Academic journal article Demographic Research

'Just Living Together': Implications of Cohabitation for Fathers' Participation in Child Care in Western Europe

Academic journal article Demographic Research

'Just Living Together': Implications of Cohabitation for Fathers' Participation in Child Care in Western Europe

Article excerpt


This article tests the assumption that cohabitation makes a difference in the allocation of childcare responsibilities within couples. It has often been assumed that cohabiting individuals are less likely to adhere to traditional gender ideologies than married people, because they tend to have a lower tolerance for poorly functioning relationships, to assign more value to individual freedom, and to base their relationships on egalitarian individualism, rather than on the joint utility maximisation of married couples. So far, however, most studies have focused on the determinants and consequences of being in cohabitation, and have overlooked the gender implications of this living arrangement.

Here we explore whether fathers in consensual unions are more prone than fathers in marital unions to share childcare responsibilities with their female partners. We use multilevel regression models for panel data to analyse ECHP in the period between 1996 and 2001. Our sample included around 13,000 couples living in heterosexual partnerships with small children (at least one child below age 13), and yielded around 45,000 observations over this period of time in 10 Western European nations. We found weak evidence of the influence of cohabitation, relative to marriage, on gender equality, but we also discovered that the diffusion of cohabitation at the societal level is associated with a more equal allocation of child care between partners.

1. Introduction

This paper was inspired by the argument that cohabiters and married people differ substantially in their gender relationships, notwithstanding the fact than increasing proportions of the married population have experiences of previous cohabitation, often with the person they will later marry. The argument is based on the assumption that cohabiters tend to assign more value to egalitarian individualism, personal autonomy, and equity (Lesthaeghe and Surkin 1988, Thomson and Colella 1992, Brines and Joyner 1999, Björnberg 2001); attitudes which may influence the partner's contribution to the household. This assumption is also used to explain the short-lived nature of cohabitation, and the lower rate of marital success among couples who previously cohabited (Teachman and Polonko 1990, Murphy 2000, Smock and Manning 2004). The differences between cohabitation and marriage in Western societies were studied extensively by demographers and social scientists during the 1980s and 1990s, when cohabitation was an emerging living arrangement, and was generally understood to be a prelude to marriage. Today, however, the boundaries between the two types of partnerships are less obvious, as cohabitation progressively becomes a more permanent mode of living across social groups. Marriage is no longer a prerequisite for childbearing, and societies are moving towards more egalitarian gender relationships. As has been proclaimed by several social scientists, "cohabitation is here to stay" (Toulemon 1996, Ermisch and Francesconi 2000, Kiernan 2004a), although the degree of diffusion of this arrangement, and the meaning and implications of cohabitation for the gender division of labour, still vary substantially across European societies.

The aim of this paper is to test the assumption that cohabiting individuals are less prone than married people to adhere to traditional gender ideologies, in which women assume the main responsibility for child care. In particular, we investigate whether couples in consensual unions share child care duties more equally than couples in marital unions. In order to explore parental time investment in children, we use a relative measure (0%-100%), which captures the time fathers spend on child care (i.e., in couples with at least one child under age 13) in relation to the total time spent on child care by the couple during a regular week. The resulting indicator (the father's share of time spent on child care) is then explored through multilevel regression models using data from the European Community Household Panel (ECHP). …

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