Shotguns Optional at Shotgun Weddings

A friend secretly got engaged and married all within a month. When she finally shared her news, I could not help but squeeze out the question, “Are you pregnant?” Of course, I knew she wasn’t (the Speedy Gonzalez wedding was not a surprise) but I felt mysteriously compelled to put the question out there. And apparently I was not the only one to pose it to her. Just like if someone falls you naturally respond with  “Are you alright?” when there’s a race to the altar all you want to know is if there’s a bun in the oven.

So where does this natural tendency come from? Religion is a great place to start, followed by civil law. Broadly speaking, religious Christian laws dictate that pre-marital actions committed outside the sacrament of marriage is not recognized, condoned or legal in the eyes of the church. So being ‘born out of wedlock’ meant coming into a lot of terrible stereotypes and names – bastard, illegitimate heir, love child or natural child (the polite title used by the upper class). To make matters worse, the unholy offspring of two unmarried people were not legally entitled to birthrights, titles and inheritances. This made overcoming the station of “bastard” incredibly difficult throughout history, but there were a few historical persons who rose above, such as, Leonardo Da Vinci, Argentina’s Eva Peron, Marilyn Monroe and Alexander Hamilton.

To avoid bastardization, societal and church disapproval, people raced to the altar in what is called a shotgun wedding. The shotgun element originates from the folk myth that the father of the bride must coerce the reluctant father-to-be to marry his daughter. He does this by holding a gun up to him during the wedding, in case the groom tries to make a break for it. The quick marriage occurs because of the perceived need to reconcile and restore the parents’ moral, spiritual and social honor and reputation, along with that of their unborn child.  Though it should be noted that couples, in the past, often had about a year to make reparations with the church by marrying and baptizing their children (if they could). And it should be doubly noted that in feudal times, it was sometimes expected that the bride be pregnant by the wedding ceremony. Pregnancy proved her fertility (the most desirable commodity a woman could offer in marriage) and if she couldn’t prove her fertility, the engagement became null and void and she was returned to her parents like a used-good.

The legal disinheritance and discrimination against those born of unmarried parents, which violates a person’s natural civil rights, lasted until the 1970s. The Supreme Court ruled that ‘common-law disabilities of bastardy’ breached the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.  Despite newfound lawful protection, the social and religious stigma associated with it did not disappear altogether, though forty years later, we see women rocking the baby bump regardless of their marital status.

The Pew Research Center conducted a study called, ‘The New Demography of American Motherhood,’ which compares new mother demographics between 1990 and 2008. 41% of births in 2008 were to unmarried women compared to 28% in 1990. This can be attributed to the fact that women are more educated now (54% in 2006 had some college education) and that more, older women have children without a ring on their finger (14%). It can be assumed that between an increase in education and a longer occupational career, women have more economic means and self-autonomy to chose becoming a parent without a spouse.

Two movies to recently hit the big screen address this new demographic trend. Jennifer Lopez stars in ‘The Back-up Plan’ (2010) and Jennifer Aniston stars in ‘The Switch’ (August 2010), both movies deal with older women deciding to be artificially inseminated. Then there’s the presumed Hollywood celebrity trend where older leading ladies are buying bassinets en lieu of wedding bands.  It’s hard to ignore the idea that starlets are influencing a larger societal trend, but entertainment personalities can break new ground and ease an audience into unorthodox ways of life. So when reality stars like, Kourtney Kardashian is pregnant and unmarried on TV, our way of thinking about those topics evolve. However, these stars’ are adults with overwhelming resources to provide financially for their children with or without their partner. Money (and life experience), in this instance, creates an extra safety cushion to break comfortably from religious and social tradition. But not everyone has that luxury.

As Juno hit the movie screens, news stories of Jamie Lynn Spears and Bristol Palin hit the news stands. Teenage sex and pregnancy in media is widely scrutinized (read Amy Benfer’s article, “Death to the ‘Juno’ Effect”), but these teenagers are held to different, more traditional values then their older contemporaries. Like the young, pubescent stars, that are expected to publically commit to their virginity (by the way, they never do), young pregnant celebrities are expected to marry the other parent of their unborn child. The Pew study revealed that most Americans, while more tolerant, still look down upon unmarried parenthood. It is not surprising then, that Spears and Palin are coerced into an engagement to salvage careers and political campaigns to alleviate the public’s general disapproval. Though at what cost does the parents’ and child’s happiness come if the engagement is done under the duress of family and society to “do what’s right?” As of now, neither teenage mom is married and Palin just broke off her second engagement to Levi Johnston.

The religious and social pressure to fit into a certain cookie-cutter family image still exists. Even fictional Friends character, Phoebe rents a wedding gown while pregnant from a store called, ‘It’s Not Too Late,’ which is certainly a back-handed comment. But some couples do want to “do the honorable thing,” like a pregnant Alicia Keys who married Swizz Beatz on July 31, 2010 and James Van Der Beek, who married his pregnant fiancé, Kimberly Brook a day later. However some couples wait, take for instance Nicole Richie, who is now engaged to Joel Madden after having two children with him. And on the show, “Whose Wedding Is It Anyway?” a non-celebrity couple planned to finally marry after three daughters over the course of six years. A modern perspective is that time and patience is always a healthy attitude, rushing to the altar implies wrongful doing or an ulterior motive, since a baby out of wedlock no longer means having a bastard as it historically did, some couples just wait.

Modern perspective of out-of-wedlock births no longer has the virulent branding it once had. However, sometimes it’s the circumstantial evidence surrounding individual cases that can reignite old bitter feelings towards unplanned pregnancies. Take for instance, John Edwards, who denied an extramarital affair and a resulting daughter, probably forfeited his candidacy as a potential presidential runner. Or infamous ‘Octomom’ Nadya Sulemon, who decided to have 14 children (some at risk for birth defects) with no second parent, no job and no income. Then there’s football athlete, Travis Henry who has eleven children to ten different mothers.

In 2004 while on a friend’s family vacation, a family member approached a few of us to give us the background on another couple joining us to avoid any awkward questions. They were young, under 30, successful professionals, dating and with…a child.  Suavely and politely, he described them as a ‘very modern couple.’ In 2004, out-of-wedlock births still carried enough of a stigma that this situation needed “addressing,” luckily the description was well put for the day and very forward thinking.

My friend may have rushed to the altar for reasons other then a baby bump, but a shotgun wedding has never been associated with anything but pregnancy. It’s naturally our first question to ask when dealing with speed and marriage. We’re at a transitional period where almost half of the U.S.’s new births are to unwed parents. Marriage no longer means attaining a house, husband and 2.5 kids under certain socially acceptable parameters, it means bringing together two people who lives are based on a mutual love and compatibility. Tolerance to different lifestyles and certainly order of life events is still severely needed now, as we are at a crossroads between old school advocates and baby bump trailblazers.