Unmarried with Children: Is Staying Together For the Kids Overrated?
One Valley mom ponders the merits of the mantra “love the one you’re with”
By Shannon Gallagher
A couple weeks ago I went out for drinks with two other moms. One drink in, and we’d covered all the requisite topics — preschool, tantrums, and exhaustion — and moved onto the juicy stuff. I had a burning question for the seemingly happily-married women: “If you hadn’t been married when you’d had your first child, would you have stayed with their dad?” Simultaneously they blurted, “No way!” We laughed. This confession was strangely comforting. Coraline’s dad and I weren’t married when she was born, and the stress of a new baby was more than our hot-and-cold relationship could take. Neither of us wanted to raise our daughter in a home environment fraught with tension and anger, so after wrestling with the decision for many months, last January we decided to part ways and focus our energy on co-parenting well. We thought we were doing what was best for all of us in the long run, but after seven months of living separately, it seems we made a mistake. In retrospect, our issues were no worse than those faced by most new parents. So I find myself wondering: If we had been married, would we have stuck it out, simply because of that whole “in good times and in bad” thing (and, of course, the legally-binding paperwork)? If my friends’ candid admission says anything, we definitely would have.
A recently released study from The National Marriage Project (NMP) on how parenthood effects marital happiness cites that 65 percent of cohabiting parents will separate by the time their child is 12 years old, compared with just 24 percent of married parents. However popular, cohabiting is just not as stable a partnership (in most cases) as marriage, especially when you throw kids into the mix. I hear marriage isn’t easy, and parenting certainly is no cakewalk, so the two together, it seems, requires Herculean strength and patience to pull off. So while the NMP study outlines a number of interesting factors that affect the marital happiness of parents — generosity, financial stress, sex, domestic equality, and faith among them — the heart of the issue seems to be commitment. These days, far fewer young people “embrace the norm of commitment.” We see a choice for something as a choice against everything else. And my generation sure does love their choices; we expect them. It doesn’t help that we also largely subscribe to “the soul-mate model of marriage” versus the more traditional, institutional model of marriage. We expect to be blissfully happy with hearts a-flutter 24/7, and if we’re not, we assume it’s not meant to be. But that’s just not realistic if you want a family. You have to forfeit the right to pursue that sort of individual fulfillment at all costs when you have kids; not just for the kids, but for yourself, your parent-self.
According to the NMP study, while married parents are usually less happy overall then their childless counterparts, they are far happier (and less prone to depression) than single parents. That’s probably because the same reasons why parenting with a partner is difficult are why parenting without one is difficult — but with the added frustrations of dating again, shared custody arrangements, and the pervasive sense that you’re doing something alone which is fundamentally a team sport. Barring major issues — infidelity, abuse, addiction, etc. — it seems that staying together for the kids isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Mostly because it’s not just for the kids. The grass is always greener, right?
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