Kids First, Marriage Later — If Ever Federal data from 2007 say 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.
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Kids First, Marriage Later — If Ever

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Kids First, Marriage Later — If Ever

Kids First, Marriage Later — If Ever

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GUY RAZ, host:

Wedding season is in full swing. This year, more than two million couples will tie the knot in the United States. Today, we begin a series called Newlywed in America. We'll meet some newlywed couples and explore the ways marriage has changed over the past 50 years.

And one of the biggest changes? Well, people are walking down the aisle much later in life than they used to. And these days, far more people never get married at all, about 20 percent of American adults, down from five percent in the 1950s.

And increasingly, people aren't even waiting for marriage to have children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2007, more than 40 percent of babies born were born to unwed mothers.

And that's where we start our look at marriage in America. Katia Riddle visited a St. Louis suburb where people are getting married and having kids, just not necessarily in that order.

KATIA RIDDLE: For most of their relationship, Nathan Garland and Brianne Zimmerman celebrated their anniversary on New Year's Eve. On that day, back in 2001, they both say they knew they had found the one.

Mr. NATHAN GARLAND: It seemed obvious to me when we kissed the first time, really. That's when we just kind of right then.

Ms. BRIANNE ZIMMERMAN: Yeah. I agree.

RIDDLE: They moved in together shortly afterwards. A few years later, they decided to have a baby, and yet they still had no interest in getting married.

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

RIDDLE: They say other than a few hints from their grandparents, they didn't feel any pressure.

Mr. GARLAND: Just because you have a child, why do you have to get married, too? I mean, because they're almost two different questions.

RIDDLE: Then came Christmas 2007. After almost seven years together, they were finally ready to answer that second question. Nathan wrapped up an engagement ring for Brianne and put it under the tree. Christmas morning, he had their 3-year-old son Noah hand her the ring. The wedding was last October.

Ms. ZIMMERMAN: Noah, take those to Daddy, please. Noah?

Mr. NOAH GARLAND: These are dad's?

RIDDLE: Today, the newlyweds are hosting their son's birthday party at a St. Louis bowling alley called Shrewsbury Lanes. Nathan helps Noah put on his bowling shoes. More than two dozen of his 6-year-old friends and their parents have come. And for many of these parents, when it comes to raising kids, marriage is a side issue.

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

Ms. COLLEEN SEGBERS: No. It was an afternoon of a Budweiser beer and the hot sun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SEGBERS: It happened. It was okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RIDDLE: After her daughter was born, Segbers did marry Gwen's father. She loves her husband, she says, but the reason they got married wasn't the baby. They did it so she could have insurance. A friend of theirs got ordained online and married them in his living room.

Ms. SEGBERS: 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, okay, cool.

RIDDLE: But some of her friends here feel strongly about marriage.

Ms. LEXI CAMPBURN: I mean, people who say that they don't want to get married, I think they're lying to themselves.

RIDDLE: Lexi Campburn takes a break from chasing her son Zane around the bowling alley.

Ms. CAMPBURN: Everyone wants to, you know, fall in love and have the fairy tale thing. So of course, I want to get married someday. But it has to be the right person, the right time. Everything has to be right.

RIDDLE: Campburn says she didn't mean to get pregnant when she was 26. She considered marrying Zane's father but decided against it. She gives one reason for that decision that I hear over and over again.

Ms. CAMPBURN: I don't want to get married and then divorced. I'm only going to do it once.

RIDDLE: Many of the parents here are the children of divorce, born in the early '80s. That's when this country's divorce rates peaked. Today, these parents say they'd rather raise kids alone than risk putting them through a broken marriage.

Mr. RICH CATLET: If we're 50 and still together, I told her I'd put a ring on her finger, but until then, probably not.

RIDDLE: Rich Catlet stands beside his girlfriend, Melissa Schutte, who is pregnant and due in just a few weeks. These two are 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, just no ring. I asked what the difference is to them.

Mr. CATLET: I don't know. Marriage is like the big commitment thing, the one, maybe not the one. Who knows? It's good right now. It's great right now. You know, we've got a kid that we're going to love for the rest of our lives. So why mess with a good thing?

Unidentified People: (Singing) Happy birthday to you.

RIDDLE: Back at the party, birthday boy Noah Garland tears open his presents. All four of Noah's grandparents are here. The two couples have a total of 77 years of marriage under their belts. Noah's grandmother Becky Garland says she thinks young people expect too much out of marriage and their partners.

Ms. BECKY GARLAND: What I see today is too much instant gratification, and that is, if it doesn't work immediately, then you put it down and go to something else.

RIDDLE: Becky and Brooks Garland say they're happy that their son finally decided to get married. They think it's good for their grandson, Noah, as well as Nathan and Brianne.

Ms. GARLAND: I think the biggest thing is not being alone in the sense of having somebody whose mind and soul, I guess, touches yours.

Mr. BROOKS GARLAND: I can't even imagine not having Becky there. I can't even imagine it.

RIDDLE: Becky and Brooks say they've made it through some very rough times, so rough, in fact, that they actually split up for a few years. They know they're in the minority among this crowd, they say, and maybe even in their own divorce-prone generation, but they believe in sticking it out.

Katia Riddle, NPR News.

RAZ: And if you'd like to see photos from Noah's birthday party and more stories about marriage in America, check out our website, npr.org.

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