Unmarried couples with children: Hoping for love and the white picket Fence

Paula England, Kathryn Edin

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

16 Scopus citations


ONE IN three babies born in the United States today have unmarried parents (Carlson, McLanahan, and England 2004), up from about one in twenty (5 percent) in 1960 (Moore 1995; McLanahan 2004; Wu and Wolfe 2001). The lower couples are on most dimensions of socioeconomic advantage, the more likely they are to be unmarried when their children are born (Ellwood and Jencks 2004; Moore 1995). Thus, if we are to understand today's low-income couples and families, we need to study the relationships of couples who have children outside marriage. This volume reports on such a study, devised to provide rich qualitative detail about the relationships of poor and near-poor couples who share nonmarital births, focusing on their circumstances, behavior, and beliefs. The chapters address a variety of questions. What were the circumstances surrounding the pregnancy? What are couples' relationships like in terms of affection, companionship, and conflicts before, around, and in the several years after the birth? What do the parents think about cohabitation and marriage? What breaks up their relationships? How involved are fathers with economic provision and direct care of their children while they are living with the baby's mother and, in cases of breakup, after they break up? Few of these questions would be relevant if most unmarried fathers were long gone from the mothers' lives by the time of the birth. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth. A national survey of nonmarital births in twenty large urban areas, the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, found that 82 percent of unmarried parents were romantically involved with the other parent when their baby was born, 48 percent were living together at the time of the birth, and 76 percent of fathers visited the hospital to see the baby. Of mothers romantically involved with the father at the birth, 78 percent of the cohabitors and 49 percent of those not living together said they saw at least a good or almost certain chance that the two would marry sometime in the future (all of these are mothers' reports, from Carlson and McLanahan 2002). Fathers are even more likely than mothers to predict that they will marry their partner eventually (Shafer 2006). With the vast majority still romantically involved and about half cohabiting at their child's birth, most of these couples thus form a twoparent family of sorts despite being unmarried. Yet the precarious situation of these families, economically and relationally, led Ron Mincy (1994) to coin the term fragile families for what was clearly a growing population.1 Although hopes of marrying and raising the child together are typically high at the time of birth, that is not what usually unfolds. Among the approximately half of nonmarital births in which parents are cohabiting at the birth, Fragile Families data show that 46 percent have broken up and only 27 percent are married to each other five years after the baby is born. Among the approximately 30 percent of unmarried parents who are romantically involved but not cohabiting when the baby is born, 77 percent have broken up and only 7 percent are married to each other five years later. Our qualitative study of 48 unmarried couples who shared a nonmarital birth in 2000 is embedded in the Fragile Families study, which sampled births in hospitals in 20 cities, interviewing both parents where possible.3 We drew the couples for our study from among the couples in the larger survey in three of the 20 cities. We conducted a series of indepth qualitative interviews with these parents over a period of about four years after the birth. The papers in this volume reflect analysis of the rich qualitative interview data, supplemented by quantitative assessments from the Fragile Families data. In this chapter we first describe how the data were collected. We then highlight a few key findings of each chapter. Finally, we overview themes that emerge from the papers taken as a whole, noting commonalities between findings in this volume and those in earlier qualitative studies of low income families throughout the century.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationUnmarried Couples with Children
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781610441865
ISBN (Print)9780871542854
StatePublished - 2007
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


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