Relationships are complicated in the best of times, but even more so for unmarried parents and their children. Children born to unmarried parents encounter considerable instability in their family life when their biological parents end relationships and form relationships with new partners, according to data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, an initiative spearheaded by family demography expert in the Woodrow Wilson School Sara McLanahan.
The study found that just over a third of unmarried parents who are romantically involved at birth are still together by the time their child is 5 years old, compared to 80 percent of married parents. More than 60 percent of unmarried mothers have by then also changed residential partners — that is, had one or more new partners move in or out of the household.
Children encounter an even wider cast of characters if researchers take account of mothers’ more casual dating partnerships, with more than 75 percent of unmarried mothers experiencing a change in either a co-residential or short-term dating relationship. Half-siblings are also part of the picture: nearly 50 percent of children born to unmarried mothers live with a half-sibling by the time they reach age 5.
“The bottom line is that very few children born to unmarried parents are living in stable single-mother families,” said McLanahan, the William S. Tod Professor of Sociology and Public Affairs. The Fragile Families study is funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and several foundations.
That unmarried parents are more likely to have low education and income levels means that their children often fare worse as well, reporting more physical and mental health problems. Children of unmarried parents also tend to score lower on reading and math tests. McLanahan explained that while economic adversity accounts for much of this disadvantage, a high level of instability and family complexity may contribute to these negative outcomes.
–By Tara Thean