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Unmarried Couples with Children

Paula England, Kathryn Edin

Publication Year: 2007

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.

Published by: Russell Sage Foundation

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. v-vi

About the Authors

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pp. vii

Part 1: Introduction

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pp. 9-21

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1. Unmarried Couples with Children: Hoping for Love and the White Picket Fence

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pp. 3-21

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...

Part 2. Couple Relationships Among Unmarried Parents

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pp. 23-155

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2. Forming Fragile Families: Was the Baby Planned, Unplanned, or In Between?

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pp. 25-54

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...

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3. Everyday Gender Conflicts in Low-Income Couples

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pp. 55-83

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...

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4. Expectations and the Economic Bar to Marriage Among Low-Income Couples

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pp. 84-103

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...

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5. Steppin' Out: Infidelity and Sexual Jealousy Among Unmarried Parents

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pp. 104-132

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...

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6. Anatomy of the Breakup: How and Why Do Unmarried Couples with Children Break Up?

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pp. 133-155

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...

Part 3: Parenting Together and Apart

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pp. 157-251

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7. #1 Father of Fathering 101?: Couple Relationship Quality and Father Involvement When Fathers Live with Their Children

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pp. 159-182

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...

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8. Blended but Not the Bradys: Navigating Unmarried Multiple Partner Fertility

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pp. 183-203

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...

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9. Gatekeeper Moms and (Un)Involved Dads: What Happens After a Breakup?

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pp. 204-227

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...

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10. Child Support Among Low-Income Noncustodial Fathers

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pp. 228-251

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...

Part 4: Mixing Qualitative and Quantitative Methods and Data

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pp. 253

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11. Mixing Methods: Reliability and Validity Accross Quantitative and Qualitative Measures of Relationship Quality

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pp. 255-276

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...

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12. Data from the TLC3

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pp. 277-291

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...


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pp. 293-301

E-ISBN-13: 9781610441865
Print-ISBN-13: 9780871542854
Print-ISBN-10: 0871542854

Page Count: 312
Publication Year: 2007