The Jinx of Unwed Fertility

Why women without a wedding band continue to bear children remains a puzzle, especially since research continues to demonstrate how such behavior disadvantages both mother and child. Exploring the maternal side of those disadvantages, a study by scholars at Penn State and Cornell reveals how young women who “jumped the gun” face handicaps in persuading a good man to commit to matrimony or finding happiness in marriage when they do.

Crunching data containing the relationship and marital histories of nearly 4,000 women, ages 35 to 44, from the fifth wave (1995) of the National Survey of Family Growth, the study found that women who bear children out of wedlock stand statistically apart (p<.05) from their peers who do not in many measures: They are less likely to be married (44 percent v. 73 percent); more likely to be living alone, whether previously married or not (48 percent v. 23 percent); and more likely to cohabit, whether previously married or not (8 percent v. 4 percent).

Among the women who, by age 40, had married at least once, premarital fertility significantly correlated with most variables measuring marital stability or instability. Whereas 58 percent of married women without premarital fertility were in first marriages and only 20 percent were in their second, their peers who had jumped the gun were more likely to be in second or third marriages. Among those who had jumped the gun as teens, only 33 percent were in their first marriage; among those who had jumped the gun as adults, the figure was 40 percent.

Yet the aggregating of data by the timing of premarital fertility showed no statistical differences between whenthese women gave birth, only between each category of women by fertility timing relative to the women without premarital fertility. Statistically significant differences did emerge, however, between the timing of fertility among women who have cohabitated but never married by age 40: those who gave birth as teens stood at greater risk of serial relationships with men. But again, reflecting marital patterns, the more important difference was whetherwomen jumped the gun, as all women giving birth before marriage (relative to those who did not) were more likely to see male partners—and father figures—come and go.

The study also found that women who did not experience unwed childbearing are more likely to have husbands (or male partners, if cohabiting) who are better educated, more likely to be employed, and enjoy higher earnings.

These findings ironically lead the researchers to question the new focus on family formation in public policy: “Marriage is no long-term solution to poverty and welfare dependency if low-income single mothers are unable to stay married or marry well.” They may have a point with the existing caseload but overlook that marriage promotion is about prevention, not intervention. By using findings like these to persuade impressionable teens and younger women to put off childbearing until after marriage, the strategy offers promise of not only reducing the flow of new unwed mothers into the welfare trap, but also giving them a better chance of living happily ever after.

(Deborah Roempke Graefe and Daniel T. Lichter, “When Unwed Mothers Marry: The Marital and Cohabiting Partners of Midlife Women,” Journal of Family Issues 28 [May 2007]: 595–622.)