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Unmarried Couples with Children

Unmarried Couples with Children

Paula England
Kathryn Edin
Copyright Date: 2007
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation
Pages: 312
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    Unmarried Couples with Children
    Book Description:

    Today, a third of American children are born outside of marriage, up from one child in twenty in the 1950s, and rates are even higher among low-income Americans. Many herald this trend as one of the most troubling of our time. But the decline in marriage does not necessarily signal the demise of the two parent family—over 80 percent of unmarried couples are still romantically involved when their child is born and nearly half are living together. Most claim they plan to marry eventually. Yet half have broken up by their child's third birthday. What keeps some couples together and what tears others apart? After a breakup, how do fathers so often disappear from their children's lives? An intimate portrait of the challenges of partnering and parenting in these families, Unmarried Couples with Children presents a variety of unique findings. Most of the pregnancies were not explicitly planned, but some couples feel having a child is the natural course of a serious relationship. Many of the parents are living with their child plus the mother’s child from a previous relationship. When the father also has children from a previous relationship, his visits to see them at their mother’s house often cause his current partner to be jealous. Breakups are more often driven by sexual infidelity or conflict than economic problems. After couples break up, many fathers complain they are shut out, especially when the mother has a new partner. For their part, mothers claim to limit dads’ access to their children because of their involvement with crime, drugs, or other dangers. For couples living together with their child several years after the birth, marriage remains an aspiration, but something couples are resolutely unwilling to enter without the financial stability they see as a sine qua non of marriage. They also hold marriage to a high relational standard, and not enough emotional attention from their partners is women’s number one complaint. Unmarried Couples with Children is a landmark study of the family lives of nearly fifty American children born outside of a marital union at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Based on personal narratives gathered from both mothers and fathers over the first four years of their children’s lives, and told partly in the couples' own words, the story begins before the child is conceived, takes the reader through the tumultuous months of pregnancy to the moment of birth, and on through the child's fourth birthday. It captures in rich detail the complex relationship dynamics and powerful social forces that derail the plans of so many unmarried parents. The volume injects some much-needed reality into the national discussion about family values, and reveals that the issues are more complex than our political discourse suggests.

    eISBN: 978-1-61044-186-5
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. About the Authors
    (pp. vii-viii)

    • Chapter 1 Unmarried Couples with Children: Hoping for Love and the White Picket Fence
      (pp. 3-22)
      Paula England and Kathryn Edin

      One in three babies born in the United States today have unmarried parents (Carlson, McLanahan, and England 2004), up from about one in twenty (5 percent) in 1960 (Moore 1995; McLanahan 2004; Wu and Wolfe 2001). The lower couples are on most dimensions of socioeconomic advantage, the more likely they are to be unmarried when their children are born (Ellwood and Jencks 2004; Moore 1995). Thus, if we are to understand today′s low-income couples and families, we need to study the relationships of couples who have children outside marriage. This volume reports on such a study, devised to provide rich...


    • Chapter 2 Forming Fragile Families: Was the Baby Planned, Unplanned, or In Between?
      (pp. 25-54)
      Kathryn Edin, Paula England, Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer and Joanna Reed

      The birth control pill prevents pregnancy 95 to 99 percent of the time, Depo-Provera and the patch are 99 percent effective, the IUD works 98 percent of the time, and condoms are 86 to 98 percent successful if used correctly (Federal Drug Administration 2005). Yet more than one-third of all recent pregnancies in the United States are unintended (Chandra et al. 2005; Henshaw 1998).

      Nonmarital conceptions are most likely to occur among those least able to bear the economic cost of children (Chandra et al. 2005). Why is this? Are some explicitly planned, or at least ambivalently desired in a...

    • Chapter 3 Everyday Gender Conflicts in Low-Income Couples
      (pp. 55-83)
      Paula England and Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer

      What are the everyday bones of contention in couples′ relationships? Research on middle-class couples emphasizes women′s longing for more emotional intimacy and the inequity of the fact that employed women still do most of the housework, though it isn′t clear whether these are the issues that couples would say are most important. We know less about the issues of contention in lower-income couples, especially given that many studies of working-class couples have been limited to white, married couples and are decades old. In this paper, we explore the issues that low-income cohabiting or married couples with children identify as their...

    • Chapter 4 Expectations and the Economic Bar to Marriage Among Low-Income Couples
      (pp. 84-103)
      Christina M. Gibson-Davis

      Empirical research indicates an interesting contradiction regarding marital beliefs and behavior among low-income individuals. Marriage rates among the disadvantaged are lower than those for the general population (Goldstein and Kenney 2001), yet their attitudes, as indicated by survey data, reflect a deep belief in and reverence for marriage (Lichter, Batson, and Brown 2004; Sayer, Wright, and Edin 2004). A series of recent qualitative studies suggest a resolution to this apparent incongruity between values and actions: marriage has been imbued with such a high degree of symbolic significance that it may actually deter people from marrying (Edin 2000; Edin and Kefalas...

    • Chapter 5 Steppin′ Out: Infidelity and Sexual Jealousy Among Unmarried Parents
      (pp. 104-132)
      Heather D. Hill

      Committed relationships—whether married, cohabiting, or dating—are defined largely by the expectation of sexual monogamy and are seriously threatened by violations of that expectation (Christopher and Sprecher 2000; Treas and Giesen 2000). Extramarital sex has been consistently and strongly linked to divorce (Amato and Previti 2003; Amato and Rogers 1997; South and Lloyd 1995) and conflict about sexual jealousy and infidelity is associated with intimate-partner violence (Daly and Wilson 1988; Paik, Laumann, and Haitsma 2004; Puente and Cohen 2003). Despite sharing the normative expectation of monogamy, unmarried couples express less commitment to their relationships than married couples do and...

    • Chapter 6 Anatomy of the Breakup: How and Why Do Unmarried Couples with Children Break Up?
      (pp. 133-156)
      Joanna Reed

      Despite high rates of unwed childbearing in the United States, most children born to unmarried parents are involved with both parents at birth. Eighty percent of unmarried parents are romantically involved when their child is born, and just under 50 percent are cohabiting (McLanahan et al. 2003). However, unwed parents often break up. In the United States, unmarried couples with and without children end their relationships more frequently than married couples do, and their relationships are of shorter duration (Graefe and Lichter 1999; Manning 2001; Wu 1995). This makes their children more likely to grow up without both parents, which...


    • Chapter 7 #1 Father or Fathering 101?: Couple Relationship Quality And Father Involvement When Fathers Live With Their Children
      (pp. 159-182)
      Kathryn D. Linnenberg

      Fatherhood has become a hot button issue in the media, politics, and the general public recently. The focus has been on absent fathers, the assumption being that unmarried fathers fall into this category by default. Although there are plenty of examples of absent fathers when studying children from birth to age eighteen, research has now shown that unmarried men are typically present at the beginning of their children′s lives. According to the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing data, 83 percent of unmarried couples are romantically involved at the time of their child′s birth—half are cohabiting (McLanahan et al. 2001)....

    • Chapter 8 Blended but Not the Bradys: Navigating Unmarried Multiple Partner Fertility
      (pp. 183-203)
      Lindsay M. Monte

      In the fall of 1969, ABC television launched a new show with a somewhat daring premise for the times: a mother with three daughters who married a widower with three boys. For the next five seasons, the small stories of this large blended family would be a staple of ABC′s primetime lineup. That show, of course, was the Brady Bunch, which not only enjoyed the success of its original run, but has also been a hit in syndicated reruns ever since the end of the final season.

      The premise was the not new, but still novel, practice of blended families....

    • Chapter 9 Gatekeeper Moms and (Un)Involved Dads: What Happens After a Breakup?
      (pp. 204-227)
      Amy Claessens

      When asked shortly after their child′s birth, the vast majority of unmarried fathers say that they want to be involved the child′s life. A large proportion of mothers also want them to be. Yet, few fathers who are no longer romantically involved with the mother are visiting their child one year later.¹ Over time, visitation further wanes, and only 58 percent of all twelve- to eighteen-year-olds who were born to unmarried parents have had any contact with their nonresident father in the past year (Koball and Principe 2002). Why, then, despite good intentions, do fathers disappear from the lives of...

    • Chapter 10 Child Support Among Low-Income Noncustodial Fathers
      (pp. 228-252)
      Katherine A. Magnuson and Christina M. Gibson-Davis

      High poverty rates among single mother families and the consequent hardships their children face have focused attention on the role of absent fathers and child support as antipoverty strategy. Nationally, nearly 75 percent of custodial parents receive some kind of financial support from noncustodial parents (Grall 2003), but the percentage of low-income parents, usually fathers, providing for their families is much lower (Sorensen and Zibman 2001). Analysis of welfare populations indicate that only between 20 percent and 30 percent of poor fathers provide cash support to their children, though a slightly higher percentage provide in-kind resources (Miller et al. 2004;...


    • Chapter 11 Mixing Methods: Reliability And Validity Across Quantitative And Qualitative Measures Of Relationship Quality
      (pp. 255-276)
      Mimi Engel

      Scholars in the social sciences have debated the merits of mixed methods research for several decades. Yet, relatively little is known about whether multiple methods provide complementary data or an opportunity for additional insight. In this chapter, I explore two primary questions. First, what value is added to conclusions that can be drawn from mixed methods research as opposed to traditional, strictly qualitative or quantitative designs? And, second, to what extent do qualitative interviews and quantitative survey items that tap similar constructs yield similar results?

      I use the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study and Time, Love, and Cash among...

    • Chapter 12 Data from the TLC3
      (pp. 277-292)
      Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer

      The time, Love and Care in Couples with Children data are unique for several reasons.¹ First, they are embedded in a large national quantitative data set, The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Survey (FFCWS), which gives researchers a plethora of information for each TLC3 respondent. Second, participants were chosen based on a stratified, random sampling scheme; probability sampling is unusual in qualitative studies. Finally, the data are extremely rich—both mothers and fathers participated in unstructured interviews both individually and as a couple in each of the four waves.

      The TLC3 data are linked to a large quantitative data set,...

  8. Index
    (pp. 293-304)