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.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Friends (The one about why you haven't seen them for ages)

Never has this family approached a weekend so organised. The fridge is stuffed with three days' worth of meals cooked in advance, birthday presents and cards for the next three weeks are wrapped and written: I even finally remembered to order the nametapes ready for my son starting preschool. Why such uncharacteristic smugness? Because I was going in for some very minor routine surgery. It wasn't until I fell into bed late the night before going into hospital that I realised what it was really all about. There's something about the anticipated whiff of anaesthetic that does trigger an awareness of one's mortality. Perish the thought that I might die without having bought my nephew's birthday robot.
It's ridiculous, I know: embarrassingly melodramatic. But it made me realise that if it had all gone horribly wrong, my regrets - apart from the big unthinkable one I can't even talk about, the one about leaving a motherless child - wouldn't have been about the book I've only half finished writing, or any of the other big stuff. They'd be for little things. The friend I travelled with in my gap year whose message I've been meaning to return for weeks but haven't. A conversation I've been meaning to have with another close college friend. Not having seen my oldest friend's new baby yet, although she nearly died having it. This despite telling myself that one of the benefits of working part-time would be to have more time for the people I loved outside this family as well as in it.
Do friendships just inevitably slip through the cracks when you have children? There was some research recently suggesting you lose roughly one friend per two kids (although since parenthood tends to bring a new circle of friends, perhaps that figure hides a greater loss of old friends replaced by newer 'mummy' ones).
But while tiredness and lack of time are bound to take their toll, I suspect this narrowing of the social circle is also about how easy it is unwittingly to prioritise the urgent but dull - work emails that have to be answered, lunchboxes that have to be packed - over the important. You could always phone a friend tomorrow instead of today, and so the call keeps getting crowded out by something more pressing but often less rewarding: friendships are accidentally squeezed out by things that actually matter less. Bugger sewing in nametapes. I think I have something less urgent to do.