Cohabitation, Marriage, and Entry into Motherhood

Article excerpt

Prior research has neither explicitly compared the entry into motherhood of cohabiting with that of married women nor examined the impact of cohabitation on marital fertility in the United States. Subsamples of 2,056 women in first unions and 1,763 married women from the National Survey of Families and Households are used to address those questions. Entry into motherhood occurs more often and sooner in marriage than in cohabitation. Yet the transition from cohabitation to marriage does not appear to be influenced by desires to begin bearing children. Once nonpregnant cohabitors marry, the timing of the marital first birth is similar to that of women who never cohabited. Cohabitation accelerates the timing of marital first births only among White women who were pregnant when they married. Instead, the impact of cohabitation on marital first birth timing operates partly via duration of time spent coresiding (in marriage and cohabitation).

Despite the increasing prevalence and social acceptance of cohabitation among young Americans (Bachman, Johnston, & O'Malley, 1987; Bumpass & Sweet, 1989b; London, 1991; Thornton, 1988), the connection among nonmarital union formation, legal marriage, and childbearing remains poorly understood. The link between marriage and childbearing has weakened as increasing proportions of women are bearing children while unmarried (Cherlin, 1992). Cohabitation may contribute to this eroding link between marriage and motherhood, as increasing proportions of women bear children within cohabiting relationships (Bumpass & Sweet, 1989a) and more generally as increasing proportions of women cohabit before marriage (Bumpass & Sweet, 1989b; London, 1991). Neither nationally representative data nor multivariate methods have been used to directly address the role of cohabitation in family building in the United States.

Drawing on the National Survey of Families and Households, this article addresses two questions. First, is cohabitation associated with a reduction of the necessity of marriage for family formation? The likelihood and timing of entry into motherhood is compared for married and unmarried couples. Second, what is the impact of cohabitation on marital fertility? It is determined whether and how cohabitation influences the timing of entry into motherhood in marriage.

BACKGROUND AND CURRENT INVESTIGATION

Entry into Motherhood in Cohabitation and Marriage

Prior research on the fertility of married and cohabiting American women indicates that childbearing is more common in legal marriages than in cohabiting unions for both Black and White women (Loomis & Landale, 1994). These findings are consistent with research in other countries (Australia, Canada, France, Great Britain, and Sweden); first-birth rates and subsequent fertility are greater within marital than nonmarital unions (Balakrishnan, 1989; Bracher & Santow, 1990; Carlson, 1986; Eltzer, 1987; Graaf, 1990; Haskey & Kiernan, 1989; Leridon & Villeneuve-Gokalp, 1989).

Since having a first child is important in defining families (Davis, 1986), this study focuses on the entry into motherhood (first births). Differences between cohabiting and married women's decisions about when and within what type of union to become a mother are most likely greater than overall fertility differentials. No previous research based in the United States compares married and cohabiting women's entry into motherhood.

A common route to marriage is via cohabitation, with two-fifths of recently married individuals having lived in informal unions before marrying (Bumpass & Sweet, 1989b). Research results from Europe suggest that the decision to transform cohabitation into marriage is linked to the decision to have children (Eltzer, 1987; Leridon & Villeneuve-Gokalp, 1990; Manting, 1991). However, once marriage occurs, the impact of past cohabitation on entry into motherhood appears to be minimal (Hoem & Selmer, 1984; Leridon, 1990). …