When I was a teenager and started hooking up with my first “totally wrong for me” boyfriend, the thing I was most afraid of was getting pregnant. I never messed around without condoms, and even then, I’d make him pull out every time just to be extra careful. It wasn’t due to the fact that my parents said they’d disown me if I got knocked up—I’m pretty sure we only had one awkward conversation about it in the car, and I’ve mostly blocked out the memory due to the sheer humiliation of it all. No, it was the way they talked about relatives who accidentally got pregnant or how my mom looked disappointed yet resigned when I asked to go on birth control at 17.
Even as I got older, went to college, and started getting my sh*t together, the implication was there: don’t get pregnant before you’re married. The reason, of course, was that my life would be over. Destroyed. I’d be a ~ruined woman.~ So, I used condoms, pulled out, and went on birth control that destroyed my libido and made me not want to have sex in the first place, all in an effort to avoid the dreaded pregnancy out of wedlock.
I put a lot of work into not getting pregnant, but now, as a married, professional (lol) woman in my late twenties who spends an ungodly amount of time scrolling through Instagram, I’m starting to wonder if that was the right choice. As my biological clock starts to tick, it makes sense why some women would decide to get pregnant despite not being married. Unless you’ve somehow managed to avoid all media for the past couple of years, there’s a good chance you’ve been privy to celeb pregnancy announcements. Kylie Jenner, Khloé Kardashian, Mindy Kaling, Emma Roberts, and Gigi Hadid are just a handful of the mommas out there who had a baby (or babies, in Mindy’s case) sans spouse. Granted, they are superstars who have money and the ability to hire people to help them. But it’s not just people who can make bank from one #SponCon who are bucking the “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby with the baby carriage” norm. It’s regular people as well.
Despite the outdated taboo, a few friends of mine got pregnant and had babies before getting married, and at first, I didn’t think much of it. But then, I saw more and more women my age posting stunning bump pictures without a partner (or at least, without a ring) and dressing their babies up and casually chatting about shared custody or their happy unmarried family unit. When I saw my 10th announcement within a few months, I pulled a Carrie and couldn’t help but wonder: Is getting pregnant sans marriage… trendy?
As someone who went the “socially accepted/expected” path (college, marriage, house, maybe babies in the future), I can’t speak to the hows and whys of the influx of single moms, but it’s definitely not just an Instagram coincidence. Before the 1960s, premarital pregnancy was pretty f*cking rare, according to 2017 data from the United States Congress Joint Economic Committee. Back then, about 5.3% of births were to single ladies. Since then, however, births to unmarried women started climbing. In 2008, 40% of births were to unwed moms, and today only about 9% of those are followed up with a good old fashion shotgun wedding, as opposed to 43% back in the early ’60s.
So, the big question is: Why are millennials choosing to have children outside of marriage?
Basically? We don’t view marriage the same way our parents and grandparents did. “Previous generations viewed marriage as the first step of adulthood. Many millennials, however, look at marriage as one of the last milestones you get to after you are financially stable,” relationship therapist and coach Jaime Bronstein explains to Betches. “Since many millennials aren’t gaining that financial security at the peak of their child-bearing years, they feel like they should just have a baby regardless of their relationship status while they can.”
Baily, a 27-year-old mom of a 1-year-old, agrees. “In my grandma’s generation, you just did not get divorced. It was against the church. In my mom’s generation, everyone’s divorced,” she explains. “This generation isn’t bothering. I never grew up wanting to get married. I was never that girl. I don’t look at wedding dresses or rings online. I just wanted to be a mom one day.“
Despite not being married (although she is in a serious relationship with her baby’s father), Baily’s decision to get pregnant wasn’t totally accidental. “I’d be lying if I said alcohol wasn’t involved,” she admits, “But I had very knowingly canceled my birth control subscription to eventually try. It just happened a lot faster than I thought.” Since she’s with a man eight years her senior who, she says, “was on an ‘I wanna be a dad kick,'” having a baby just made sense.
Sarah, a 29-year-old regional sales manager, is currently 33 weeks along in her pregnancy and in a serious, committed relationship with her baby’s father. The mom-to-be agrees with Baily, saying, “I think as a society we are becoming less traditional as a whole. Part of the shift from tradition is making the decision to have a baby regardless of marital status.”
When it comes to her relationship, Sarah says, “My pregnancy has only strengthened our relationship. It’s been such a joy to watch him settle into fatherhood.” She adds, “It’s funny how things that once felt so major (like a wedding) seem so insignificant once you’re expecting a child together.”
For Adriane, a flight attendant with a 3-year-old son, it was the legal freedom that came with being unwed—as well as the chance to see how her S.O. handled the changes—that made her feel like it was the right decision. “You get to find out how your partner deals with stress and big life changes. Like a trial period,” she laughs.
“You can always cancel if you don’t like it,” Samantha, an unmarried mom of two, agrees. “You see everything about a person before you decide to spend your whole life with someone. I think that cuts down on your chance of divorce. If things don’t work out, it’s a lot easier to break up than to divorce, and that will be easier on your kids.”
And while the moms I talked to (all of whom have some level of post-secondary education) are in agreement that they made the right choice in having their children, being unmarried can add a level of uncertainty.
“It’s easier to leave when you aren’t married, and that has been a worry of mine at times,” says mom of two, Jenn. “A new baby is tough. Especially postpartum when my hormones are crazy, and I’m a mess crying all the time… There is a lot of gross stuff that goes on during pregnancy and after you have the baby which your partner is going to see. It definitely made me nervous that maybe he wouldn’t find me attractive or sexy again after seeing my body change so much and seeing me in such a vulnerable position.”
Luckily for Jenn, her partner is proving to be as doting—if not more so—than the husbands of her friends, which is something Baily noticed as well. “Men can be very irritating, and I’m a big ‘I’ll just do it myself’-er. I luckily still have a lot of support,” she explains. “My boyfriend is great, and he’s such a great dad too. But I see my single friends managing just fine without a man.”
Baily and Samantha both feel the societal shift will continue to grow as women see close single friends and “everyday women” rear children without a spouse. Add in the fact that single influential celebrities are also having babies and the whole trend gains speed.
“Celebrities have a large influence on the minds of impressionable individuals. Naturally, you compare yourself to those in the public eye and wonder if their reality can be your reality,” explains relationship expert Spicy Mari. As the female empowerment movement continues to push forward (about damn time, amiright?), there’s a good chance unwed pregnancy will continue to become more popular.
“As women become more financially stable, they feel as though they don’t need to be married to gain the financial benefits they once needed that came along with marriage,” adds Bronstein.
Ultimately, every relationship is different. For some, a legally binding commitment will make them feel ready to have a child. While 60% of pregnancies still happen post-wedding, a growing amount of people just don’t need that sort of declaration. Whether you’re married or not, things like judgment from older generations and sticky logistics should the relationship not work out are factors to consider, but will probably come either way.
Anne*, a recently divorced mom of a 1-year-old, advises anyone thinking about getting pregnant, “to ask themselves: ‘Can I co-parent with this person if we don’t work out?’ and ‘Am I willing to see less of my child if we do end up co-parenting?'” She adds, “Obviously, that can happen if you get married. But married couples are more likely to work things out than couples who don’t have that commitment.”
Ultimately, deciding you want to get pregnant in 2021 isn’t necessarily contingent upon being married, so you have to decide what’s best for you and your child. “Think about your personal pros and cons. Think about the meaning and purpose behind both,” advises Bronstein. “Everyone needs to do what is best for them.” There’s no wrong answer here, as long as you’re emotionally, physically, and financially ready to care for a child.
“A commitment is a commitment, and a baby is a HUGE commitment. Nothing says ‘you’re mine forever’ like literally creating a life together,” says Baily. “Don’t let government papers, a wedding dress, or bitchy bridesmaids dictate how old your kids will be when you’re 40 on a cruise ship drinking margs, and they’re all off to college already.” We’ll cheers our mocktails to that.
*Name has been changed.
Images: Camylla Battani / Unsplash; Giphy (5)