Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Life Course of Children Born to Unmarried Mothers: Childhood Living Arrangements and Young Adult Outcomes

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

The Life Course of Children Born to Unmarried Mothers: Childhood Living Arrangements and Young Adult Outcomes

Article excerpt

This study explores the complex sequences of living arrangements among children born to unmarried mothers and the impact of childhood living arrangements on the young adult life course. Retrospective life history data from the National Survey of Families and Households are used to construct each respondent's trajectory of household and family transitions from birth through age 15. The analysis documents the wide diversity of household types experienced by children born to unwed mothers. Only I in 5 spent their entire childhood in a single-parent family, and nearly half coresided with grandparents or relatives while growing up. Multivariate analyses show that living arrangement trajectories after birth to a single mother influenced the likelihood of high school completion and enrollment in postsecondary school, the timing of residential independence, and the timing of entry into the labor force.

Key Words: family structure, life course, nonmarital birth, young adult. In the 1990s, nearly one in three births in the U.S. have been to unmarried women (Bumpass & Raley, 1995). Birth to unmarried parents now rivals divorce as a pathway by which children enter single-parent and other alternative family structures. Despite the burgeoning empirical literatures on nonmarital births and single parenthood (Bumpass & McLanahan, 1989; Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn, & Chase-Lansdale, 1989; Hechtman, 1989; McLanahan & Sandefur, 1994; Nord, Moore, Morrison, Brown, & Myers, 1992), relatively little is known about the life course of children born in these circumstances. What are the typical transition patterns and living arrangements they encounter while growing up? Do these patterns influence how the children of unmarried parents fare as adults?

Prior research linking childhood transitions to the adult life course has focused mostly on singleparent and stepparent families but has not taken into account the route by which children enter these family types. (For exceptions, see Thomson, McLanahan, & Curtin, 1992; Thomson, Hanson, & McLanahan, 1994.) Children born to unmarried parents typically have not been differentiated from children of divorced parents. Furthermore, changes in living arrangements that occur after birth to unmarried parents have been ignored in most research. Thus, we know little about the role that grandparents and relatives play in the lives of children born outside of marriage, about non

parental care arrangements, adoption, or stepfamily transitions. This study provides a more detailed picture of the lives of children born outside of marriage. Using life history data from a representative national survey, the analysis documents the variety of childhood living arrangements experienced by a recent cohort of young adults born outside of marriage, categorizes the most typical transition sequences following a nonmarital birth, and explores linkages between childhood transition sequences and some of the key decisions affecting the young adult life course, including school completion, home-leaving, and entry into the labor force.


Consistent with a life course perspective, the basic premise of this research is that the life paths of parents and children are intertwined (Bengtson & Allen, 1993). Events and transitions occurring in one generation have consequences for the lives of older and younger generations (Elder, 1984; Hagestad, 1984). An unmarried parent's decisions concerning marriage, cohabitation, union dissolution, additional childbearing, and whether to retain or relinquish custody of children create involuntary transitions in the lives of those children. There is increasing evidence that change in childhood living arrangements is linked to the unfolding adult life course and to the life chances of children. Transitions to single-parent, stepparent, and nonparental living arrangements have been linked to lower academic performance and behavior problems (Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn, & Morgan, 1987; Thomson, et al. …

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