Danielle Cole has worn a diamond engagement ring for five years, since shortly before she and her fiance moved in together. To her surprise, she was pregnant at the time. Otherwise, she and Christopher Feener would probably be long married by now.
But first came love. Then came little Payton. Then came Kayleigh. Then came renting their first house, in Saugus, after years of moving from apartment to apartment, and working to repay the debt they accumulated starting a family when Feener was earning $12.50 an hour at
What didn't come was a wedding.
Cole, 28, is the new face of unmarried motherhood. More than half of out-of-wedlock babies born in the United States are now born to women who, like Cole, live with the fathers of their children, according to two new studies.
Washington-based Child Trends, in a research brief published in May using the National Center for Education Statistics' Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, finds that 52 percent of nonmarital births are to cohabiting couples. The University of Wisconsin's Center for Demography and Ecology reached the same conclusion in a working paper it expects to publish this summer after analyzing data from the National Center for Health Statistics' National Survey of Family Growth.
That's up from 29 percent in the early 1980s and 39 percent in the early 1990s. "Clearly it's become a normal part of American family life," says Sheela Kennedy, co author of the upcoming Wisconsin paper. At a time when the rate of births to teenaged mothers has fallen to record lows, the increase in births to couples living together appears to drive the continued increase in out-of-wedlock childbearing. Overall, more than a third of births in the United States are to unmarried women, up from one-fifth in 1980.
"The stereotype of the unmarried mother is a single parent who's a teen," says Child Trends senior scholar Kristin Moore. "It's both of those things that have changed. They're more likely to be over 20, and half of them are cohabiting, at least short-term."
The shift heralds both good news and bad news for children. Counterbalancing the benefits of living with both parents is the fact that cohabiting parents, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt notwithstanding, tend to be less educated and less economically secure than their married peers. Their relationships tend to be less stable. Two years after their babies were born, 94 percent of married parents were still together, according to Child Trends, compared with 69 percent of cohabiting couples who were either still living together or had married.
"Married parents do tend to be better off in terms of education and earning power and earning stability. It's not necessarily because the parents are married," says University of Pennsylvania sociologist Kristen Harknett. "Parents who have these advantages may be more likely to get married in the first place. Kids with cohabiting parents have two parents under the same roof and more supervision. There are economies of scale. They don't make up for the cohabiting parents on average having lower education and lower incomes. Even though those cohabiting relationships are not as stable as marriages, they're a lot more stable than the relationships of parents who live apart."
In Waltham, Anida Ramirez, 20, recently became engaged to the father of her 3-year-old twins. They've been living together since she was pregnant, save for three months when she returned to her parents. They share a three-bedroom walk-up with his father and two cousins. Ramirez studies hairdressing and works in a store; her fiance works in landscaping. They're not ready to set a wedding date.
"We want our own apartment," Ramirez says. "We want to be a little more established. We want to be a little more with the money."
The new research confirms nationally what the Fragile Families Study, which follows 5,000 children born in large American cities between 1998 and 2000, found about urban unwed mothers in its 2003 report. The new research also indicates the United States is moving closer to the experience of northern Europe and Scandinavia, where cohabitation accounts for most nonmarital births.
In Britain, two-thirds of out-of-wedlock births are to couples living together, says University of York demographer Kathleen Kiernan, and the proportion is even higher in Scandinavia, the Netherlands and France. However, she notes, with the exception of Britain, the rise in European births to cohabiting couples is not tied to class.
"Cohabitation in the Scandinavian countries and France has less to do with economic disadvantage," Kiernan says. "In Scandinavia, they imagine cohabitation being a progressive development in terms of social change."
Nevertheless, attitudes about marriage in this country are also changing. In an indication of the increased separation between matrimony and parenthood, only 41 percent of adults surveyed consider children an important factor in a successful marriage, down from 65 percent in 1990, according to a Pew Research Center report released this month.
Denise Baumann, 40, of Roslindale, never wanted marriage. "It's a really dysfunctional institution for women in particular," she says. "It's not about people having healthy relationships that they define for themselves." So even when she and Patrick McAllister, 37, started a family after living together a dozen years, they didn't wed. They have two daughters, ages 3 and 1. "It took me a while to get over the fact that we weren't going to get married," McAllister says.
Ironically, with McAllister, a teacher, about to start a new job that doesn't offer benefits for domestic partners, they finally tied the knot, without exchanging rings, at City Hall over the weekend. "For me, it was about resisting business as usual," Baumann says. "I think we did that."
Paula De Gregoria, 33, of Salem, didn't plan on being pregnant when she moved in with her boyfriend two years ago. "This is not how I pictured my life growing up," she says. "I didn't want to be an unwed mother." It was also no reason to say "I do."
"I don't want to get married to somebody just because I have a baby with him," she says. "I wasn't at the point where I thought he was the one." And now? "We don't talk about marriage," she says, but "we're more committed to each other because of the baby."
In Saugus, meanwhile, some boxes remain unpacked in the three-bedroom house Cole and Feener just rented. Kayleigh, 2, wears a T-shirt that says "I (heart) Daddy." Though the couple is more secure than five years ago -- Feener manages a Home Depot now -- they've still not set a wedding date. Any ceremony will be simpler than what they might have planned had Cole not gotten pregnant.
"It would be selfish for me to have one day when we have two kids to worry about," Cole says. "We really wanted a home first, and if that came before the wedding that was fine."
"We're almost like the Red Sox before they won the World Series," Feener says. "Wait until next year."