Middle class trading 'I do' for 'maybe later'

  • Article by: KIM ODE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 11, 2012 - 7:31 AM

Wary of settling for less than ideal, some singles are postponing marriage and starting families first.

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Mikki Morrissette returned to Minneapolis from New York to raise her daughter. She had her son five years later.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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The playground taunt about "sittin' in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g" spells out the conventions of adulthood: "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage."

That may be changing.

Fewer middle-class women follow what one study calls the "success sequence" of education, work, marriage and childbearing. They may get married, but only later, and not have children. Increasingly, they are having children, but postponing the wedding.

The recession's financial stresses did nothing to slow the trend. If anything, the retreat from marriage is spreading from the least affluent Americans "into the solid middle of the middle class," according to the 2010 study, "When Marriage Disappears," by the National Marriage Project, at the University of Virginia.

Becca Bijoch, 25, feels no societal pressure to marry. "I think it's definitely different than it's ever been before, probably even in the past 10 years," said Bijoch, who works for a public relations firm in Minneapolis.

"Not feeling that pressure gives me the opportunity to focus on my career and have more great life experiences I might not be able to have if I was in a serious relationship."

It isn't just young women who are wary that plunging into marriage could derail careers and finances.

"I've got about a million things to dedicate financial resources to before I can even think about buying an engagement ring or paying for a wedding," said Micheal Foley, 32, a website editor in Hudson, Wis. "Taking the best thing in the world -- love -- and turning it into a legal obligation isn't worth ruining your financial future over. I love my girlfriend and I hope to one day give her the wedding she deserves, but not at the expense of our financial well-being afterward."

In 1950, almost three in four households were married couples. Now, they account for less than half, and many are marrying later. For some women, kids come before husbands.

"These are not the 'oopsies,' the 15-year-olds who didn't know any better," said William Doherty, professor of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota. "It's more like women are saying, 'This guy isn't marriage material, but he's good enough to have a child with, so it wouldn't be the end of the world if I got pregnant.'"

In Minnesota, almost one in three new mothers is unmarried, says the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS), up from about one in four 10 years ago. Fewer than one in five are teenagers, continuing the decline in teen births. More than 42 percent are at least 25 years old.

What's going on with marriage here reflects national trends, which show an even stronger shift, with four in 10 births to unmarried women, more than double the rate in 1970, according to the NCHS. Of these births, 60 percent are to women in their 20s.

Mikki Morrissette, 50, calls the women who decide not to sacrifice motherhood while waiting to fall in love "choice moms." She's one of them.

The tick-tock of the baby clock that haunted women in their late 30s now is heard by those in their late 20s, said Morrissette, founder of the online resource ChoiceMoms.org. "They've got big jobs, or had big jobs, and now want time to be a parent," she said. "Marriage is not a priority they have at this point."

To be clear: They're not against marriage, or men.

"That's a myth," she said. "It's more of a sense of peace that the order doesn't mean as much as it once did."

Doing the backwards math

Morrissette used to earn six figures in New York as an editor and writer working with Time Inc. and the New York Times. By age 31, she had married and divorced.

Dating went nowhere toward finding a man she viewed as father material for her future children. So, she "did the backwards math" and decided at age 37 to have a child and postpone the husband. A friend agreed to be a sperm donor.

She returned to her hometown of Minneapolis to raise her daughter, working as a freelancer. At 42, she had a son with the same donor. They remain friends, with no expectation of support -- although she added with a smile that he's an avid skier and bought lessons and gear for the kids.

Morrisette said the typical choice mom is in her 30s and 40s, has a graduate degree and earns more than $40,000 a year. Many still ultimately want to marry. "Half of the women aren't looking, but half are working really hard to find a co-parent."

Co-parent being another word for husband?

Morrissette paused, then chuckled. "Yes."

Choice moms, especially those with sons, often still want men in their children's lives. Morrissette has assembled a group of five men who are there for her kids for various reasons. "We do that consciously," she said, "like we do everything else."

Shelly Damm, another single mother by choice, had achieved corporate success and traveled the world.

"The only thing left was to have kids, and there were no men I was even remotely interested in sharing my life with, so I moved forward on that."

Damm, 47, of Minneapolis, has two boys, a 13-year-old she conceived and an 8-year-old she adopted. She also cares for a niece in college. Her decision meant ending an executive career handling multimillion-dollar accounts in the auto and pharmaceutical industries. She now does small-group reading interventions for the Minneapolis Public Schools.

As to being judged on her choices, "Trading being an über-professional for a low-income zone is where people judge me more," Damm said.

"I have this really bang-up résumé, but I've traded any kind of corporate life where I would be traveling for a life when I'm home when the kids are home."

She is friends with families with fathers for her boys. "But when the boys go off to college, I would like to be partnered, to enjoy life with a companion," she said.

Finances prompt delays

Regardless of whether children are in the equation, marriage trends are shifting from "I do" to "I will, eventually, once things shake out."

Job uncertainty causes many couples to struggle with what Apple Valley marriage and family therapist Ginny D'Angelo calls "a post-feminist backslide."

"Thirty years ago, the debate was, 'Is it OK for a wife to go to work?' " D'Angelo said. "Well, nobody's having that argument now. But they can't figure out how to do a partnership."

One reason is the premium that couples place on maintaining their independence, financially and psychologically.

Many see marriage more as a way to split expenses than pool resources, according to The Marriage Project study. High divorce rates tell them to plan for the worst and to be ready to support themselves if needed.

The study says that many middle-class couples "now believe that they do not have the requisite emotional and economic resources to get or stay married. ... Their standards for marriage have increased, but their ability to achieve those standards has not."

D'Angelo put it this way: "Marriage is seen less as a journey and more as a destination. And that concerns me because it is the journey and not the destination."

Standards too high to reach

A common thread among those postponing marriage is resistance to settling for less than the ideal.

Today's young adults, raised by ever-bolstering parents, believe they can achieve what they desire if they put forth some effort, Doherty said. They see no reason to lower their expectations just because they haven't found someone who measures up.

"That's where the whole thing about 'settling' comes in," Doherty said. "Women are maturing sooner; it's a socialization thing. When women want to settle down, the guys are still playing. Women have to feel respect for a man, to envision his prospects -- and that can be tough to do these days."

Doherty has grave concerns that this societal change of delaying marriage is unfolding with little scrutiny.

"We have a blind spot in this culture about talking about marriage," he said. Conservatives are reluctant to accept a changing family structure, sure it will lead to more social programs, he said, and "Liberals don't want to speak against single mothers because they don't want to sound judgmental."

He worries about how easily a desire to marry post-children will be fulfilled, given the logistics of co-mingling their various attachments.

"What do people aspire to?" he asked. "They want family and a long permanent bond to a mate and to make things public and legal. It's an overwhelmingly common aspiration. We need a public conversation about this," which could influence policies toward a more traditional family structure.

For some young couples, the recession has been "a hard pill to swallow," said Nicole Bachman, 28, of St. Paul.

Her generation was raised to have independent -- "probably self-centered" -- priorities, she said, that faltered with the economy. She sees marriage as providing financial security.

Her boyfriend, with whom she has lived for more than a year, earns far more than she does at her non-profit and has health insurance. They split expenses proportionate to their incomes and cover personal expenses such as gas.

"Part of being a college-educated woman is that I feel it lacks dignity to let my boyfriend spend and spend on me," Bachman said. "But if we had a household together and were married, legally on paper, I would feel more entitled to that. I would feel protected."

Her boyfriend wants to build a nest egg. "His focus is more, 'Why say the obvious? Let's plan on buying a house and obviously we'll get married when that happens.' But there's a part of me that just can't shake that feeling of insecurity, of nothing is final until it's final."

D'Angelo, the family counselor, says the future of marriage depends on people accepting that traditional roles have changed -- and that so have they.

"Couples who marry aren't as homogenous as they once were," she said. "They once automatically grew up in the same town, went to the same church, had the same ethinic background. They may have come into marriages with unspoken expectations, but they were the same unspoken expectations."

If couples hesitate, it might be because they're saying, "I need to be sure I do it right because I don't want to start a family and then have to go through divorce," D'Angelo said.

But she added that even best intentions go awry when the script becomes, "I'm afraid to do this because I might make a mistake."

Kim Ode • 612-673-7185

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