, my partner still asks me to marry him, but it’s never going to happen," says Fiona McCall, 34, from Sheffield, England, a teacher and mother of two. "My parents divorced when I was 10, after my father had an affair, then married her. My mom hates both of them, so the potential for upset is huge. Gary and I have been blessed with a happy relationship and are good parents — that’s what really counts."
If you had front row seats at the breakdown of your own parents’ marriage, it’s understandable you’d be nervous about doing it yourself. "Children of divorced parents see how much damage it can create," says marital therapist Andrew G. Marshall. "This means they can be wary of putting their kids in a similar position."
Previous studies have suggested marriage can benefit your child’s development, helping them thrive emotionally and academically. But the latest research by The Institute for Fiscal Studies concludes that though marriage shows a couple’s long-term commitment to each other (which can make that relationship more secure) there’s no evidence it has any effect on a child’s development.
"A stable environment is more important," says Cecilia. "That’s providing a loving, predictable home for children — marriage doesn’t necessarily guarantee that."
The only exception to this, according to psychologist Donna Dawson, who specializes in relationships, is if you have a personal belief in marriage as a building block to starting a family. "If you feel marriage is the glue that will hold you all together, you’re likely to be unhappy in an unmarried partnership, which could then have a knock-on effect on your children," she says.
And, for some women, tying the knot naturally creates an extra incentive to make a partnership work. "We followed the traditional path, getting married the year before we started trying to conceive," says Sarah Parker, 32, an academic from Oxford, who’s mom to Rosy, nine months.
"It made me feel like our relationship was stronger. As a married unit, we’re in it together. So, even when things are tough, we’re committed to working it out."
(Photo Credit: Getty Images)
But, as well as having no influence on development, not being married is also unlikely to affect our children in other ways. As toddlers turn into curious preschoolers, questions like, "What was mommy's wedding dress like?" can pop up.
Even then, according to Noël Janis-Norton, author of Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting, few young children will be upset by their parents’ marital status. "Until around six or seven, children aren’t aware of what being married means — they’ll accept different family models according to what they’re exposed to," she says.
"From that point on, they might ask about it, but they’ll probably mirror your own attitudes. If you explain your relationship is stable and committed, they’ll view it in the same way."
This post was written by Sarah Maber. For more, check out our sister site Mother & Baby.
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