Marry Your Baby Daddy Day: Activist marries unwed parents
Maryann Reid holds mass weddings for black couples who have children.
Mary Knox Merrill - staff
Maryann Reid's "dream board" is propped on a plastic lawn chair in her living room in Brooklyn. Magazine clippings cover the entire poster board: a drawing of a pile of books, a photo of a Range Rover, the phrase "Gucci shoes click-clacking."
"These are all the things I want in my life," says Ms. Reid, who writes romance novels of the single-girl-in-the-city variety for black women. "I believe you attract what you focus on."
Reid, 31 and single, dreams of wedding bells. But not just for herself. She wishes they jangled more for her peers in the African-American community, where the marriage rate is 36 percent and 70 percent of children are born out of wedlock.
Statistics like these are what convinced Reid to take matters into her own hands: She has christened Sept. 27 "Marry Your Baby Daddy Day." An act of grass-roots social engineering, her effort to wed unmarried black couples who have children echoes efforts – by government, churches, and social welfare groups – to strengthen the institution of marriage.
The first Marry Your Baby Daddy Day, in 2005, was marked by an all-expenses-paid wedding at the House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn for 10 black couples with children. Ten more walked down the aisle at Manhattan's Riverside Church last September .
For each ceremony, Reid convinced dozens of local businesses to donate goods and services – such as designer dresses, bouquets, wedding cakes – $90,000 worth for the first mass wedding, and $125,000 for the second.
Reid hasn't earned a dime from the enterprise, but she claims she seeks something more intangible. "I want to go back to what African-Americans were known as," she says, citing the decline of marriage among blacks, a trend that scholars attribute to factors ranging from the legacy of slavery to rising incarceration rates among black men. "They have historically been a married people. But now we don't have any family structure in our community at all."
Reid herself grew up in a fractured family. Her parents broke up before she was born, and her mother, alone and pregnant, emigrated from Jamaica to Brooklyn. She raised Reid and her younger sister – by a different father – by herself, working from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. as a hotel reservation manager, and from 4 p.m. to midnight as a telephone operator.
"I saw how hard she worked to make two incomes," says Reid. "I think it's partly because of that that I'm so interested in marriage."
As a journalism student at Fordham University Reid briefly converted to Islam, wearing the hijab and jelaba of the orthodox Muslim woman. The appeal was more cultural than religious, she says now: "I just fell in love with the family life of being a Muslim. The men are very much held accountable for being fathers. I liked the value placed on the family bond."
When Reid went to work – as a news desk assistant at CNN and in public relations for publisher Penguin Putnam – she put aside the outer trappings of her religion, and eventually left the faith itself. In 2001, she published her first book, a collection of novellas called "Sex and the Single Sister," followed by "Use Me or Lose Me."
In 2003, while pondering the topic of her next book, she says, the phrase "Marry Your Baby Daddy Day" popped fully formed into her head. "I can't tell you how," she says. "It just dropped in." Her next book – about three sisters who must marry the fathers of their children in order to inherit $3 million – was called "Marry Your Baby Daddy."
Along with fictionalizing it, she decided to put her plan into action. So she sat down and dashed off an e-mail to the New York Daily News, announcing a contest for unmarried black couples. Two days later an article ran, and she was inundated with hundreds of responses: grandmothers trying to hitch up a grown grandchild on the sly, women looking for advice on getting their men to tie the knot, children e-mailing in the hope of marrying off parents.
Reid and a volunteer wedding planner chose 10 couples from the New York area, following an interview process that included home visits in which they looked for evidence of a strong family life: orderly homes with personal space for the children, family photos on the wall, warm interactions between family members.
Reid has an unusual set of criteria for choosing her couples: They must have a proven track record of stability (some relationships go back 15 years) and they must already have children and live together. In short, they must have all the attributes of a good marriage, sans vows.
Oh, and they've got to look good, too: Photogeneity, she says, is important because they're poster children for marriage. "They are role models and I choose them to inspire people," she says. "My wedding includes all classes of people, from the guys making sandwiches ... to the teachers who just bought their first home," she says. "I don't want it to somehow seem 'ghetto.' "
"It sounds good to me," David Popenoe, codirector of the National Marriage Project at Rutgers University, says of Reid's project. "The interesting thing about all the studies we have is that people who are married tend to be healthier, more productive and happier."
But Reid's project hasn't escaped criticism.
"We know that when people live together before marrying they're twice as likely to get divorced when they do marry," she says, citing numerous studies. "I think we should be careful about tacitly encouraging cohabitation."
And while the Rev. J. Lee Hill Jr., the Baptist minister who performed the 2007 Marry Your Baby Daddy Day wedding at Riverside Church in Manhattan, says he doesn't condone cohabitation before marriage either, he is supportive of Reid's project. "My hope and dream is that [these couples] will continue to stay in their relationship, and that this will be an encouragement for them to live their lives more in sync with biblical injunctions," he says.
For her part, Reid is pragmatic. "If you have children," she says, "you should be living together to raise the child. That's the first sign to me that a couple has made a commitment." So far, all 20 of Reid's couples remain married.
It's different down to the smallest things," says professional rapper Shawn Lindsey of his 2007 marriage to Patrice Roper, the mother of his 12- and 1-year-old daughters. "Like filling out applications or writing out a card, Mr. and Mrs," he says, smiling. "It's pretty cool."
The new Mrs. Lindsey says that she didn't expect much to change in their relationship after 13 years together, but that life just feels different now: "I feel complete."
The couple had tossed around the idea of getting married, even making two trips over the years to City Hall, where they were discouraged by long lines.
"You know, you get stuck in your ways," says Mr. Lindsey, shrugging. "It's like being complacent."
"Now he's stopping everybody in the street saying 'Did you know we got married?'" laughs Mrs. Lindsey.
Reid says there will be more weddings to come. One of them, she hopes, will be her own. In an effort to summon a husband, Reid has already bought him a maroon La-Z-Boy.
"For now," she says, "I'm sitting in it."