First comes love, then the baby carriage, then (maybe?) the wedding

Joe Banks reflects on how more couples are choosing to focus on parenting rather than rush marriage – a marked change from the days of shaming ‘out-of-wedlock’ pregnancies.

Baby Pacifier And Wedding Rings, ConceptualIt wasn’t that long ago in this country that the options for an unmarried pregnant woman and the father were few, and realistic ones could be counted on a single finger. If the couple didn’t want the child, abortion, or having another family member raise the child to avoid the stigma, was done quietly, when it could be done at all.

And that’s not to say anything of the church and interfamily judgment that went along with it all.

Mostly, pregnancy “out of wedlock” meant one thing: getting married, and the sooner the better if the cold stare and scolding of the parents and the grandparents and the neighbours were to be avoided. The old axiom “shotgun wedding” was exaggerated only by the absence of the shotgun.

That was the case with my own parents. When my mother was five months’ pregnant with my big brother, she and my dad had a very quiet civil ceremony, preferring to tie the knot on St. Patrick’s Day in 1951 under a pretence of civility rather than celebration. Then, 65 years ago, marriage was placed above childbirth, including whether anyone believed the union was actually a good idea.

Thankfully, we now live in an era in western society when the popularity and importance of parenting is gaining fast on marriage in the family-creation pecking order. I see more unmarried parents today who have chosen to put aside the cost and pretence of weddings, concentrate on parenting first, and then later — if at all — invite family to celebrate union, when and if they’re motivated to do so.

We saw an example of that at a destination wedding this past January. Our niece and her husband were married at a Dominican resort, thousands of miles from her community and anything resembling a church, in the presence of 32 of her friends, family — and the couple’s 18-month-old daughter.

And as they exchanged vows beneath a gazebo centred in the lush grounds of the resort, the few of us watching on, and old enough to remember the bad old days, couldn’t help but reflect on what was once acceptable and what was not.

When I was barely out of my teens in the ‘70s, the “normal” order of events was dating, engagement, co-habitation, marriage, and last, the arrival of babies. If one had strayed from that path — out of order — a world of judgment came with it.

For all of the “free love” publicity the ‘60s got, the image rarely met reality, at least where I grew up. “Living in sin” was still frowned upon, even as it gained in popularity, and having a child in that environment, positively scandalous.

But society changed gradually over the next 30-40 years, and that is reflected in our national beliefs. A 2013 study for Statistics Canada comparing data between 1981 and 2011 shows how far we have come, at least when it comes to marriage’s role in creating a family.

While 65-per-cent of children lived with married parents in 2011, 14-per-cent lived with common-law parents, up dramatically from just three-per-cent in 1981 and six-percent in 1991.

At the same time, as I suggested, common-law relationships have increased.

In 2011, 11.5-per-cent of the population aged 15 and over lived in a common-law union, up from 3.8-per-cent in 1981.

And while most people in couples are married spouses, the share has dropped over time. In 2011, about four-fifths (80.1-per-cent) of individuals in couples were married spouses and the remaining one-fifth (19.9-per-cent) were common-law partners. In contrast, in 1981, 60.9-per-cent of the population aged 15 and over was married, while 39.1-per-cent was unmarried.

And yet, they still marry. The popularity of weddings hasn’t substantially changed over the years, just when people have them in the evolution of their family development.

Together, the numbers, and the stories like my niece’s, show couples are becoming confident about doing what’s right for them and their child. And after all, in any era, how can that be a bad thing?