Wednesday, 30 March 2011

big fat belated weddings

I do love a wedding: pretty much anyone's wedding, really. I like the hat wearing aspect, and obviously the champagne: I like the suspension of cynicism for a few magical hours, all that hope and optimism and the sense of life unfolding gloriously before you.
So it's a shame Ed Miliband and Justine Thornton's now confirmed nuptials in May have prompted so much snarking. The traditionalists think they should have done it earlier, before they had two children (and preferably should do it 'properly' now, with a best man and all the trimmings, instead of in some newfangled way). The resolutely non-married think they shouldn't have caved in to political pressure. Almost nobody seems to buy the idea that they might have genuinely wanted to get married, but not quite (what with one baby and another) got around to it: and yet that's the increasingly common story most of us see among our friends.
The moral panic about the rise of unmarried parents (based on the fact that they are statistically more likely than smug marrieds to separate, although like all statistics that's a sweeping generalisation which tells you little about any individual couple) often ignores one interesting fact: just because you're not married when you have children doesn't mean you never will be.
Nearly a quarter of cohabiting couples who become parents get married between the birth and the child's fifth birthday: that means cohabiting couples are twice as likely to formalise their commitment as to split. For some the birth of a baby is clearly still a prompt to settling down: but for others, marriage was probably always on the cards, and just seemed less urgent than getting pregnant. So why do so many couples, as my granny would have said, put the cart before the horse?
One possible reason is that horses are stupidly expensive. The average big fat British wedding now allegedly costs an eye-watering £20,000, which takes a lot of saving up for: while children aren't exactly cheap to run, the costs aren't so blatantly upfront.
Secondly, saving up for a horse may well be stymied by crazy property prices. The average couple who do not have help from the Bank of Mum and Dad don't buy their first home until they're 37: during the boom years, many couples will have felt it was more important to get a mortgage before prices soared completely out of their reach than to blow the deposit money on a frock and a honeymoon.
And thirdly, women don't run out of time for horses. Couples who only settle down together in their early or mid 30s (as the Miliband-Thorntons did) may feel that trying to get pregnant is biologically urgent, while they can do the wedding thing any old time. Add in the fact that the children of divorced parents may well grow up extremely cautious about marriage, and the fading of the stigma that once surrounded unmarried parents, and what is left may well be a logical decision for a lot of couples to put having children first.
I've blogged before about why I don't believe there's anything wrong with being an unmarried parent, and don't think a decline in marriage in itself necessarily spells doom: it's a stable and committed relationship between both parents and their children which matters. But for those who are worried about the future of marriage, it might help to distinguish better between a decline in marriage and a delay in marriage - and focus on the underlying social reasons for that delay.

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