1.25 million babies (one third of all births) are born each year in the U.S. to unmarried parents. Many people just assume these babies are born to single teen moms, when in fact 41% of these births are to unmarried cohabitating couples. People no longer get married, then have the baby. A significant portion of couples never marry, or marry years after becoming parents.
There are lots of situations in which people choose to raise children outside of marriage. Many people who have been through a bad marriage vow to never repeat that mistake again, and find that they are happy to live together as partners without a piece of paper validating their love. Many couples conceive a child but decide they aren’t meant to be together, yet do find a way to continue to parent together even though they are no longer a couples. There has been a significant rise in the number of single women in their 30s and 40s choosing to have children, as well as the “gayby” boom – gay couples (who are not permitted to marry in most states) adopting or conceiving children.
Hollywood has set the example in this instance. Couples such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, Heath Ledger and Michelle Williams, Nicole Ritchie and Joel Madden, Halle Berry and Gabrielle Aubry, Naomi Watts and Liev Schrieber, Matthew McConaughey and Camila Alves, Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, Madonna and her bodyguard (the father of her first child), Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard, and Farah Fawcett and Ryan O’Neal share or have shared children in a partnership outside marriage. Many other famous couples become parents first and later choose to marry, such as Annette Bening and Warren Beatty, Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid, and Madonna and Guy Ritchie (the father of her second child).
Unmarried couples face huge challenges in our marriage-centric society. Married couples are automatically legal parents together, while an unmarried father must go through a legal procedure to become the “real” father. Putting dad’s name on the birth certificate is not enough. To become a legal father, a man who is not married to the baby’s mother must sign an acknowledgement of paternity (a legal document) or go through a paternity proceeding in family court.
Unmarried couples face other challenges, such discrimination in adoption or fertility treatments. Some clinics and doctors are unwilling to provide assistance to unmarried women or unmarried couples who are trying to become pregnant, although fortunately there are many professionals who do not have such a bias. Some adoption agencies are not willing to place children in unmarried homes and some foreign countries prohibit adoption of children from their country by single people or unmarried couples.
Unmarried families must deal with unfair income tax treatment. Even if they live together as a nuclear family, they are not eligible for the same married family tax breaks available to families where the parents have chosen to marry.
One of the greatest challenges is a general lack of understanding by doctors, teachers, and neighbors. Society, schools, and the legal system are not set up to recognize and support unmarried parents, and so many find themselves feeling ignored or misunderstood.
Creating Your Own Rules
Many unmarried parents have found that since society and systems are not set up to accommodate a family life that doesn’t fit within traditional definitions, they have to create their own rules. Some parents work out financial arrangements outside of courts. Instead of going to court and getting orders of custody and child support, they create their own schedules and share finances in a way that makes sense to them. Unmarried families also rely on health care directives, wills, and powers of attorney to define legal rights and offer protection from a system that does not understand nontraditional families.
As more and more people have become aware of the rights denied to gay families, opinion may also change about the rights and needs of unmarried heterosexuals. Some municipalities allow heterosexual couples over age 62 to register as domestic partners, recognizing that remarrying as a senior puts pension and Social Security benefits at risk, however there is yet to be a very productive movement to offer these same rights to younger couples. The more unmarried couples who are open about their arrangement, the sooner public opinion will change.