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Cohabitation and Child Rearing Don't Mix?

By Madeline Holler |

cohabitation, living together

A document that provides the security of a million hugs.

Only my 2-year-old son Earl was born in wedlock. My two daughters, now 10 and 6, were sitting in the backseat of the family car when their father and I tied the knot. You can read about our nuptials here, but the short version is that we got married because that was the only way the State of California would cover me, (female) parent of the children they had no problem insuring.

My son, remember, the non-bastard child, is the best sleeper of the brood. He’s also the most cheerful, open to hugging grandparents and babysitters and other children in a way our two girls never were at his age. He loves brushing his teeth, a habit of hygiene that took us years to get his sisters to do voluntarily. Brother Earl eats veggies like a champ.

He’s a good kid, my son. There’s no accounting for the differences between him and his sisters, other than he was born into the security of a documented commitment between his father and me, an agreement that we would form an economic and emotional partnership. My poor girls had to spend the first months or years of life never knowing if, in a legal sense, Daddy was going to come home that night.

We weren’t married, we were cohabitating. And as the lead author of the National Marriage Project‘s latest study on couples who live together said at an event last night: “cohabitation and children don’t mix.” Brad Wilcox wants the world to know that cohabitation is more detrimental to kids than single motherhood and divorce.

Well, at least Earl’s life has not been tainted.

Lauren Slater attended last night’s event, organized by the Institute for American Values, and wrote about it and the study for Slate‘s Double X blog. She interviewed Wilcox this morning about what he meant:

I asked Wilcox how my kid—the daughter of married parents—will fare compared to the children of my unmarried friends. He told me that my daughter will always know that her parents made a commitment to each other, and transversely, to her, and that society lauds that commitment. Her friends with cohabitating parents will never have that stability, the assurance of that socially accepted bond.

Wilcox and the rest of the authors admit that the bad effects of cohabitation is a bigger issue for black and low-income families, who are more likely to have unmarried parents living together. But they say their study shows that, despite economics, class or race, children of unmarried parents “have more emotional problems, less involved and less affectionate fathers, a greater risk of school failure, a higher risk of infant mortality, and worse physical health than kids with married parents.”

I haven’t read the study yet, but I know from past studies that unmarried cohabitating parents treated as a monolith when actually they are not.

There’s a way of being parents who are unmarried and living together, which mimics married couples in all ways, save a wedding album on the coffee table. And then there’s a way of being unmarried and living together that isn’t perceived of as a permanent arrangement for the principle parties, more of something that has happened. There is also the kind of cohabitation that happens until the obligatory future wedding, which never really happens, since one or the other partner is not really into the little family unit anyway. There’s the sometimes together, sometimes apart cohabitation. None of these, especially the last one, is really on a par with two unmarried adults who intend to live under the same roof at least until the kids are grown if not longer? In these cohabitation studies, a distinction isn’t usually made.

The fact that many cohabitating couples are even allowed to get married is often glossed over as a minor detail, or same sex couples parenting together is left out all together. Not good, since studies show they make a strong case that a healthy relationship between unmarried parents can indeed churn out happy high school graduates.

If one is really trying to find out what’s best for kids, and not trying to fit data into a political stance on morality, wouldn’t it be useful to study outcomes of inconsistent living arrangements compared to consistent ones? Isn’t that, really, what these studies are sussing out — that insecurity, be it financial or emotional, kinda messes with you?

Truthfully, I am not the least bit worried that anything related to my marital status since becoming a parents has had any impact whatsoever on any of my kids. None. Even when we lived in a not-so-progressive city, even when some members of our extended family were confused by our refusal to make it official, there was no scarring, none. Which is not to say I’m not screwing up my kids. It just has nothing to do with Mommy and Daddy pre-Vegas.

In fact, I am confident that my kids will finish high school, attend college, become functioning members of society — a fact that has everything to do with them being white, middle-class, insured, bonded to their parents, and not even close to being first-generation college students.

Double X’s Slater suspects that if cohabitation really is bringing kids down, people like Wilcox might be to blame. She wonders whether obsessing about marital status isn’t an underlying issue. If we keep touting legal marriage as the norm, are we harming the families who, for whatever reasons, don’t conform? She concludes with this thought:

Just as so many of us have learned to make marriages work without the support of a religious community, we can probably manage partnerships without a wedding. But the study is clear about one thing, which I have to square emotionally, and you might too: We’re not there yet, and my marriage, strong and seemingly progressive as it is, may not be helping to re-norm a damn thing.

What do you think?

Photo: nerdcoregirl via flickr

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About Madeline Holler


Madeline Holler

Madeline Holler is a writer, journalist, and blogger. She has written for Babble since the site launched in 2006. Her writing has appeared in various other publications both online and in print, including Salon and True/Slant (now Forbes). A native of the Midwest, Madeline lives, writes, and parents in Southern California, where she's raising two daughters and a son. Read bio and latest posts → Read Madeline's latest posts →

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7 thoughts on “Cohabitation and Child Rearing Don't Mix?

  1. anon says:

    Let gay people marry. It will likely make a lot of good parents even better.

  2. Linda, t.o.o. says:

    Sounds like one of those ‘studies” where they made the data fit their preconceived “moral” conclusions. Stupid.

  3. estab1971 says:

    “My poor girls had to spend the first months or years of life never knowing if, in a legal sense, Daddy was going to come home that night.” Really? A three month-old gets their sense of security not from Daddy coming home every night but from a marriage license?

  4. Gretchen Powers says:

    I think she’s being facetious.

  5. Gina says:

    What a load of bollux.

  6. Maggie says:

    You’re onto something here: “wouldn’t it be useful to study outcomes of inconsistent living arrangements compared to consistent ones?”

    I grew up with parents who were married. He traveled for a living, was home for weeks, then gone for weeks, in a rhythm that seemed almost random to us kids. The effects of having two parents sometimes, and one parent sometimes, are with me still 40 years later. Friends who grew up in families where one parent (usually, but not always, the father) was absent for long periods and home for short periods seem to have similar behavioral effects, but deeper.

    Wouldn’t it be useful to study the outcomes of families in which both parents are engaged with the children, compared to those in which child-rearing is the focus of one parent’s life and an afterthought to the other parent?

    Wouldn’t it be useful to study the outcomes of families in which one parent is often / usually absent, compared to those in which both parents are home every night?

    Wouldn’t it be useful to study the outcomes of families in which one or both parents exhibit addiction patterns (whether to alcohol, illicit drugs, or computer/internet), compared to those in which the parents are fully present?

    As you say, so much of what passes for ‘studies show’ these days seems to have a political agenda. First identify your conclusion, then look for supporting data.


  7. supergrmr says:

    We cohabitat..I am a divorced mother ot 1 and he is former military.We together are raising a happy well- rounded 15 yr old girl.We discussed marriage but decided that the syenrgy we have would change if we decided to get married.There are all kinds of families nowdays and this works for us.20/20 it may not work for another family but the 3 of us are a team and have been for about 8 years now.As long as everyone feels loved and happy I am content

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