Unplanned Pregnancies Don’t Necessarily Mean Marriage

Cohabitation has become a more common routine for America’s unwed couples who become pregnant.

Soon-to-be-released government figures show a shift that is redefining the traditional configuration of family. The “shotgun wedding,” once the object of humor and tongue clicking, slips into the cultural museum of an earlier time.

According to Dr. Christina Gibson-Davis, a sociology professor at Duke University, “The emergence of cohabitation as an acceptable context for childbearing has changed the family-formation landscape. Individuals still value the idea of a two-parent family but no longer consider it necessary for the parents to be married.”

With marriage on the decline, the share of unmarried couples who opted to have “shotgun cohabitations” – moving in together after a pregnancy – surpassed “shotgun marriages” for the first time over the last decade, according to a forthcoming paper from the National Center for Health Statistics, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Three demographers who conducted independent research confirmed these findings.

The trend is the demographic channel marker as cohabitations become mainstream – a far cry from the days when the father of a pregnant daughter might use coercion, such as a shotgun, to make sure the boyfriend followed through on a wedding.

The numbers are based on the government’s National Survey of Family Growth, typically issued every four years. The National Survey of Family Growth provides the only government data on cohabiting mothers by asking questions on a woman’s relationship status before and after conception and childbirth. Women who say they were single before conception and then married before childbirth are counted as someone who had a post-conception, or “shotgun” marriage; woman who moved in with their boyfriends after pregnancy had a post-conception or “shotgun” cohabitation.

Demographers say the cohabiting trend among new parents is likely to continue. Social stigma regarding out-of-wedlock births is loosening, and economic factors play a role. Many couples, especially those who lack a bachelor’s degree, postpone marriage until their finances are more stable. But because of globalization, automation and outsourcing, good-paying middle-income jobs are harder to come by.

About 18.1 percent of all single women who became pregnant opted to move in with their boyfriends before the child was born, according to 2006-2010 data from the government’s National Survey of Family Growth, the latest available. That is compared to 5.3 percent who chose a post-conception marriage, according to calculations by Daniel Lichter, a Cornell sociologist.

As recently as the early 1990s, 25 percent of such couples got married.

Cohabiting mothers are spurring increases in out-of-wedlock births, now at a high of 41 percent. In all, about 60 percent of all births during the 2000s were to married mothers, compared to 24 percent to cohabiting mothers and 16 percent to non-cohabiting mothers. That was the first time that cohabiting births exceeded births from single mothers who weren’t living with their child’s father.

Since the early 1990s, the share of out-of-wedlock, cohabiting births has grown from 11 percent to 24 percent, while those to non-cohabiting, single mothers has remained steady at 16 percent.

Shotgun cohabitations tend to be less stable than marriage. Researchers at Harvard and Cornell universities have found that only about half of mothers who were cohabiting when their child was born were still in relationships with the biological father five years later.

“The latest results seem to indicate that marriage, as a context for childbearing and childrearing, is increasingly reserved for America’s middle- and upper-class populations,” Lichter said. “Because marriages are becoming more polarized by economic status, I don’t see the trend of shotgun cohabitations reversing any time soon,” said Casey Copen, a demographer at the government’s National Center for Health Statistics, which administers the government survey.

Dr. Gibson-Davis warns of difficulties for the unwed parents. She cautions that children in cohabiting households may face more difficulties growing up if their unmarried parents are at higher risk of breaking up.

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