Iceland Leads The World In Unwed Parents — With Pride, Not Shame

“Because they’re accepted, they’re much more at ease in their situations.”

It's not just Iceland's glaciers, geysers, and hot springs that are bringing international attention to the tiny country these days, though tourism is booming on the island. It's also Icelanders' mindset about marriage, a perspective that might be refreshing to anyone feeling societal pressure about tying the knot.


In Iceland, 67 percent of babies are born out of wedlock, the highest rate in the world. And as Bill Weir of CNN's The Wonder List found out, that's a source of pride for this country of 320,000 citizens.

In fact, it's common for Icelandic couples to welcome children years before they get married — or to never get married at all — particularly because, relative to other countries, Iceland is secular and its welfare programs are generous. Iceland offers nine months of parental leave to parents, for example, whether they're married or not. And if spouses do get divorced, that's not a point of shame, as Iceland resident Bryndis Asmundottir explained. (Asmundottir has three children with two partners.)

"You have this horrible term in English, 'broken families,' " she told Weir. "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."

Photographer Annie Ling spent two months interviewing and photographing independent mothers in Iceland, and she reported her findings to The Atlantic in 2016. "A lack of social stigma and a relaxed attitude towards marriage and sexual morality makes raising a family as a single parent in Iceland more feasible," she said.

"These women aren't getting judgment from the outside," Ling told The New Yorker a year prior. "So, because they're accepted, they're much more at ease in their situations."

Still, after a 2008 banking crisis and an influx of American culture, some Icelanders are questioning the country's ideas about welfare and welcoming American ideas about marriage, including engagement rings. (Not all Icelanders are so easily swayed, though. "We think diamonds are evil," Asmundottir contended.)

Iceland is also far from a social utopia. "Despite being recognized as an egalitarian society and the most feminist country in the world, there are still challenges," Ling told The Atlantic. One such challenge: Iceland has one of Europe's highest gender pay gaps.

Still, the current societal norms work just fine for many mothers in this subarctic country — including a 48-year-old artist and single mother of five Ling identified as Jónna. "I love to be alone," Jónna told the photographer.

For resources on raising children independently, visit the Single Parent Advocate website.

Cover image: Shutterstock


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