Newlywed couples pose for photographs during a mass wedding ceremony at the Thean Hou temple in Kuala Lumpur on November 11, 2011.

Editor’s Note: Carey Goldberg is the co-host of WBUR’s CommonHealth blog. With Beth Jones and Pamela Ferdinand, she is the co-author of “Three Wishes: A True Story of Good Friends, Crushing Heartbreak and Astonishing Luck on our Way to Love and Motherhood,” which comes out in paperback next month from Little, Brown.

Story highlights

Carey Goldberg says study shows marriage statistics down but rate of unmarried moms up

She says she'd bought sperm to have baby, then met man who agreed to reproduce with her

She says they had ups, downs, split, got back together, had another baby and got married

Goldberg tells her daughter: It's fine to stay single, but marriage is one of the best things in life

CNN  — 

A couple of years ago, my daughter and I were playing the classic board game “Life,” and her little car reached the roadblock at which everybody – absolutely everybody – gets married.

Needless to say, given a new set of striking statistics last week that showed a record low of 51% of American adults are married, “Life” was designed many decades ago. The study by the Pew Research Center further found that 40% of births these days are to unmarried mothers, and a similar percentage of Americans say marriage is becoming obsolete.

My daughter Liliana, who was 8 when we were playing the board game, tossed off this remark as she stuck the tiny blue husband pin into her car: “When I grow up, I don’t think I’ll get married. I think I’ll just get some sperm.”

Carey Goldberg

How we reap what we sow! Liliana was old enough to know the story of her own origins, and it goes like this: When I turned 39, still single, I resolved to become a mother on my own and bought eight vials of donor sperm. But then I met her father, Sprax, and he agreed to help me have a baby the old-fashioned way. We went through many ups and downs, even splitting up for a couple of years, but finally realized that we loved each other, got back together and went on to have her baby brother. When Liliana was almost 4, we got married.

So there I was – the former single mother by choice, the typical Massachusetts type who deeply believes that there are a hundred great ways to make a family and that life can also be wonderful without one – and I found myself responding to my daughter: “That would be fine if you just get some sperm, sweetheart, but you know, being married is actually really nice, too.”

What happened to me? What happened to the independent woman who, by the time she married for the first time at age 44, felt no particular need for a piece of paper from City Hall?

It is this. Day in and out, through lunch-packing and play date-making and bath-running, I am struck by a surprising truth: Though the raising of our children constitutes the central activity of our family, it is the love between Sprax and me that constitutes its ineffable core.

That sounds like a traditional religious point of view, but we are not religious. I’ve come to this understanding simply as an observer of my own heart and the family dance. It is, apparently, just an emotional fact of life – at least, of our life.

What baffles me is that I was perfectly able to have Liliana without being in a committed, loving relationship with Sprax, and our semi-family life was really quite happy in that formation. We all got along; Sprax would visit two or three times a week; Liliana got plenty of love and structure.

But since he and I reunited, our bond has become the family’s invisible center, the axis of its spokes. I did not need a husband. But I need him.

LZ Granderson: Love and marriage are not the same thing

So fine, but what difference do the formal “bonds of matrimony” make? Usually you hear people talk about commitment, but I can’t imagine any greater commitment than sharing children who are still going to need raising for quite a few years.

No, what marriage means to me is acceptance, an “absolute yes” that makes it bearable to be seen at your worst – exhausted or flu-ridden or carried away by an ugly bout of selfishness. That “yes” launches the creation of an entity, a union, that exists apart from the daily ebb and flow of difficulties and joys. It is nothing but an abstraction, but, to my amazement, it is the most beautiful thing in our lives.

So this is my marital equivalent of “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus”:

“Yes, Liliana, you can definitely stay single and you’ll have loads of company. You by no means have to get married. You can definitely have a fabulous life without marriage, and it would certainly be a huge mistake to rush into anything.

“But I cannot lie: I wish you all that is best in life, and marriage, when it’s good, can be one of those things. And if you do get married, at your wedding I’ll cry tears of joy – because I’ll know that you’re about to enter the gates of one of the most magical places in the world.”

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Carey Goldberg.