Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Marriage or Carriage? Trends in Union Context and Birth Type by Education

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Marriage or Carriage? Trends in Union Context and Birth Type by Education

Article excerpt

The American family landscape in the early 21st century is marked by a multiplicity of options for those contemplating childbearing. Because of normative, legal, and cultural shifts, first-time parents can and do choose familial arrangements other than marriage in which to conceive and bear children. This increased discretion over relationship status when women transition to motherhood has led to a multiplicity of union contexts that is more nuanced than a simple categorization of first-time mothers as either married (e.g., mothers married at the time of the birth) or cohabiting (e.g., mothers cohabiting at the time of the birth). Specifically, mothers' union contexts at birth can be categorized relative to their union contexts at the time of conception. Some mothers who are married at the time of the birth will have married prior to conception; other mothers who are married at the time of the birth will have married only after conception. Likewise, among mothers cohabiting at the time of the birth, a proportion will have conceived the pregnancy while cohabiting, whereas others will begin to cohabit after a conception has occurred.

To analyze how this multiplicity of options for new mothers has been realized, in this article we present an over-time categorization of union contexts at first birth that explicitly incorporates when the mother began her union relative to a conception (mothers with nonunion births were also considered). Data came from women who had their first child between 1985 and 2010 in the National Survey of Family Growth (NSFG), a nationally representative sample of women (see NSFG, 2010). Our study extends prior research in this area (England, Shafer, & Wu, 2012; Lichter, 2012; Raley, 2001) by providing a detailed typology of union contexts and by demonstrating that subtrends in marriage and cohabitation during the transition to motherhood have varied over time by social class (as measured here by maternal education). We also present the first estimates of which union context accounted for the largest decrease in the proportion of married new mothers as well as the union context that accounted for the largest increase in the proportion of cohabiting new mothers. Our typology likely has implications for resources available to families and children, given that the shifts we observe disproportionately affected lower class groups, with potential consequences for both current and future levels of inequality.

BACKGROUND

This study takes as its point of departure the well-known trends in parental union status, in particular the rise of cohabitation and singleness as alternative contexts for raising children (Bumpass & Lu, 2000; Cherlin, 2010; Ellwood & Jencks, 2004). In contemporary America, social pressure to marry prior to a birth has largely dissipated (Akerlof, Yellen, & Katz, 1996; Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008). Raley (2001) estimated that, between the early 1970s and the early 1990s, the likelihood that a single pregnant woman married by the time of the birth (e.g., had what is colloquially referred to as a "shotgun marriage") fell by 10 percentage points. Raley did not consider class differences, but other scholars have highlighted how parental union status varied greatly by social class (Isen & Stevenson, 2011; Wilcox, 2011). England et al. (2012), working with data on women born between the early 1920s and the late 1950s, found that the decline in shotgun marriages was concentrated among less educated Black women.

Contemporary evaluations of union status at birth underscore how the retreat from marriage among parents has been replaced by an increase in cohabitation (Martinez, Daniels, & Chandra, 2012). Data from the NSFG, 2006-2008 cycles, indicated that, among women unpartnered at conception, a larger proportion had cohabited by birth (20.8%) than married (7.4%; Lichter, 2012). In contrast, women with higher levels of education who were unpartnered at conception were more likely to change their union status by marrying rather than cohabiting, underscoring the educational differences in parental cohabitation and marital patterns found elsewhere (Wilcox, 2011). …

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