What We Can Learn From Iceland
In Iceland, most babies are born to parents who aren’t married and no one is freaking out about it. Does marriage matter?
For much of history, marriage mattered. It was a way to make sure property could be passed to heirs, alliances could be forged (often to avoid wars), children could be reared, society could be assured that caregiving would be taken care of and a lot of other practical matters, as historian and Marriage, a History author Stephanie Coontz has extensively detailed. And it’s true that marriage matters today in the U.S., because it grants those who tie the know more than 1,100 perks and protections — and that’s just at the federal level. But what if marriage didn’t matter — people could be romantically partnered or not, have children as part of a couple or not, and still be accepted by society and set up to succeed. Enter Iceland, where more than two-thirds of babies — 67 percent — are born to parents who aren’t married. And no one is freaking out about it. Would we still need marriage? Good question.
I recently stumbled upon the setup for an episode of CNN’s The Wonder List, which sent reporter Bill Weir to the country to explore its many charms. Among them was the progressive way of thinking about how people can raise children without being married to each other.
Marriage isn’t just about children
OK, marriage is not just about having kids, so we need to be clear about that. But the belief that marriage is exactly about that — which means marriage must involve sex — creates a very narrow view of marriage, and thus a very narrow view of family. Which is probably why, in the U.S., single moms are blamed and shamed, and seen as a problem to be fixed.
But in Iceland? As one woman who has has three kids with two partners “and not a drop of shame or regret” tells Weir:
You have this horrible term in English, ‘broken families,’ which basically means just if you get divorced, then something’s broken. But that’s not the way it is in Iceland at all. We live in such a small and secure environment, and the women have so much freedom. So you can just, you can choose your life.”
Women having freedom to choose their life. Boy, doesn’t that sound good?
Religion may be the problem
Since few Icelanders are religious, “there is no moral stigma attached to unwed pregnancy,” he writes. And that’s a huge difference between Iceland and the U.S. — as well as the fact that Iceland guarantees some of the most generous parental leave in the world. Conservatives in the U.S. who claim to support “family values” have a simple view of family — the 1950s nuclear model where women know their place, barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen — are doing everything to put us back there, including attempts to do away with birth control. Nothing will put a woman in her place quicker than taking away the right for her to control her own body.
Women in Iceland benefit from the country’s “it takes a village to raise a child” attitude, as well as how motherhood is perceived — it doesn’t define you as a woman. Nor does your relationship status.
So, really, is it marriage per se that matters most or is it a society that supports all sorts of lifestyles and caregiving without requiring that a woman be in love with — let alone live with or marry — someone to raise children?
Clearly, it isn’t just about marriage despite matter all the hand-wringing in the U.S. about the declining rates of marriage, women having children outside of marriage and the “success sequence.”
Do we need marriage?
So, would we still need marriage if everyone thought like Iceland does?
Would you still be with your loved one if marriage didn’t exist? Would you feel that you were an adult if marriage didn’t exist? Would you have children with him or her as long as you had societal support — or an agreement between the two of you to make sure your child is cared for you both equally no matter what?
What would you do differently if no one treated you differently if you were married or not?
Wondering if you should marry or not? (Of course you are!) Then read The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels (Seal Press). You can support your local indie bookstore or order it on Amazon.