The day I finally realised marriage mattersAfter ten years and three children, Ali still didn”t see the need to tie the knot. Then, at 45, came a revelation…
Admittedly, it wasn’t most people’s idea of a perfect proposal. It happened one Saturday morning in our kitchen as I was stacking the dishwasher, the children a tangle of wrestling limbs on the sofa. Stephen pulled a small box from a fraying trouser pocket and said: ‘Let’s get married.’
What it lacked in romance, it more than made up for in poignancy. I met Stephen ten years ago, and we now have three children, a mortgage and a car. We have been through career changes and three house moves together — but we are still not married.
On the list of life’s experiences and achievements, marriage was something we’d never got round to addressing. I was a marriage cynic after all: our co-habitation had become woven into the story we told people about our life together. It said something about us to others.
Wedding plans: Ali Knight with partner Stephen and their children, from left, Joseph, Isabel and Luke
But when Stephen offered me that ring, I found myself crying. The children, too, sensed something different in the air and suddenly sat up, wide-eyed. ‘What are you doing’ asked our eight-year-old suspiciously.
‘We’re going to get married,’ Stephen said. If I was surprised at my reaction to his proposal, then I was just as taken aback by the emotions and memories it stirred.
As far as most people were concerned, our entire relationship happened in the wrong order.
I got pregnant, accidentally, two months after meeting Stephen, when I was 35. Although I knew I wanted a baby — in a vague, maybe-one-day kind of way — what I absolutely hadn’t imagined was that it would happen with a man I barely knew who was five years younger than me.
But the signs were good: I thought he was great, he was keen to go ahead and have the baby, and once I got over the shock of what had happened, so was I. Our relationship moved at breakneck speed. We met each other’s families, we went on holiday, and, five months after our first date, we moved in together.
Yet, despite everything, we had only the briefest discussion about whether to get married. The idea made me panic, while Stephen just shrugged. A baby was more than enough: organising a wedding was guaranteed to add more pressure. It was such a public declaration, and would produce high expectations I was happy to avoid.
Anyway, we belonged to Generation Failure. All around us, friends and relatives’ marriages were crumbling into acrimonious divorce, and it seemed easier to stand apart from the mess. At one point, in the wake of my brother’s divorce after just a year of marriage and a child, my mother turned to me and said flatly: ‘I don’t believe in marriage any more.’
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Yet neither Stephen nor I had come from broken homes, and our parents have been happily married for 50 years. Perhaps success produces its own burden — I don’t think either of us wanted to fail at something our parents had done so well.
So like many co-habiting couples today, we opted out of marriage altogether, instead blithely announcing that we’d do it ‘later’, as if we had all the time in the world.
Our first son arrived a month earlier than expected and our second 18 months after that. We were simultaneously ambushed by the exhilaration and joy of parenthood, and the exhaustion and financial hardship that came with it.
“Perhaps we had a responsibility to our family to get married. Perhaps it was time. And so I accepted, with all my heart”
Having the time and money to organise a wedding was the sort of luxury we could only dream of.
‘Why aren’t you married’ people would occasionally ask, and we’d shrug because it just didn’t seem relevant. ‘Don’t fix what isn’t broken,’ Stephen would reply, and give me kiss.
It had worked out much better than we could have hoped after our sudden and unpredictable beginning, and that was enough, wasn’t it We loved each other, we’d just bypassed the wedding, that gaudy manifestation of the romantic dream, and headed straight to the humdrum reality of carving out a life together.
There were, of course, moments that tested my belief in not being married; moments that punctured the carefree, casual state we had slipped into so happily.
When our second son was three weeks old, he was rushed to hospital with suspected meningitis. For hours I sat, half-delirious from lack of sleep, in the waiting-room, after he was wheeled away for tests.
Eventually, a nurse arrived and said chirpily: ‘We’ve just realised your son has a different surname to you, that’s why we couldn’t find you. He’s been crying for you for ages.’
Big day: Ali is looking forward to celebrating her relationship with her friends and family on her wedding day next March (posed by models)
I’ve also had suspicious looks from border guards as I hand over my children’s passports and they check to see whether I really am their mother. But these were exceptional events that didn’t affect our day-to-day existence.
All that changed when my father suddenly went blind and I turned 40, pregnant with our youngest child. When our daughter was born, my dad held her in his big hands and traced the outline of her face. The realisation that he couldn’t see our children grow up socked me in the stomach.
My dad is 80, and I know we do not have for ever. The fragility of life has hit me: I can no longer pretend that things can be put off.
When I was in my 20s, a friend’s father died. She said one of the saddest things about his passing was that she would never walk arm-in-arm up the aisle with him at her wedding. I am a daddy’s girl at heart, and what she said then resonates with me still.
I realise I am immensely lucky my dad is still here, 20 years later, but I realise our good fortune cannot last forever.
My parents may be old, but so am I. Young children warp life-stages, making us feel young and old in the same moment, but there is no disguising I am an adult.
“Marriage cannot prevent bad things happening, but maybe it makes it easier to bear. It”s more than a piece of paper, it”s an attitude”
My relationship with Stephen started unconventionally, but growing older has made me want to conform, and it has made me more fearful.
Suddenly, at 40, mortality seems more fragile, those I love more vulnerable — there is so much more to lose.
Marriage cannot prevent bad things happening, but maybe it makes it easier to bear. It’s more than a piece of paper, it’s an attitude. It’s time to opt in, not out. It’s time to stand proud and call Stephen my husband, not mumble awkwardly that he’s my boyfriend or partner.
Heaven forbid that the worst should actually happen and if he died, I would want to be acknowledged as a widow, as a woman who made a choice then lost that choice.
As we grow older, it’s important to find events to celebrate. Stephen and I need an anniversary we can recall, rather than the ‘I think we met at the end of October’ confusion.
As I held the engagement ring in my hand that Saturday morning, I looked at our three children, aged nine, seven and two, sitting in a line on the sofa, and was reminded of how many responsibilities we had.
Perhaps we had a responsibility to our family to get married. Perhaps it was time. And so I accepted, with all my heart.
We will marry in March next year, and while we may never live long enough to reach our golden wedding anniversary, we can proclaim our love for each other with our parents, friends and children present, giving thanks for what we have achieved — as well as what is to come.
Wink Murder by Ali Knight (Hodder & Stoughton, 6.99)