When Baby Comes First

Dylan, Catherine and I

“First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.”  From the time we are ten years old, we learn that this is the way things are supposed to go.  But it doesn’t always work out that way.  For some people, the baby comes first.

At the end of February, I’ll be getting married to Catherine, my girlfriend of the last four and a half years, and Dylan, our 9 month old son, will be walking down the aisle with us.  To be fair, Catherine and I were completely in love with each other before Dylan came along, but I didn’t really see the need to get married until after Catherine was pregnant.

It’s not like I was a commitment-phobe.  In fact I’ve always preferred monogamous relationships to the freewheeling lifestyle of a true bachelor.  But I’ve always felt that there was no point in getting married unless you were having a child.  I believe that people change a lot over the course of their lifetime (I certainly have) and you can’t possibly know how you and your partner will change (or if you will change in the same direction,) and so the idea of pledging a lifelong commitment to someone when you have no idea who they will become seems kind of silly.  (Okay, and maybe growing up with divorced parents had something to do with it too.)

I am not alone in this–marriage in general is not nearly as popular as it once was.  4 out of 10 people now think marriage is obsolete (up from 28% in a Time Magazine survey in 1978—see the Pew Study “The Decline of Marriage and the Rise of New Families.”)   But once Catherine became pregnant, I knew that we would be connected to each other forever, and a pledge of lifelong commitment seemed like the only natural thing to do.  Besides, it was the perfect excuse to gather all our friends and family together in Mexico and have a huge party (next week!)

Having the baby come before the marriage, has certainly led to some awkwardness in bucking against societal trends and expectations (I hate introducing Catherine as my fiancée when I feel like she has been my wife since the moment Dylan was born) but the more I think about it, the more I think there are some advantages to getting married after your first child is born.

1.  Commitment first, then love.  Some experts say the reason most relationships fail is because people get so swayed by feelings of passion and love that they assume this is all they need to have a successful relationship (and they are literally heartbroken when they learn it is not.)  Proponents of arranged marriages (which have surprisingly high success rates) say it is easier to grow love once you have commitment than the other way around.  In fact, the idea that marriage is based entirely on love is relatively new in human history (see “Arranged Marriages – Past and Present.”) 

Having a baby before marriage is not the same as an arranged marriage, but it establishes a union based first and foremost on commitment and trust.  While most people rate love, lifelong commitment and companionship as more important reasons for getting married, both married and unmarried people rate being a good parent as the most important quality they look for in a spouse (from the Pew study.)  Having an opportunity to see what Catherine is like as a mother to our son makes me fall even more deeply in love with her as we begin our married life together.

2.  Sharing novel experiences builds intimacy.  Relationship experts say sharing exciting experiences is a way to grow closer as a couple.  For Catherine and me, going through a pregnancy and then a childbirth both tested our relationship and brought us closer together in ways that we could not have possibly imagined (see my article, “Why is Childbirth so Freakin’ Painful?”)  Some couples suffer under the strain of this major life transition.  The fact that we have shared this life-altering experience together and grown closer gives us confidence that we are truly right for each other.

3.  You avoid the drop in marital satisfaction that comes from having children.  In “Stumbling on Happiness,” Daniel Gilbert featured a chart entitled “The Most Terrifying Chart Imaginable for a New Parent” (also featured at 11:51 minutes into this wonderful TED talk on “Taboos of Parenting”) which showed the startling plunge in marital happiness that occurs for couples while raising their children.  An eight-year study of 218 couples found that 90 percent experienced a decrease in marital satisfaction once the first child was born (See “Kids Curb Marital Satisfaction” and “Marital Stability Throughout the Child-Rearing Years.”)  In that sense, Catherine and I are starting our married life on the ground floor (except for the predicted dip into the basement during our son’s teenage years.)

I realize that this article will rub some people the wrong way.  There are strong arguments for only bringing children into stabilized, committed families (although statistics show a good number of those families will fall apart anyway.)  And some people will have religious beliefs that make the idea of children out of wedlock seem like a transgression against God.  But my point is that life has a way of rolling along and it doesn’t always conform to the rules and customs that we try to create either culturally or religiously.  Sometimes the baby comes first.  And it can be a good, good thing.

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17 Responses to When Baby Comes First

  1. Wanda Love February 15, 2011 at 9:03 am #

    Jeremy, so happy for you, Catherine and Dylan!
    What an exciting time for you – one of the most amazing, grounded men I’ve had the pleasure to meet. Here’s to health, happiness and marital bliss.

  2. Lisa Starr February 15, 2011 at 10:40 am #

    As usual, Jeremy, an insightful post on human behaviors. I think you’re right; it seems to work much better when people do what’s right for them at that time, not necessarily what society expects. At least, smart, thoughtful people like you and Catherine! Congrats on the nuptials. Dylan is going to grow up to be one smart, centered kid!

  3. Rianna February 15, 2011 at 10:49 am #

    Jeremy, it is been such a pleasure watching you evolve from your bachelor days in Maui to present time. I totally agree that people need to get married because they are committed to growing old and weathering the storms. I am so happy you found Catherine and now have Dylan – and they are extremely fortunate to have you as their anchor. I look forward to celebrating your special day with you!

  4. mama-san February 15, 2011 at 11:52 am #

    Jeremy, it’s not everyone that rises to the occasion as you and Catherine have, that sees
    an opportunity, that stays open to all possibilities. Some people are committed to their fears and comforts and not much else. I’m so proud to see you commit to your growth and development and self-expression. Your little ‘buddy’, Dylan, is so lucky to have you both and the loving presence you bring to parenting and partnering! Can hardly wait to celebrate ‘it all’ with you next week! more love than words can say….

  5. Marie-Josee Shaar February 15, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

    In French Canada where I’m from, getting married after having kids is a very common thing. I would guess that about half the couples don’t get married at all, and of those that do, half get married after having kids.

    Along a similar thought process, the pastor who presided over my wedding ceremony says that getting married is way too important of a decision to make when you are still in love – something that got me thinking at first, but that I find to be appropriate. (And he’s American – not French Canadian!).

    Beautiful love declaration to your lovely already-wife, BTW! And beautiful family photo as well! All the best in Mexico to all 3 of you – may you all enjoy your wedding day and the events surrounding it!

    MarieJ

  6. Justin February 15, 2011 at 4:32 pm #

    Congratulations on your upcoming nuptials Jeremy.

    While you make some interesting points, I wonder how the evidence of the ‘cohabitation effect’ plays into this general hypothesis you present. That is, researchers have found that couples who cohabit before engagement have poorer wellbeing (and other) outcomes in comparison to those who cohabit post engagement. It seems that the “commitment” that comes from impending marriage changes the relationship.

  7. Jeremy McCarthy February 15, 2011 at 5:23 pm #

    Thanks Justin,

    Good question. But hard to answer without being fluent enough on the research. People who cohabitate are probably less likely to be religious, less likely to have strong family values, and less likely to be in a good position economically–all things which are also linked to wellbeing. I’m sure you are right that there is research out there that calls my hypothesis into question. I just saw, for example, a recent study that showed that people who wait until after marriage to have sex have better relationships with their spouses. But again, there are many factors that could be the causal elements in this correlational relationship. For example maybe couples who abstain have better willpower which allows them to control other urges that could be detrimental for their relationship.

    I’m certainly not trying to say that my way is the best way, but I like to point out the complexities of human wellbeing. Even if we accept the fact that a significant number of couples are better off when they don’t cohabitate or don’t engage in premarital sex, there will still be cases of couples who mindfully choose another way and can be incredibly successful.

    Thanks for reading. You have a great blog with a lot of good parenting ideas!

  8. Eric Mieles February 15, 2011 at 8:46 pm #

    This was a great post. It’s interesting to think about human behavior. In my observation I have witnessed many couples who fall in “Love”, get married, and have children, only to be so disconnected, disrespected and disenchanted with the whole concept.

    It bothers me and it seems the “Normal” way is broken. Society has fallen victim to the “Quickness” of things. Drive thru, Jiffy lubes, express checkout lanes, etc… We look for the quick fix. Without the commitment, the true glue that can hopefully withstand the potential problems in a relationship we rely on ‘Love” and once one partner says that’s gone it’s all downhill from there.

    I agree with you on this post and I hope more people will begin to uphold their commitments. Also regarding religion, God also said he doesn’t make mistakes. He knew you before you were born. Even if the parents thought it was not planned and/or just happened…He didn’t!!

  9. Louisa February 16, 2011 at 1:46 pm #

    Hi Jeremy,
    A very thought-provoking post. Thank you. I am of the belief that marriage is not necessary even after baby comes if you are both committed. Tim and I wanted to be married before we had children because we wanted to declare our commitment openly to the world and to each other. I think we were swayed by our traditional upbringing. There is something about someone committing to you in a formal way that I think is comforting. Perhaps that is a sign of insecurity – I’m not sure. It just felt right for us.

    I think children are a much deeper commitment whether you like it or not. I know so many couples who divorce and are forced to stay connected to someone they don’t want to connect with. It’s sad.

    And I have to say that Tim and I are at that basement stage of raising a teenager and our commitment to each other certainly helps!!
    Have a wonderful wedding! Much love to you, Catherine and Dylan!
    Louisa

  10. Stacy (@TheZenGirl) February 16, 2011 at 5:25 pm #

    I have to admit something…I’m scared to have a child. I’ve been married to my husband for almost 5 years and I still don’t feel ready. What I’ve found to be the test in our marriage was traveling across 22 countries together for two and a half years (for both for work and play). Being with each other constantly for such a long period of time brought up pointed issues that ultimately created healthier communication styles and a happier life together. I don’t believe we would have scratched the surface of these issues otherwise.

    Once we are ready to have a child, as your point #2 describes “Sharing novel experiences builds intimacy” will certainly apply. Much like you are saying with having a child first before marriage, it brought you and your (almost!) wife together with an even stronger and deeper bond. I love your attitude on the subject, and I am so glad that you have found the beauty “when baby comes first.” It certainly inspires me for my future…that is, when we are ready to have a little one:) Congratulations on your marriage! Warm regards, Stacy

  11. Jeremy McCarthy February 16, 2011 at 11:27 pm #

    Hi Stacy, thanks for sharing your story. One thing Catherine and I have also realized is the importance of holding our relationship sacred even as we grow a new and powerful bond with our son. There is probably something to be said for really solidifying your relationship with your partner (as it sounds like you have) before bringing a child into the picture. Of course, the downside is you have more of a routine to be disrupted! There is no right or wrong way to do this. When the time is right it will happen.

  12. Raad February 18, 2011 at 9:56 pm #

    Wonderful to her about your news Jeremy! Congratulations and thank you for sharing such depth, introspection and Jeremy, and insightful. I always have been a believer in the uniqueness of every persons own story and the need by us all to evolve the ability and awareness so as not to rob ourselves of just that uniqueness by succumbing to fear or arguing for our own limitations.

    Truly happy for you all and wish you all the happiness and blessings possible always!

    Raad

  13. renren876 September 14, 2011 at 6:17 am #

    Thanks, Ive recently been hunting for facts about this subject for ages and yours is the very best Ive discovered so far.

  14. Nicole October 27, 2012 at 12:40 am #

    Just came across this as my fiance and I have decided to have a child before we wed. Mostly because we are both in our 30s and don’t want to wait any longer as we plan to have 2 at least.
    I am concerned how people will perceive us, but I know in my heart this is what we want.
    Thank you

  15. Lindsay k April 26, 2013 at 11:17 pm #

    I agree with everything you have to say. I’m with my bf and we have one child which we had very fast and I have to say it made us grow together and learn each in a better light fortunately we have followed a similar road you two have and it’s worked out. We are getting married soon and I can’t wait to continue this wonderful journey. Congrats on your love.

  16. Jeremy McCarthy April 28, 2013 at 3:05 pm #

    Congratulations to you too Lindsay! Thanks for sharing your story!

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