Unwed Mothers, or Why I waited five years to marry after I had my kid

A few months ago, this email on being an unwed mother popped into my email. Marion found herself unexpectedly pregnant in college, and only recently married her partner (and her son’s father). I thought her musings about ‘why marriage,’ and maybe more importantly ‘why NOT marriage,’ were a great way to start the year here at APW. Because weddings are beautiful and joyous, but they are at their best when the couple has really thought through why they are choosing the institution of marriage (legal or not). So with that, I give you Marion (and heck yes, her wedding graduate post is coming next week!):

I was reading through some of the older entries under Reclaiming Wife and I came across this post about Marriage Ambivalence. Part of it really struck a chord with me, the part where Meg talks about how many of her friends have children and have never married their partners.

I wanted to talk about this, because it reminded me a bit of my situation.

When I was 23, not even a year into dating my now husband, I became pregnant unexpectedly. I was a senior in college, completely broke, and dealing with a lot of my own personal things like depression and ADHD. I had known my husband for about two years before we started dating, and we were very very good friends. In fact, he was one of my best friends. The pregnancy came as a surprise, and we spent days talking and deliberating and reviewing options and reviewing ourselves in an effort to make the absolute best decision for us. We did not seek advice from friends or family, we did not want their input or advice. We didn’t want to feel shamed or pressured into making one decision or another, and so we came to the decision on our own. We decided to keep our child. It was one of the best decisions we have ever made. Even though we didn’t even know for sure if we would stay together for the duration, though we were fairly certain at the time. Even though we were both young and broke and totally uncertain of our future. I spent my senior year of college carrying a life and preparing to bring a child into the world. In an instant my priorities and outlook had shifted. I no longer had time to be depressed or unfocused. I couldn’t afford to be childish and selfish. I couldn’t go to parties with my friends, but suddenly it didn’t matter any more.

I told my sister first, over lunch, and she was so amazing and supportive and helped me gather the courage to tell my parents. My mother’s immediate reaction was a slightly irritated “Why am I not surprised?” However, she warmed up to it and was also became very supportive. My best friend was amazing, she already had a daughter of two. Wade’s parents were so thrilled I could hear them gleefully shouting through the phone. It surprised me how different our family’s reactions were, but maybe it shouldn’t have. We come from very different cultural backgrounds and had very different experiences growing up.

I finished college and got my degree. When I was eight months pregnant we moved to a different city and started a new life. Connor was born on September 15, 2005 and he was the most amazing thing.

When he was only a  few months old I was visiting my family and talk of weddings and marriage came up. Wade and I were not yet engaged, though we had talked about it. We were sure it was going to happen, we just didn’t know when. We weren’t quite ready to make that commitment to each other, even though we knew we wanted to. There was pressure from my mom to get married sooner. She said “Wouldn’t it be better for Connor?” I said, “I refuse to get married just because I have a child. Yes, I’m quite sure Wade and I are going to get married, but not now. Not yet. I don’t believe in staying together just because there’s a child. We’re not ready yet, and I’m not going to rush it.” With reluctance my mother backed off, but it would still come up occasionally.

Three years into our relationship we finally got engaged. It was thrilling. It was wonderful. It was magic. I said yes without hesitation, but I still had lingering doubts about our relationship. We had just gone through an extremely rough period during which we spent six months apart. And so, we waited. Time went on and we had several false starts to planning. We’d set a date, start talking about it, getting ideas together, and then we would decide that no, we’re not quite ready yet. Finally, we were, and I am so glad we did. The wedding was wonderful and perfect and it epitomized what love and commitment is, what family and friends are for. It reinforced many of the values that are so important to us.

I am not the same person I was when I was pregnant. I am not the same person I was three years ago when we first got engaged. I am not even the same person I was when we started the official planning process. Throughout our entire relationship we have been scrutinized for our choices. For having a child and not being married. It was frustrating to correct people, always saying “No, he’s my fiance.” I could have let it go and simply said yes to him being my husband, but to me it was important to distinguish the difference. It was important to me to point out that just because I have a child I was neither a single parent, nor was I married.

My advice to all the other brides out there is to be unafraid to wait. Don’t be afraid to have as long or short an engagement as is right for you. Be unafraid of convention and don’t be afraid to defy it.

Photo by: Eric Smyklo in PA, who Marion recommends to EVERYONE

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  • Your son is the cutest child ever.

  • I am really touched by this.

    I don’t know that I have enough clarity of my feelings to comment more intelligently than that right now, but I am going to sit quietly and examine how I feel in more depth.

    I do know that I am excited about this grad post!

  • Marion, you have such a beautiful family. Can’t wait to hear more about your wedding…

  • I really love this post… Thanks for your honesty and for showing it is okay to be true to yourself – no matter what kind of pressure you’re getting from others.

    Congrats on your beautiful family and your marriage! (A random side note – I have the same birthday as your son. And how cute is he?! – I’m sure you hear that all the time though…)

  • Trisha

    Thank you for a brave and thoughtful post. telling your mom that you weren’t ready to get married yet must have taken so much strength. Kudos to you for knowing yourself so well, and not letting anyone else rush you into something that wasn’t right for your life. And your son, what a beautiful little boy. That hair and the expression on his face turn me to mush.

  • Thank you for sharing your family’s story, Marion. There’s still such a stigma attached to an unmarried couple having a baby, but I think whatever is the right choice for the family is best. And from this picture, your family is doing great. (Such an adorable boy!)

  • Yes!! I want to give a big fist pump and high five to Marion. Way to be a badass.

    And this:
    My advice to all the other brides out there is to be unafraid to wait. Don’t be afraid to have as long or short an engagement as is right for you. Be unafraid of convention and don’t be afraid to defy it.

    HELL yes. I don’t know you, but I’m proud of you for standing up to your mother and taking your time. I think it’s even more important, with a child, to really make sure you’re getting married for your OWN reasons. It’s easy to just throw up your hands and say “oh, we have a kid, I love him, we should be married”, but it’s more important to get married for yourselves, not for someone else, even if its your child.

    And you’re extra awesome for standing up to your mother. My mom and I are very similar, and we’re very close, and that makes standing up to her hard. One thing I loved about planning a wedding was that it gave me the opportunity to stand up for US, to take our own path. It really pushed me to do that, actually. And now my relationship with my mom is still strong, but it’s different. I have my own family and my own life, and we relate more as two adults than solely as parent and child.

    • abby_wan_kenobi

      Exactly!! I think a lot of the strain in wedding planning comes from the difficulty in this transition. Just becuase you’re 27-years-old, completely self-sufficient, and living with your partner in another state doesn’t mean your parents see you as an adult.

      A lot of my family has started treating me differently since I got married in a way I wasn’t expecting. I’m more like a legitimate grown-up with valid opinions, problems and a real, independent life. That’s annoying since I believe my opinions, problems and life was just as valid before, but still better late than never.

      Anyway, change is hard and combining that unstable family dynamic with the stress of wedding planning is pretty masochistic. When you think about it. More power to Marion and all the other ladies forging ahead, defying expectations and taking care of themselves first.

      • YES. I struggled a lot with this when I was engaged; I didn’t realize just how much things would change. I’ve been close with my mom for years, and I’ve been dating my husband for TEN years, so when everything shifted when we were engaged, I was thrown for a bit of a loop. It was the transition between “daughter” and “adult”, and of course all the stress came out over wedding planning. My mother and I bickered about little things, and our differences REALLY showed. I started standing up for myself and for us as a couple, and we started pulling away as our own little family.

        And this:
        I’m more like a legitimate grown-up with valid opinions, problems and a real, independent life. That’s annoying since I believe my opinions, problems and life was just as valid before, but still better late than never.

        Yes, and YES. Better late than never. Since we’ve been married, things are much more… adult. I don’t know what changed, if it’s me or her, but suddenly instead of getting scolded or corrected or parented, I’m getting advice and suggestions and it seems more… civilized. I’ll enjoy it while I can; no doubt when I have kids, things will get tense again. God bless you, Marion, for toughing BOTH of those out!!

        • abby_wan_kenobi

          Yes, yes, yes. It’s so crazy to get some advice and instead of the sentiment being “This is what I think you should do and if you defy me I’ll probably ground you” it’s more like “This is what I’d do in that situation, but ultimately you’re the one who has to live with your decision so you should do what’s right for you.”

          As with everything I learned in the process of getting married, it’s too late to fix it for myself, but it isn’t too late to pay it forward. I have two cousins who started college this past fall and I’ve been making a huge effort to talk to them like peers not like kiddos I used to babysit. It’s surprisingly hard, but super rewarding.

      • Thank you!

        I had the same problem with my parents. I felt like they still thought I was 14, and often felt like they treated me that way, even after having a kid. It wasn’t until right before the wedding that I started to experience things differently, where I was now an adult making my own decisions. It was really weird, even my husband and best friend noticed the difference.

  • Great post. I love reading about women being strong and standing up for themselves — especially in the face of ‘this is what you’re SUPPOSED to do or are EXPECTED to do.’ Do what’s right for you!

  • Your son is gorgeous. How many people would kill for that head of hair?!

    I really appreciate what you said about the two family’s different reactions. Having a partner often means inheriting his or her family, and what I’ve come to realize is that while there are things that bug me (on both sides!), each family has its strengths, and it offers up different opportunities for support. It takes big life events and learning experiences to know what to expect from both sides, but is part of the bonus of getting married. Thanks for pointing that out so clearly.

    • Exactly, Lauren. I’ve always thought that my family was perfect in every way, but it’s taken the difficult transition of accepting his family as they are to see that there are other valid ways of doing things. I still think my family is mostly perfect (at least for me and the type of person I am), but I’m getting better at recognizing his as ok as well.

  • This is touching me in the same fist-pump/high five way as Sarah, and in a very quiet way deep in my soul. So proud, so inspired.

    This not getting married until ready whether or not there are children is a belief I’ve carried with me, but haven’t had to walk out. You are strong and wonderful.

  • I’m so (happily) amazed at how many couples get married at some point AFTER they have a child or children. Who sez it has to be the other way around? (Probably all those people who say you can’t wear white after Labor Day.) I think we were put on this earth to live lives of uniqueness and passion (for life–not the sex kind, although that’s good too) and no one need follow a predesigned rulebook.

    Marion, you done good!

    I think the “stigma” (hateful word!) of having a child before marriage is lessening (as hopefully all ridiculous judgments are) and as a side note, more and more ceremonies now have elements that include the children and celebrate not only the union of two hearts, but the celebration of family.

    Can’t wait to hear about the wedding.

  • Tonia

    I haven’t even read through the post yet, and I just needed to say thank you thank you thank you for writing/posting it :)

  • Having the courage to wait is so very difficult, and yet so critically important. I cannot tell you how much I wish I had had the courage to wait when I was married in college. Maybe we still would have married. I don’t know, but somehow I doubt it. Like you, I was a very different person within three years during that time, and what I wanted out of a relationship was also very different.

  • ka

    You’re extraordinary. It takes such guts and grace to stick to your guns like that when it’d be easier to just conform with ppl’s expectations, but it’s so much more rewarding. We’ve been engaged 2 years and your post reminded me why–It’s been hard sometimes but it was right for us and we will be in the right place when we do get married. You’re such a great role model for all of us-and your adorable son, who I may be just a little bit in love with! Yay wedding grad post!

  • I want to commend Marion on her courageousness and doing what was best for herself and relationship. We need more fearless women out in the world making thoughtful decisions. Way to go!

    And your son is adorable!

  • Emily

    For me, this story is about facing down the family and social pressure to do something that feels wrong or false. I frequently have conversations about marriage and kids with my mom and my friends where I’m told, “You just have to take the leap, and then you’ll realize it was worth it.” I think this is fine advice for a mild case of cold feet or someone facing the totally understandable fears associated with having kids or committing to someone for the rest of your life. But it’s something different when it’s not just fear, but that deep seeded feeling that this thing you’re being pressured to do just doesn’t sit right with you.

    The awesome thing about Marion and her husband is that they faced that pressure, but they did it in a way that left possibilities open for them, and allowed them to create a family well before their wedding. At first I was a little surprised to hear Marion say that even after deciding to have Conor, they still weren’t sure if they’d ever get married. But the more I think about it, the more I’m impressed with the honesty of that statement. These are clearly people who love each other, and took becoming parents seriously, but were realistic about the fact that they might wind up raising him without being married to one another. If they had ultimately decided not to stay together, I think they still would have been able to create a loving family for their son, simply because they recognized that a nuclear family is neither a guarantee nor a necessary requirement to happiness and stability.

    Which isn’t me knocking the “traditional” family of married parents and kids — I was raised in one and I turned out great! But too often the pressure of conforming to that expectation is precisely what makes marriages and families unhappy and dysfunctional. People like Marion, who are willing to boldly say that no, what matters are the fundamentals (love, commitment, generosity of spirit, being a reasonable and understanding adult) must come first — the rest of it doesn’t work unless you get those things right.

  • Alexandra

    Don’t be afraid to have as long or short an engagement as is right for you. Be unafraid of convention and don’t be afraid to defy it.
    We don’t have children, but we have experienced not-sure and maybe-someday.
    We “finally” got engaged, after eight years together, early summer 2009, and “finally” started for-reals planning our wedding a couple months ago, for a year from then. Our total officially-engaged time will be about 2.5 years. & That is perfect, for US.

    Congratulations, Marion & family, for following your heart & guts, standing up to Mom, and now, on your marriage! Great story. Look forward to the Grad post.

    • I feel like I should sit down and write “Be unafraid of convention and don’t be afraid to defy it” over and over 100 times, and then paste in the (kind of embarrassing, but probably necessary) wedding planning binder I put together on my sister’s advice.

      • Katelyn

        Don’t be embarassed- I have a LIFE binder. I will definitely have a wedding binder :-D There’s really nothing that will digitally recreate the magic that is the binder (and I’ve looked – OneNote is my digital runner-up).

        • Have you guys seen the kinds of binders that Sara over at $2000 Wedding (and Feeding the Soil) puts together? Amazing stuff, if that’s what does it for you! Here are general links to her sites, sorry I don’t have time to search for binder-specific posts!

  • kyley

    Marion, you have the cutest son of all time. That is all for now.

  • april

    Beautiful post – gorgeous family. So excited for the upcoming Grad Post!

  • Diane

    You have the cutest son ever! Beautiful. Thanks for your great post. It’s really hard to not be affected by the comments and opinions of others when it comes to building a family and planning a wedding.

    As a side note, I’m really excited about the graduate post. Your photographer is located in the same city where I will be getting married in May. I’ve had a hard time finding good photographers/DJs/vendors in the area, so I appreciate the photographer tip! I’m definitely going to look into his work.

    • He was amazing!

      He and his wife do it, and they were SO much fun. They took pictures of EVERYTHING and were amazing! Eric is not afraid to lay down on the ground and get his hands dirty. We got married at my parents farm and he said “Anywhere you can go, I can go.” They were really open to suggestions for locations and poses and anything we wanted.

      We ended up with over 1000 images, fully and BEAUTIFULLY retouched.

      (I have repeatedly asked him what it would take to get them to follow me around and photograph my life.)

      Their website is http://www.ejswedding.com

  • SarahM

    “I am not the same person I was when I was pregnant. I am not the same person I was three years ago when we first got engaged. I am not even the same person I was when we started the official planning process.”

    If you took out the part about being pregnant this is almost the exact line I found myself typing over and over again in the wedding grad post I am attempting and failing to write.

    I love this post. It’s important that we stick to our guns because there is no one else who truly knows what you need at any given time because we are constantly changing and growing.

  • Thank you for sharing your story! I would love to hear more about why people did or didn’t feel ready for marriage, especially in the face of society telling you that you should or shouldn’t be. I suspect it has a lot to do with what marriage means to you, which I’m learning is different for everyone, even though society seems to think it should all be the same. I think hearing these stories about different kinds of marriage and different kinds of families, defining themselves on their own terms, really enriches our own lives and relationships.

    Also, your son is so adorable!

  • Marion, you are awesome and so brave to stick to your guns and do what was right for you and your family. Over the years, I’ve had a few friends pushed into a marriage they weren’t quite ready for or even wanted necessarily, because of how hard it is to stand up to societal and familial pressure. I think it is amazing that you waited for things to be right for *you*.

    And your son is ridiculously adorable!! What a lovely family you have.

  • Kathryn

    “My advice to all the other brides out there is to be unafraid to wait.” YES YES YES

    I’ve been in the “waiting not-so-patiently to get engaged/would you ask me already” phase for a year now, but when my boyfriend was seriously considering accepting a job offer far away last week I realized that kind of semi-permanent distance would not be ok if I were planning a wedding.

    So, I said I would support him if he accepted the job (and I would) but if he did, I told him that I did not want to get engaged for the time being. As soon as I said that I felt so relieved and empowered. Kudos to you, Marion, and all other woman who are unafraid to wait.

    …He turned down the offer, but now they’re looking into having him work in their office here!

  • Oh man, you guys are awesome!

    I think I’m going to cry! (Happy tears!) :D

    I can’t wait until the grad post is up. I hope you all enjoy that just as much.

  • This post is quintessential APW for me. Kudos to you, Marian, on being brave, sticking to your guns, and carving out your own niche in the midst of all the societal static!

  • Cody

    I’m quoting that last line again. Because it’s that awesome.

    “Be unafraid of convention and don’t be afraid to defy it.”

    Amen, sister!

  • Alyssa

    Love love love this post. Marian, you and Wade are so my parents! I was 10 months old when they got married, but I think if it wasn’t for benefits, they may have waited longer like you. (Plus they’re interracial like you guys, which makes me automatically love you.) And yes, my parents are still together, they celebrated their 30th anniversary this past May.

    But beyond all that, you’re a smart cookie and I cannot wait to see your grad post. Yay for convention defying!!!

  • Lyndal

    Yes and more yes.

    I too was an unwed mother and ambivalent about the whole getting unmarried bit. Although we always felt very committed by the time our son came along a wedding just didn’t seem important – we already felt married. In the end we did officially marry when our son was about 8 months old (a 2010 APW graduate post), but this was more out of a happy confluence of events rather than a ‘yes, it’s time’.

    I am glad you talked about the whole family side of things. I also felt uncomfortable telling our families about the pregnancy. I was so nervous and worried about their reactions I was losing sleep and didn’t end up telling them until I was about 15 weeks! My mum and I are close and she thought I would have told her straight away and I probably would have if we were married. The mind does play tricks especially when weighing up social/family expectations vs the reality of our own personal and intricate situations. Even though we were both in our 30s, had been together for years, are far from conservative, and have pretty easy going families, I still felt like some wayward teenager to be unmarried and *shock* pregnant!

    Anyway, bravo to you and your baby family! To making your own decisions and forging your own paths!

  • I hope your fearlessness is contagious! Inspiring story.

  • Okay this is a really personal story for me as I too am an unwed mother. Unlike Marion I have been so all my adult life, twice over, ten years apart and with different men.

    I love my children and would never wish them away, neither would my fiancé. We are, however, acutely aware of how much more complex the process of becoming engaged and married (in less than four months OMGosh!) when forming a stepfamily. In this situation the people who feel they can criticise, instruct and advise are multiplied. My son’s lack of a father becomes a glaring issue as do the differences between my daughter’s father’s family and ours.

    Initially the mister said he didn’t know how to be any kind of father or step-father. I told him I was winging it too but he didn’t believe me. He’s come to see how true this is, with a number heart strings tugging me in different directions and most of my family treating me like some sort of dimwit for the sake of having children in less than perfect circumstances.

    I find it consistently interesting how many pregnant teenagers say they want to be treated like adults, but this is maybe the first thing you discover as a (young) unwed and single mother: having children is not shortcut to adulthood. It’s also the saddest thing.

  • Ariel

    Marion, your strength in standing up for what is best for you is inspiring, as is your self-awareness in knowing what you need. I think that it also says a lot about the strength of your relationship that you have the space for self development, and that you remain committed to each other through so many phases of personal evolution! This is something that I strive for in all of my relationships, and it can be difficult at times- but it is so important to work for with the person that you’ve committed to being life partners with. What a wonderful example you must be for your son, and for everyone who is fortunate enough to witness your life. Thanks so much for sharing!

  • Chloe

    I’d really like to hear more about the changes that took place in your relationship over time that allowed you to feel “ready” or comfortable with the institution of marriage. This seems like a really critical transition, that you’ve clearly thought a lot about. I know that’s the sort of change that’s next to impossible to articulate, but it would be so incredibly helpful for those of us who are trying to make sense of that same liminal period.

    • Chloe,

      I would be happy to talk with you about the changes we’ve gone through over the course of the relationship (and there have been many!) and that we are still going through (also still so many!).

      It’s not always (almost never!) a clear, defining moment. And I will be honest there were still doubts (*ahem*full on panic attacks*ahem*) right up to the wedding. A lot of “OH MY GOD I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M DOING THIS! WHAT IF I MADE THE WRONG DECISION!?” (I truly feel I did make the right decision, no matter what, but it doesn’t mean I didn’t freak out about it!)

      There was an awesome post a few weeks ago about the lack of honeymoon period (or simply delayed honeymoon period) which we are currently experiencing. Life has been hard and sometimes because of that it makes me want to pull my hair out and call it quits. And then rational me steps in and says “Uhm.. get over yourself. This is for the long haul. You guys love each other and have gone through worse and come out stronger. Hang in there, lady, and everything will work itself out.”

      So, yes, I will talk with you as much as you’d like about the many many many decisions, revelations, denials (we all have them, I’m sure!), acceptances, compromises, disappointments, and ecstatic joys we have experienced. I will endeavor to do my best to answer any and all your questions.

  • Christine

    Thank you for having so much confidence and self awareness that you know you don’t need input that you don’t need. Starting a new family is after all defining what is the direction, culture and value that you want to carry through to the next generation, no matter how different they are with what you grew up with. Being Asian and from a very traditional family, I had issues knowing myself all through to my 30s as the rules were reminded, permissions needed and the expectation in marriage partners also include how similar his family is to yours before you could call it a match. But what you see right here is that it took 2 whole people with a clear sense of self to transcend all that and gain the respect, even if it’s after marriage before you are seen an adult.

  • Kendall

    Thank you so very much for writing this post. I have tears streaming down my face right now, because I am in the same situation you were in. My fiance and I found out we were having a baby last January. At the time, we too were not engaged. My mother assumed we would get married BEFORE the baby was born without even talking to me to see how I felt. Of course, she was totally shocked when I told her I wasn’t even sure I wanted to get married. I love my fiance, but I felt the SAME WAY you felt when you said having a baby did not mean you necesssarily wanted to get married. We have been engaged since last March, and the #1 question I get is “When is the date??” Right now our main focus is our beautiful 3.5 month baby girl, and my fiance’s new job and spending time together as a family. Because that is what we are…a FAMILY. Whether or not we are married yet. I am so happy I came across this story today!! Congrats to you and your new husband :)

  • clare

    I’ve been waiting for a post like this one! Great story, thank you for sharing. I too recently married with our 2.5 y/o son in tow. And I can tell you there was at least one or two very relieved family members. People do seem to have expectations… or shames about this issue of child before marriage. BUT the majority of our friends and family had no expectations and were simply honoured to share in our affirming (or re-affirming) our commitment to each other, and that was truly special.

  • rose

    love the honesty in this post. i love how they trusted their instinct to wait, even in the face of family/friends asking about/pushing their own agendas.
    my fiance and i have been together for nearly ten years, and have talked about marriage for nearly 7 of those years. we are finally ready and are having a lovely time planning the wedding, but wouldn’t have been any earlier. and there were times when one of us seemed to be more ready than the other, but part of our relationship (and now engagement) has been listening to the other person, gaging the situation/timing, and knowing when to wait and when to push forward.
    thanks for posting a message like this – it is very important to know yourself, your feelings and hesitations – it is all part of the process and journey. love is not perfect and it definitely evolves.
    this post is just another reason to love APW!

  • That is just completely lovely :) Hurray for being self-aware!