Shameless Icelanders: Free of Stigma, an Incredible Number of Children are Born Out of Wedlock

Let me guess: practically every time you log into your social media accounts a new couple has gotten engaged.

I get it.

While that’s undoubtedly happy news for the couple, the reality is that – especially if you’ve reached your early thirties – you likely already know a handful of couples that are going through a divorce (not to be of the “half-empty” set; it’s a sad truth).

You probably also know even more people who are over 30 and happily unwed, either prolonging their “glory years,” or forgoing the whole ‘being legally bound to someone’ part of life all together. And, yes, some of them even have kids.

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Yes, the concept of having a child out of wedlock – something that was virtually unheard of back in the day – has become a growing way of life for many.

A recent CNN article explored the countries with the highest percentage of unwed mothers. As it turns out, the country with the most single moms is Iceland. More than two-thirds (a somewhat shocking 67 per cent) of Icelandic babies are born out of wedlock.

While such a lifestyle may be looked down upon in some cultures, in Iceland, there is no shame. In fact, being unwed with kids is something to be proud of. Despite a persistent gender wage gap, Iceland – which currently houses 320,000 citizens – is now the most feminist society on the planet.

“You have this horrible term in English, ‘broken families,'” Iceland native Bryndis Asmundottir told CNN. “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.” Asmundottir has three kids with two different partners.

It helps that Iceland offers some of the most generous (see: amazing) paternity leave in the entire world, at nine months at 80 per cent pay. This allows three months for moms, three months for dads, and three months to be divided between the two. So there’s more incentive to start a family, whether marriage is part of the equation or not. Not to mention, the pre-schools are relatively inexpensive (a major bonus) and there is an availability of that “village” they say it takes to raise a child.

That doesn’t mean that the Icelanders are frivolously making babies all over town (with a population less than half the size of Mississauga that should be obvious). It’s also normal for couples to spend years together as parents before considering marriage. For Icelanders, apparently, though, love is all you need.

Since few Icelanders are religious, there is no moral stigma associated with an unwed pregnancy, according to CNN. The distinctive culture of single motherhood in Iceland was the subject of a recent series by Canadian photographer Annie Ling, who photographed six unwed mothers during a trip to Iceland. “These women aren’t getting judgment from the outside,” Ling said, according to The New Yorker. “So, because they’re accepted, they’re much more at ease in their situations.”

Iceland, mothers

Photo: Annie Ling

The thing is, I wouldn’t characterize Toronto as a particularly religious city either (especially in young professional circles), yet I know we have much more of a lingering stigma against those unwed. I experience it weekly at minimum with “when are you getting married?” becoming as common as “how are you?” these days. I am already acutely aware of the disapproving or disappointed looks and opinions on the fact that I’m “not married yet.” I can imagine these would be worse if a baby-filled stroller was my latest accessory.

Personally, I care more about having a child than I do planning some big white wedding that’s only going to stress me out. Honestly.

But it’s gotten to the point where I feel like a ring on my finger (literally, any ring) is essential before a baby enters the picture, whether I want one or not (the ring, not the baby). The thing is, though, this contradicts research that reveals that common-law (as opposed to marriage) is becoming commonplace among North American millennials. As we reported last year, they still share kids, mortgages, finances, and future goals, but lack the piece of paper and hundreds of wedding pictures that come with tying the knot. Let’s not forget the absence of a hefty wedding tab (weddings can be damn expensive).

Of course, this wasn’t always the case. Back in 1963, more than 90 per cent of Canadian children were born to married parents who did not live together until they were married. Fast forward a few years: between 2006-2011, the number of common-law couples increased 13.9 per cent, compared to the 3.1 per cent increase for married couples.

Given the stats then, why are young people so quick to question whether a newly pregnant couple is married upon news that a baby is on the way? And why does the thought of having a baby without a wedding ring continue to remain a non-option for my girlfriends?

Is it the result of our own insecurities and stigmas? Or does society still dictate that “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage?”

Whatever it is that’s causing it, it’s time to stop.

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