The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Wrong Time to Look for a Man

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Before the sexual revolution, a young woman tended to put off intimate relations until after marriage, knowing that if she jumped the gun—and became an unwed mother—her chances of finding a suitable man to propose would drop precipitously. Why many women today think they can rewrite the dynamics of the marriage market is not clear. But a study by three American sociologists, including Sara McLanahan of Princeton, who analyze “repartnering” behavior of unmarried mothers, confirms that out-of-wedlock childbearing gives women little leverage in the mating game.

Looking at longitudinal data from the Fragile Families and Well Being Study of nearly 5,000 children born to mostly unwed parents in twenty large U.S. cities from 1998 to 2000, the researchers tracked the “relationship” status of unwed mothers at four points: at birth, one year after, three years after, and five years after birth. At the baseline, 52 percent of the mothers were cohabiting with the child’s father, 30 percent were dating the child’s father, and 18 percent were not romantically involved with the father. Five years after giving birth, the percentage of mothers living with the child’s father had declined to 38 percent while the percentage of mothers dating the father had declined to 3 percent. Yet 31 percent were involved with a new man (whether dating or living with him) while 29 percent were not romantically involved at all.

Focusing on the 69 percent of mothers that had broken off relationships with the child’s father sometime during the five-year period, the sociologists found the majority (55 percent) of these mothers-in-transition had “repartnered” with another man, including 32 percent that had “traded up” with a man having greater economic potential than the child’s father. As might be expected, all of these mothers-in-transition were looking for a man who would be a good provider. Yet 47 percent of these transitioning mothers were unable to repartner at all.

Attempting to find a silver lining in these bleak findings, the researchers’ analysis identify the predictors of “trading up,” including such things as being a younger mother, being employed, and having only one child, characteristics that made the unwed mother more marketable on the mating scene. Yet the sociologists—all members of the fairer sex—seem unwilling to acknowledge the elephant in the room: unwed childbearing. They don’t blame the inability of these women to establish a lasting relationship with a man on their out-of-wedlock childbearing but on “the limited pool of eligible partners accessible to this largely urban, sociologically disadvantaged population of mothers.” Yet surely there was no limited pool of eligible men when these mothers first became pregnant.

More problematic is the reality the researchers overlook: none of the mothers who were living with or dating the child’s father (and who represented 82 percent of all mothers at the time of childbearing) appear to have married the father at any time during the study. Neither the researchers’ terminology nor their data make it clear whether the partnership categories in view include marriage. If the analysis indeed does leave out of the picture the desirability of the mother’s marrying the father of her child, then it is an analysis that ignores a huge problem for both mother and child. Why the researchers seem so unconcerned with the chance that an unwed mother might have for marrying her child’s father, and instead focus on “repartnering,” remains a mystery.

(Sharon H. Bzostek, Sara S. McLanahan, and Marcia J. Carlson, “Mothers’ Repartnering after a Nonmarital Birth,” Social Forces 90.3 [March 2012]: 817–41.)