A Generation of Unmarried Parents

Today's young parents are committed to their kids, even if they avoid walking down the aisle.

Mother and father with baby Grace Haung

It just didn't make sense. Yes, Katherine Sosa had missed a period, and the lines on the pregnancy test were clearly dark. But she and her boyfriend, Nick Welton, had been really careful. So the grad student from Fort Lauderdale bought three more tests -- which were all positive.

She called Welton, who worked as a basketball coach two hours away.

"Could you come this weekend?
I need to talk to you," she said.
"Are you okay?" he asked, sounding concerned.
"Yes, I just want to talk to you."
"Are you sure you're okay?"
She couldn't make him wait any longer. "I'm pregnant."

Only a few decades ago, a young couple in this situation probably would have quickly tied the knot. Less than nine months later, when they welcomed their baby into the world, relatives and friends might have done the math and whispered, "Shotgun wedding..." However, instead of getting married, Sosa and Welton decided to move in together a few months before their daughter, Gabriella, was born.

"My family wanted us to get married, but we agreed that we didn't want to do it just to make them feel more comfortable," says Sosa. Two years later, they have settled into parenthood, and marriage seems less and less crucial to them. "Not being married gives us a heightened awareness of the possibility of losing one another, and that helps us deal with issues as they arise," Sosa admits. "We're happy where we are."

They're among the many millennial parents (those born after 1980) who are bucking convention by either delaying marriage or opting out completely. Certainly, celebrities of all ages have made it fashionable to forgo the altar -- Brad and Angelina finally got married, but Kourtney Kardashian has had three children with boyfriend Scott Disick, for example, and Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber have two. However, the unhitched trend is growing everywhere from Washington State to Washington, D.C., despite the fact that some proponents argue that having married parents is best for children.

Between the 1970s and the early 2000s, the percentage of women who got married by the time their first child was born fell by half, according to research by Jonathan Vespa, Ph.D., a demographer with the U.S. Census Bureau, and Kimberly Daniels, Ph.D., of the National Center for Health Statistics. The percentage of unmarried pregnant women who lived with their baby's father by the time of the birth jumped from 8 percent to 28 percent. Says Dr. Vespa, "It's been a record transformation."

License to Choose

As a generation that's grown up with technology that becomes obsolete every few years, we might seem to be simply wary of commitment -- but the real reasons couples don't wed are often practical.

Allison Tine and Brian Govatos, of Philomath, Oregon, have been together for four years. Although Tine says she always happy-cries at weddings, she and Govatos have no plans to ever have one. "Traditional marriage is beautiful and wonderful, but it's not important for me because a wedding is what you do when you start your life with someone. "With two kids, a dog and a cat, we're already living it."

The story is much the same in Bear Lake, Utah, where Brittany Bills and Jesse Alston have been engaged for seven years. Their daughter, Autumn, is now 2, and they are no closer to planning a wedding. At first, they were just putting off getting married until they could have the kind of wedding they wanted. Over time, though, Bills says being unmarried has kept things fresh and exciting. "Even though we've been together for so long, we still work to keep each other interested because we aren't legally tied," she says.

Despite how common this situation is, society hasn't even come up with a good term for a live-in lover who's also the parent of your child. "Boyfriend" and "girlfriend" sound too casual, and "partner" is often reserved for same-sex couples in this country. Many couples refer to each other as "my fiancé," even when there's no ring.

Marriage definitely isn't considered to be the first step of adulthood the way it was for our parents or grandparents. Instead, many couples want to reach certain milestones -- being established in their career, getting out of debt, amassing a nest egg, buying a house -- before tying the knot, says Christina M. Gibson-Davis, Ph.D., associate professor of public policy, sociology, psychology, and neuroscience at Duke University.

For Catherine Clinger and Doug Cooper, of Paris, Kentucky, those milestones can feel as far off as their eventual retirement. Mired in student debt, they are raising 4-year-old Ben, who has autism. All their monthly income is earmarked for his care and necessities like housing expenses, car insurance, and student-loan payments. "With the cost of Ben's therapies, it isn't practical for us to spend money on a wedding," Clinger says.

Of course, the couple could marry at the county clerk's office for a fee of $35, but that would financially harm them in other ways. Clinger has bad credit, whereas Cooper's is excellent. "We just finished paying off his car, and with his credit being as good as it is, he's getting ready to close on the purchase of our first home," Clinger says.

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      Mother and father with baby Grace Haung

      Ironically, heterosexual couples are increasingly wary of getting wed while same-sex couples are fighting for the right to marry. There has been a sea change in support for gay marriage, which is now legal in 37 states and the District of Columbia. Back in 1997, when Ellen DeGeneres came out, advertisers refused to buy airtime on Ellen. When Mitchell and Cameron said, "I do" on Modern Family last year, ratings soared. (Now, of course, Ellen's show is embraced by marketers.)

      Jennifer Henson, of Prior Lake, Minnesota, isn't gay, but she attended rallies, signed petitions, and donated money in support of marriage equality. She'll never forget how thrilling it was in 2013 when she got a text message at work saying that Minnesota had just become the 12th state to legalize same-sex marriage.

      Nevertheless, Henson spent nine years living with Paul Carlsen, the father of her 3-year-old son, Kaleb. "I believe it's every person's civil right to be able to marry whom they choose. At the same time, marriage is not something I feel I personally need," says Henson, who recently split up with Carlsen. "We had been secure in our relationship, and no wedding, piece of jewelry, or common last name was going to make us feel any more so."

        Singular Truths

        Certainly, having a baby creates a lasting bond between two people. But many young couples simply don't want to risk tying a knot that they fear might break one day. Some were raised by divorced parents, and others have watched the marriages of friends and coworkers dissolve or have already been divorced themselves.

        "In some ways, marriage isn't as intrinsically necessary as it used to be when women needed a husband for financial reasons," says Dr. Gibson-Davis. "At the same time, it has become symbolically more important. People have a lot of respect and reverence for the institution of marriage."

        However, unmarried parents who live together are three times more likely than married parents to separate by the time their child turns 5, according to statistics from the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. This instability may explain why studies have shown that children raised by married parents tend to do better in school and have fewer behavioral problems than kids raised by cohabiting parents, says W. Bradford Wilcox, Ph.D., director of the National Marriage Project and associate professor of sociology.

        However, there are at least two huge factors that could be confounding those findings: poverty and a lack of public support. Whether your children end up happy, healthy, and successful may depend more on your financial stability and access to good public schools and less on your marital status, says Carmel Hannan, D.Phil., a sociologist at the University of Limerick, in Ireland. Her latest research shows that once you control for parents' socioeconomic resources, poverty, and access to education, most of the differences in outcomes between children of married, single, and cohabiting parents disappear.

        In France and in Scandinavian countries, where cohabitation is common and well-accepted, these relationships are considered to be a substitute for marriage and they tend to last, says Andrew J. Cherlin, Ph.D., professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins University and author of The Marriage-Go-Round. That may be due, in large part, to the fact that both cohabiting and married parents have access to paid family leave and subsidized child care in Western Europe. This helps reduce financial stress, which is one of the most common reasons why relationships end, Dr. Cherlin says.

        But here's the biggest problem with statistics: They don't apply to everyone. Even if unmarried parents are more likely to break up than married ones are, not all of them do -- and they can raise happy, well-adjusted children. Take Jill Barndollar and Erik Howlind, of Aliso Viejo, California, who have been together for 13 years and have two children. "I've been told that we're so lucky things worked out for us," says Barndollar. "We are not lucky! We put a lot of effort into our relationship and family, and we have outlasted 90 percent of the weddings we've been to. In our book, that's a win."

          3 Ways to Go the Distance

          Whether you're married or not, you can boost your chances of lasting relationship success with these pointers.

            1. Pick inspiring role models.
              Who are the happy couples in your world? Lean on them for advice and support. When you're going through a tough time, these are the people who'll be more likely to help you solve your problems and grow closer.
            2. Identify a clear future path.
              "Couples with long-term plans are more apt to go the distance," says Dr. Bradford Wilcox. Talk together about where you would like for each other and your family to be five, ten, and 25 years from now.
            3. Be generous toward each other.
              Look for the positive in your partner, highlighting what he does right -- and do small acts of service for each other, suggests Dr. Wilcox. Maybe that's bringing him coffee in the morning. Or perhaps it's intentionally not eating the last piece of chocolate so that she can enjoy it instead.

              Originally published in the May 2015 issue of Parents magazine.