Today, a third of American children are born outside of marriage, up from one child in twenty in the 1950s, and rates are even higher among low-income Americans. Many herald this trend as one of the most troubling of our time. But the decline in marriage does not necessarily signal the demise of the two parent family—over 80 percent of unmarried couples are still romantically involved when their child is born and nearly half are living together. Most claim they plan to marry eventually. Yet half have broken up by their child's third birthday. What keeps some couples together and what tears others apart? After a breakup, how do fathers so often disappear from their children's lives?
An intimate portrait of the challenges of partnering and parenting in these families, Unmarried Couples with Children presents a variety of unique findings. Most of the pregnancies were not explicitly planned, but some couples feel having a child is the natural course of a serious relationship. Many of the parents are living with their child plus the mother’s child from a previous relationship. When the father also has children from a previous relationship, his visits to see them at their mother’s house often cause his current partner to be jealous. Breakups are more often driven by sexual infidelity or conflict than economic problems. After couples break up, many fathers complain they are shut out, especially when the mother has a new partner. For their part, mothers claim to limit dads’ access to their children because of their involvement with crime, drugs, or other dangers. For couples living together with their child several years after the birth, marriage remains an aspiration, but something couples are resolutely unwilling to enter without the financial stability they see as a sine qua non of marriage. They also hold marriage to a high relational standard, and not enough emotional attention from their partners is women’s number one complaint.
Unmarried Couples with Children is a landmark study of the family lives of nearly fifty American children born outside of a marital union at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Based on personal narratives gathered from both mothers and fathers over the first four years of their children’s lives, and told partly in the couples' own words, the story begins before the child is conceived, takes the reader through the tumultuous months of pregnancy to the moment of birth, and on through the child's fourth birthday. It captures in rich detail the complex relationship dynamics and powerful social forces that derail the plans of so many unmarried parents. The volume injects some much-needed reality into the national discussion about family values, and reveals that the issues are more complex than our political discourse suggests.
PAULA ENGLAND is professor of sociology at Stanford University.
KATHRYN EDIN is professor of public policy and management at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
CONTRIBUTORS: Amy Claessens, Mimi Engel, Christina M. Gibson-Davis, Heather D. Hill, Kathryn D. Linnenberg, Katherine A. Magnuson, Lindsay M. Monte, Joanna Reed, Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer.