According to the National Marriage Project, 58 percent of first births in lower-middle-class households and 40 percent of all U.S. births are to unwed mothers. A recent article in the Atlantic looks beyond those statistics; the author makes the case that no one is asking women how they feel about being unwed mothers -- a good question, and one that I can answer on my own behalf.
For the first three years of my daughter’s life, I was an unwed mother, and I didn’t like it, AT ALL. Ten years later, it turns out I was merely ahead of the celebrity trend (first baby, then engagement!), but at the time, not having that “piece of paper” made me feel vulnerable and not quite rooted.
The funny thing is, I’m not religious, and I have no moral judgement over other people who have babies without being married. And in NO WAY do I feel that not having married parents somehow makes a child “illegitimate,” a truly foul concept that has no place in modern, civilized society. But for me, in my situation, not being married made me uncomfortable -- something that surprised me about myself. When did I get so square? But square I apparently was, so much so that I would avoid having to refer to my baby’s father in a way that made it clear we weren’t married; I reconstructed entire sentences instantly in my head so as not to have to say “my boyfriend,” rather than “my husband.”
Why weren’t we married? Without going into too much detail, my husband and I met one November, fell madly in love, and by the next Father’s Day, our baby was on the way. I was 25, and yes, it was a surprise. We traded our romantic plans to travel to India together for nights at home reading What To Expect When You’re Expecting (that is, once I stopped barfing 24-7) and trying to figure out how we’d fit this baby, who was rapidly accumulated an alarming amount of stuff before even making an appearance, into our tiny apartment. A wedding became the one straw that seemingly would break the camel’s back of our suddenly very new, unchartered life together.Though I wasn’t happy about it, I let it go, hoping that when the time was right, we’d make our partnership legally official.
Looking back, I don’t regret the way things worked out. When my husband did propose to me, it was lovely and romantic, and I was truly, genuinely surprised. I knew that he wasn’t doing it because he felt pressured, and I also know that at our wedding, no one could wonder if we were just there for “the baby’s sake” -- the baby now being 3 and a half!
Unlike another couple we knew who got pregnant around the same time we did, then got quickly engaged, married, and divorced, our story, tumultuous an non-traditional as it has been, so far has a happy ending. We just celebrated our sixth wedding anniversary, 11 years after we met, 10 years after we had our daughter.
And for that daughter? I do have a different dream for her, of a different path than my own. My hope would be that she one day (FAR FROM NOW!) finds her own life partner, someone she wants to spend her life with and who feels the same about her, and they get married, and then, after spending a few years together, they start a family. I think that’s still the “ideal” way to do things -- not the “right” way, certainly not the only way -- but the way that seems optimal and least stressful for all involved.
I understand that many “unwed” mothers today are in completely different situations than mine. Some never had the option to marry the father of their baby, some have babies without a partner on purpose, many are divorced, and still others are gay and can’t legally get married (a terrible injustice that hopefully will soon be a thing of the past). Some moms are fine with their “single” status; other, like me, might wish things were different -- but that’s something that’s a personal issue, not a societal one. No matter what, the important thing, as a society, is to understand and appreciate that there are many ways to define a family, and all of them should be celebrated.
Is there something nontraditional about your family?