I got pregnant before I got married. But I did get married before I gave birth. For that I have to thank my husband.
As a product of the Sixties, I was a flakier member of the human race at 35 than I am now. That was despite the fact that throughout my teens I preferred the choir of Kings College Chapel to the Beatles or the Stones.
By my mid-thirties, however, my education (deeply impregnated with feminism) had ‘modernised’ me sufficiently to no longer value my traditional family upbringing and the importance to me and my sisters of my parents being married.
To my shame, I thought that having a career and having a baby were my right and both more important than being married. Certainly, having a baby was in no way contingent on being married I thought – especially when my biological clock had begun to tick so fast.
But my husband to-be thought otherwise. ‘Our child is going to be legitimate,’ he insisted when I had to own up to being pregnant. I was taken aback by the strength of his feeling about it. He was having nothing of my ‘offer’ that he should see whether he really wanted to marry me after I had had the baby.
Retrospectively, I have no doubt, his urgency reflected his need to establish patrimony – that he believed to be his birthright as much as that of our child. It trumped my concern to demonstrate my independence and not be seen to put unfair pressure on him. I can only say that I am indeed a lucky and blessed woman that his instincts were stronger and my ‘principles’ weaker.
My stance, which I thought I must assert on principle, was that I could cope on my own. Maybe I could have. But I would have been so much less happy and with a such a gnawing sense of insecurity.
Now we know why. New research published on Sunday explains why my husband’s instincts were right and my (feminist) principles were wrong.
Couples who marry after the birth of their first child are more likely to split up than to stay together.
A new analysis of longitudinal household data shows that three quarters of couples who get married before starting a family are still together by the time the oldest child takes GCSEs; but only 44 per cent of those who marry afterwards manage to stay the course. This trend holds regardless of social background.
So there you have it, making a commitment in advance is what matters. It is what secures certainty and stability for children, for the couple and for the family. I just got in under the wire.
Harry Benson, co author of the research said of his findings that “while the social shame of having children outside marriage had rightly ended, society should not lose confidence in the value of crystallising commitment before starting a family”.
He is right that society should not lose confidence in the value of the marriage commitment. But he is wrong to think that will be achieved again without some shame – and yes – stigma.
After all, now that we know (and we have known for an even longer time that children of never married parents have significantly worse outcome in life) should we not be feeling some shame? Should we not be ashamed as a society, and as individuals, that our rampant individualism has made so careless of the next generation’s welfare and happiness? Should we not question individuals who continue to make supremely selfish choices as far as their children are concerned?
Nothing, I fear, will change on the marriage front unless we do.
For without shame and its alter ego stigma, rational arguments about the monetary cost of divorce to society (however astronomical) will make not one jot of difference – neither to marriage statistics, policy or behaviour.