June 21, 2012

Middle class trading ‘I do’ for ‘maybe later’

MINNEAPOLIS — 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.”

MINNEAPOLIS — 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.’ ”

Four in 10 births are 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 “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.”

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.”

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, Minn., 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.”

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