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Does Marriage Make You A Better Mum?

A growing number of couples are choosing to have children before thinking about marriage. But does your wedding ring affect your parenting?

Not marrying before having kids may have raised eyebrows a generation ago, but it’s fast becoming the norm. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics show that, by 2016, over 50% of children will be part of the trend dubbed ‘carriage before marriage’ in the US and born to unmarried couples. Compare this to four per cent of children born out of wedlock in 1938 and it’s clear just how the landscape of family life has changed.

Forge your own path

‘Women are settling down later, so starting a family becomes the bigger priority,’ says clinical psychologist Dr Cecilia D Felice. ‘Plus, we are now more financially independent. It isn’t to our advantage to get married in the same way it would’ve been in the past.’

But it’s not just about finances – some couples simply see marriage as an outdated institution they’re not interested in. Plus, the family politics involved in a wedding can also act as a deterrent. Sprawling families, often underpinned by previous divorces (39% of couples marrying today will divorce, compared to less than 10% in 1973) can make planning a big day more daunting.

Don't repeat your parents’ mistakes

‘After 10 years, my partner still asks me to marry him, but it’s never going to happen,’ says Fiona McCall, 34, from Sheffield, a teacher and mother of two. ‘My parents divorced when I was 10, after my father had an affair, then married her. My mum hates both of them, so the potential for upset is huge. Gary and I have been blessed with a happy relationship and are good parents – that’s what really counts.’

'If you had front row seats at the breakdown of your own parents’ marriage, it’s understandable you’d be nervous about doing it yourself'

If you had front row seats at the breakdown of your own parents’ marriage, it’s understandable you’d be nervous about doing it yourself. ‘Children of divorced parents see how much damage it can create,’ says marital therapist Andrew G Marshall. ‘This means they can be wary of putting their kids in a similar position.’

Go for stability first

Previous studies have suggested marriage can benefit your child’s development, helping them thrive emotionally and academically. But the latest research by The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) concludes that, while marriage shows a couple’s long-term commitment to each other (which can make that relationship more secure), there’s no evidence it has any effect on a child’s development.

‘A stable environment is more important,’ says Cecilia.‘That’s providing a loving, predictable home for children – marriage doesn’t necessarily guarantee that.’

Follow your principles

The only exception to this, according to psychologist Donna Dawson, who specialises in relationships, is if you have a personal belief in marriage as a building block to starting a family. ‘If you feel marriage is the glue that will hold you all together, you’re likely to be unhappy in an unmarried partnership, which could then have a knock-on effect on your children,’ she says.

Bring your kids to your wedding

And, for some women, tying the knot naturally creates an extra incentive to make a partnership work. ‘We followed the traditional path, getting married the year before we started trying to conceive,’ says Sarah Parker, 32, an academic from Oxford, who’s mum to Rosy, nine months.

‘It made me feel like our relationship was stronger. As a married unit, we’re in it together. So, even when things are tough, we’re committed to working it out.’

This view of marriage as preserving family life is also supported by the government, which offers tax breaks for some married couples. Writing in the Daily Mail, Prime Minister David Cameron said, ‘There is something special about marriage. It’s a declaration of commitment, responsibility and stability that helps to bind families.’

Explaining to the kids

But, as well as having no influence on development, not being married is also unlikely to affect our children in other ways. As toddlers turn into curious preschoolers, questions like, ‘What was Mummy’s wedding dress like?’ can crop up.

Even then, according to Noël Janis-Norton, author of Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting (£16.99, Hodder & Stoughton), few young children will be upset by their parents’ marital status. ‘Until around six or seven, children aren’t aware of what being married means – they’ll accept different family models according to what they’re exposed to,’ she says.

‘From that point on, they might ask about it, but they’ll probably mirror your own attitudes. If you explain your relationship is stable and committed, they’ll view it in the same way.’

Did you choose kids before marriage and how do you think it affects your parenting? Let us know in the comments box below.

For more features about parenting, subscribe to Mother & Baby magazine here.

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