Academic journal article Family Relations

"We're Very Careful ...": The Fertility Desires and Contraceptive Behaviors of Cohabiting Couples

Academic journal article Family Relations

"We're Very Careful ...": The Fertility Desires and Contraceptive Behaviors of Cohabiting Couples

Article excerpt

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, the proportion of all U.S. births to unmarried women reached its highest level ever - over 40% (Ventura, 2009). Despite its growing prevalence, there is widespread con- cern about nonmarital childbearing. Children born outside of marriage are more likely to grow up in poverty, less likely to finish high school, and have greater risks of experiencing negative social, emotional, and health outcomes than do those whose parents were married at their birth (McLanahan, 2004; Waldfogel, Craigie, & Brooks-Gunn, 2010). Not all unmarried mothers, however, are unpartnered. One of the major findings of the Fragile Families Study was that the majority of women who experienced a nonmarital birth were romantically involved, and that substantial proportions of these new mothers were actually living with the fathers of their children (McLanahan, 2004).

In fact, demographers attribute much of the increase in nonmarital births to the growth in cohabitation, which raises couples' risks of con- ceiving. As of the early 1990s, 39% of nonmar- ital births were to cohabiting women. The most recent evidence (from the 2006 - 2010 National Survey of Family Growth [NSFG]) indicates that 56% of nonmarital births were to women who were cohabiting with a romantic partner (Lichter, Sassler, & Turner, 2014). Yet many of these births were either mistimed or unplanned. Cohabiting women younger than age 30 have higher contraceptive failure rates than do mar- ried and single women, regardless of the type of contraception used (Fu, Darroch, Haas, & Ranjit, 1999). Estimates from 2001 suggest that 70% of cohabiting women's pregnancies were unintended, and more than one half of them (54%) ended in abortion (Finer & Henshaw, 2006). Younger cohabiting women, cohabitors who have less than a college degree, and women in lower-quality relationships are particularly likely to terminate their pregnancies (Bouchard, 2005; Finer & Henshaw, 2006; Zabin, Huggins, Emerson, & Cullins, 2000).

Among women with moderate levels of edu- cational attainment-those who graduated from high school or obtained some postsecondary schooling-notable changes in family patterns include a growing likelihood of cohabiting, having a child outside of marriage (whether they have cohabited or not), and a decline in the pro- portions married relative to their counterparts who have at least a bachelor's degree (Ellwood & Jencks, 2004; McLanahan, 2004). To date, however, research has failed to determine what relational processes explain differences that are contributing to what McLanahan (2004) termed the "diverging destinies" of young adults in America. Here, we attempt to further illuminate divergent trends in cohabitation and childbear- ing by utilizing semistructured interviews with 30 working-class and 31 middle-class cohabiting couples. We examine individuals' and couples' fertility desires and contraceptive utilization, and the factors that encourage or discourage them from achieving their childbearing goals.

Linkages Between Cohabitation, Family-Building Desires, and Behaviors

A sizable body of literature has explored how fertility desires are associated with actual child- bearing outcomes. Notwithstanding the ready availability of contraceptives in the United States, rates of unintended pregnancy are quite high: nearly one half (49%) of pregnancies in 2006 were unintended (Finer & Zolna, 2011). Demographers and public health experts have long sought to understand the factors influencing fertility decisions (e.g., Barrett & Wellings, 2002; Finer & Henshaw, 2006; McQuillan, Greil, & Shreffler, 2011; Zabin et al., 2000). Qualitative researchers have also focused on unpacking the meaning attributed to becoming pregnant outside of a marital union, with a particular focus on low-income women or adolescents (e.g., Edin & Kefalas, 2005; Lewis, Martins, & Gilliam, 2012; Luker, 1996; Nathanson, 1991). …

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