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Iceland has the highest rate of unwed mothers
More than two-thirds of Icelandic babies are born to parents who are not married
"You can choose your life," one unmarried mother says
“What would a society look like without marriage?”
The question popped into my brain after I stumbled across a list of countries with the most unwed mothers. With 40% of its babies born out of wedlock, America sits near the middle of the global pack in this category. Conservative Turkey brings up the rear with a scant 3%.
And the nation at the top of the list? The world leader in single moms?
More than two-thirds of Icelandic babies – 67% – are born to parents who are not married. This might be a shameful distinction in many spots around the world. In the land of the Vikings, it is a point of pride.
The island may have been settled by marauding brutes, but it is now the most feminist society on the planet, and with that one tantalizing fact, an episode of “The Wonder List” was born.
With about 320,000 citizens, Iceland has fewer people than Tulsa, Oklahoma, and more glaciers, geysers and clean, fresh water than countries 10 times its size.
The Viking sagas and otherworldly landscapes have inspired movies and shows like “Lord of the Rings” and “Game of Thrones,” and after generations of impoverished isolation, Iceland is experiencing a tourist boom unlike anything the country has ever seen.
But few American visitors would suspect that these handsome people with their tongue-twisting language have blown up everything they know about love and marriage.
‘You can choose your life’
Iceland: Land of contrasts
“You have this horrible term in English, ‘broken families,’ ” Bryndis Asmundottir says over coffee. “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.”
Bryndis has three kids with two partners and not a drop of shame or regret.
She explains that since few Icelanders are religious, there is no moral stigma attached to unwed pregnancy. And her country guarantees some of the most generous parental leave in the world: nine months at 80% pay (three months for mom, three for dad and another three to be divvied up).
As a result, women are emboldened to start families whether or not their men took Beyoncé’s advice to “put a ring on it.”
“We think diamonds are evil,” Bryndis says with a laugh, explaining that it is the norm for a couple to spend years together as parents before even considering marriage.
But American culture has a huge influence in Iceland, so the concept of bridal showers and engagement rings becomes a little less bizarre with every rom-com they enjoy on Netflix. And after the 2008 banking crisis nearly sank the Icelandic economy, many are still deeply in debt, and the temptation to scale back the mom-friendly welfare state is stronger than ever.
With melting glaciers and crowding tourists, this volcanic land seems on the brink of seismic change. But when it comes to swapping marriage vows and licenses, as far as Icelanders are concerned, love really is all you need.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in 2016.