Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Role of Pre- and Postconception Relationships for First-Time Parents

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Role of Pre- and Postconception Relationships for First-Time Parents

Article excerpt

Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1997, a nationally representative cohort of young adults, the authors analyzed relationship type at the time of a first birth (N = 4,044). More than 10% of births were to a postconception cohabiting household (cohabitations that were initiated between conception and birth), a higher proportion of births than those born to postconception married households. Individuals in postconception and preconception cohabiting relationships (cohabitations that existed prior to conception) were demographically similar; both groups were associated with lower levels of socioeconomic advantage relative to those in preconception and postconception marriage. Postconception and preconception cohabiting relationships were associated with similar levels of dissolution, as 40% dissolved within 3 years of a child's birth. Having a marital union, rather than whether relationship was established pre- or postconception, was more strongly associated with who selected into the relationship and how long the relationship lasted.

Key Words: cohabitation, family structure, nonmarital births, relationship dissolution.

In years past, so-called "shotgun marriages," in which a couple married after a nonmarital conception but before the birth, were a common response to an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. In the early 1960s, roughly two thirds of couples who experienced a nonmarital pregnancy had a shotgun marriage; by the early 1990s, this rate had declined to one quarter (Bachu, 1999). With the emergence of cohabitation as a socially sanctioned context in which to raise children, many couples who once would have married instead have chosen to cohabit (Reed, 2006).

Because postconception cohabitations (cohabitations established after a conception) have only recently emerged, relatively little is known about them. Who selects into postconception cohabitations, and how those individuals compare with those who choose a shotgun marriage (what we term a postconception marriage), is not known. It is also unclear how durable postconception cohabitations are and how their length compares with preconception cohabitations (cohabitations established prior to conception).

To address these issues, we examined postconception cohabitations, postconception marriages, and other relationship types at the time of a first birth for a cohort of young adults. Data came from the 1997 through 2009 waves of the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 97 (NLSY97; see, a nationally representative sample of youths who were ages 12 through 18 when first observed in 1997. We analyzed the prevalence of six relationship types at the time of a first birth: (a) preconception marriages, (b) traditional postconception marriages (marriages established when two adults with separate residences marry between conception and birth), (c) cohabiting postconception marriages (marriages established when cohabiting couples marry between conception and birth), (d) preconception cohabitations; (e) postconception cohabitations, and (f) nonunion households. We analyzed selection into these relationships by predicting union formation as a function of sociodemographic characteristics. Finally, we considered the stability of these relationships by using life table and Cox regression to estimate dissolution rates.

Our article makes several contributions to the literature. First, we not only documented, on a nationally representative sample, the diversity of family forms that surrounded the birth of a first child, but we also provided estimates of the prevalence of postconception marriages and cohabitations among a recent cohort of young adults. Second, ours is the first study to associate different demographic characteristics with postconception relationships, providing insight into who forms these unions. Finally, by analyzing relationship length, we are the first to provide a comparison of the relative stability of postconception cohabitations with other relationship types. …

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