Kids First, Marriage Later — If Ever

This year, more than 2 million couples will get married in the United States. Our series, Newly Wed In America, takes a look at the way the institution of marriage has changed — sometimes radically — in the last 50 years.

  • Brianne Zimmerman helps her son, Noah Garland, open presents during his birthday party at Shrewsbury Lanes in St. Louis. She and her husband, Nathan Garland, represent a growing trend of couples who opt to have children without first being married.
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    Brianne Zimmerman helps her son, Noah Garland, open presents during his birthday party at Shrewsbury Lanes in St. Louis. She and her husband, Nathan Garland, represent a growing trend of couples who opt to have children without first being married.
    All photos by Whitney Curtis for NPR/Whitney Curtis
  • Many of Zimmerman and Garland's friends also chose to have children before marriage. Here, Lexi Camburn helps her son, Zane, bowl during the party. Camburn says she never considered marrying Zane's father, although she does hope to get married someday. She says she's waiting for "everything to be right."
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    Many of Zimmerman and Garland's friends also chose to have children before marriage. Here, Lexi Camburn helps her son, Zane, bowl during the party. Camburn says she never considered marrying Zane's father, although she does hope to get married someday. She says she's waiting for "everything to be right."
    Whitney Curtis
  • Colleen Segbers cheers for her daughter, Gwenyth Pettitt, 5, while she bowls. Segbers wasn't married when she got pregnant, although she did later marry Gwyneth's father. She loves her husband, she says, but that is not why they decided to get married – they did it because she needed health insurance.
    Hide caption
    Colleen Segbers cheers for her daughter, Gwenyth Pettitt, 5, while she bowls. Segbers wasn't married when she got pregnant, although she did later marry Gwyneth's father. She loves her husband, she says, but that is not why they decided to get married – they did it because she needed health insurance.
    Whitney Curtis
  • Zimmerman and Garland say having a baby and deciding to get married were almost like two different questions. Zimmerman says when she got pregnant with Noah "the thought of marriage never crossed my mind."
    Hide caption
    Zimmerman and Garland say having a baby and deciding to get married were almost like two different questions. Zimmerman says when she got pregnant with Noah "the thought of marriage never crossed my mind."
    Whitney Curtis
  • Melissa Schutte and her boyfriend, Rich Catlett, chose to register at City Hall as domestic partners instead of getting married. It's a license that gives them nearly the same benefits as being married. Catlett says the difference between the two licenses is "the big commitment thing."
    Hide caption
    Melissa Schutte and her boyfriend, Rich Catlett, chose to register at City Hall as domestic partners instead of getting married. It's a license that gives them nearly the same benefits as being married. Catlett says the difference between the two licenses is "the big commitment thing."
    Whitney Curtis
  • Noah, 6, receives help tying his bowling shoes from his father, Nathan. Noah was born in 2004, but his parents didn't get married until 2009.
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    Noah, 6, receives help tying his bowling shoes from his father, Nathan. Noah was born in 2004, but his parents didn't get married until 2009.
    Whitney Curtis
  • Garland works as a graphic designer in St. Louis; Zimmerman is working toward becoming a teacher. Sociologists say that the trend of having children before marriage is most pronounced in the middle-class population of America.
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    Garland works as a graphic designer in St. Louis; Zimmerman is working toward becoming a teacher. Sociologists say that the trend of having children before marriage is most pronounced in the middle-class population of America.
    Whitney Curtis
  • Garland says that even though he and Zimmerman recently were married, he knew she was "The One" as soon as he met her nine years ago. "It seemed obvious to me the first time we kissed," he says. "We just kind of connected right then."
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    Garland says that even though he and Zimmerman recently were married, he knew she was "The One" as soon as he met her nine years ago. "It seemed obvious to me the first time we kissed," he says. "We just kind of connected right then."
    Whitney Curtis

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Nathan Garland, Brianne Zimmerman and their 6-year-old son Noah Garland. Whitney Curtis/NPR i i

hide captionNathan Garland, Brianne Zimmerman and their 6-year-old son Noah. Garland and Zimmerman had Noah in 2004, but chose not to get married until 2009.

Whitney Curtis/NPR
Nathan Garland, Brianne Zimmerman and their 6-year-old son Noah Garland. Whitney Curtis/NPR

Nathan Garland, Brianne Zimmerman and their 6-year-old son Noah. Garland and Zimmerman had Noah in 2004, but chose not to get married until 2009.

Whitney Curtis/NPR

Federal data from 2007 says 40 percent of births in America are to unwed mothers, a trend experts say is especially common in middle-class America. In one St. Louis community, the notion of getting married and having children — in that order — seems quaint.

For most of their relationship, Nathan Garland and Brianne Zimmerman have marked their anniversary by New Year's Eve, 2001. They say that was the day they both knew they had found the one.

"It seemed obvious to me the first time we kissed," Garland says. "Just kind of connected, right then. It really was that obvious."

They moved in together shortly afterward. They decided to have a baby a few years later, but had no interest in getting married.

"We didn't feel we were ready for it at that time," Zimmerman says. "We just thought it was a piece of paper and it wasn't that big a deal to us. We lived like we were married already. So we split bills and took care of each other."

Neither of them can exactly articulate why marriage didn't seem right at the time; they both just say emotionally, they weren't ready. Although their grandparents dropped a few hints, they didn't feel pressure to get married.

"Just because you have a child, why do you have to get married, too?" Garland says. "They're almost two different questions."

Then came Christmas 2008. Almost eight years after they got together, they say, they were finally ready to answer that second question. Garland wrapped up an engagement ring for Zimmerman and put it under the tree. Christmas morning, he had their son Noah hand her the ring. They were married last October.

Brianne and Nathan on their wedding day in September 2009. Courtesy of Under Grace Photo i i

hide captionZimmerman and Garland on their wedding day in September 2009.

Courtesy of Under Grace Photo
Brianne and Nathan on their wedding day in September 2009. Courtesy of Under Grace Photo

Zimmerman and Garland on their wedding day in September 2009.

Courtesy of Under Grace Photo

Today, the newlyweds are hosting their son's birthday party at a bowling alley in St. Louis. Garland helps Noah put on his bowling shoes. More than two dozen of his 6-year-old friends and their parents have come. Among these parents, the gap between marriage and family seems normal.

An Overrated Institution?

Colleen Segbers stands with her daughter, Gwen. She confesses that she didn't mean to get pregnant six years ago.

"It was an afternoon of Budweiser beer and the hot sun," she laughs. "It happened. It was OK."

After her daughter was born, Segbers did marry Gwen's father. She loves her husband, she says, but they didn't get married because they had a baby together or even because they were in love. They did it so she could have insurance. A friend of theirs got ordained online and married them in his living room.

"We didn't have a wedding. I don't have a ring, I don't have a dress. We just signed the paper and I was like, 'OK, cool.'"

Although she and her husband and daughter live together, Segbers says she doesn't really think of herself as married. She thinks marriage as an institution is overrated. But some of these parents say they do believe in marriage.

Once Is Enough

"People who say that they don't want to get married, I think they're lying to themselves," Lexi Campburn says as she chases her son Zane around the bowling alley.

"Everyone wants to, you know, fall in love and have the fairy tale," she says. "Of course, I want to get married someday. But it has to be the right person, the right time. Everything has to be right."

Campburn says she didn't mean to get pregnant when she was 26. She considered marrying Zane's father, then decided against it. Her reason is echoed by many parents at the party:

"I don't want to get married and then divorced. I'm only going to do it once," she says.

Many of these parents are children of divorce — born in the early '80s when divorce rates peaked. Today, these parents say they'd rather raise a child alone or with multiple partners than risk putting that child through a divorce. In general, divorce rates are at their lowest level in more than 35 years right now.

"If we're 50 and still together I told her I'd put a ring on her finger," says Rich Catlet. "But until then, probably not."

His girlfriend, Melissa Schutte, is pregnant and due in just a few weeks. They're so adamant about not getting married, they decided to register at City Hall as domestic partners instead. It's a license that gives them nearly the same legal benefits as being married. It's a slight difference but a big relief to the couple.

"Marriage is like the big commitment thing," Catlet says. "Who knows? It's good right now; it's great right now. We've got a kid we're going to love for the rest of our lives. So why mess with a good thing?"

Kids Today

Back at the birthday party, Noah tears open his presents. Becky and Brooks Garland, Noah's grandparents on his father's side, have been married for 42 years. Becky says young people are hesitant to get married because they expect too much out of marriage and their partners.

"What I see today is too much instant gratification," she says. "That is, if it doesn't work immediately then you put it down and go to something else."

The Garlands agree on another point: They say children aside, marriage is worth it.

"I can't even imagine not having Becky there," Brooks says. "I can't even imagine it."

The Garlands say they've made it through some very rough times — so rough, in fact, that they actually split up for a few years. But Becky says getting back together and sticking it out was the right decision. She says there are tremendous benefits to being married for 42 years.

"I think the biggest thing is not being alone," she says, "in the sense of having somebody whose mind and soul, I guess, touches yours."

When the parents at this birthday party get to be Brooks' and Becky's age, it's unlikely they'll have a story like this. What's more likely is that they'll have had a number of serious partners, and possibly some children. And they may have eventually been married.

As to what kind of consequences this new concept of marriage will have for the next generation — a group of children who may grow up with several parental figures instead of just two — Becky says she worries about it. Experts say it's too soon to say what the effects will be. We'll have to ask these children in 20 years.

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