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Cohabiting ... With Children

Thursday, March 12, 2015

I know a woman. Works like a dog. She's a loving mother, raising a lovable boy. She's also a good businesswoman, running a successful salon.               

But she's not married to the father, though he lives with her ... year after year. As for work, he does a little bit of this and a little bit of that. She pays most of the bills and scrounges for child care. His parents, meanwhile, have a grandkid to play with.               

Cohabiting with children is a growing trend among American families, particularly for whites and Hispanics. It now accounts for 59 percent of births outside marriage, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.               

Call me old-fashioned, but for most working women, shacking up with the father of their kids is a life of unfair drudgery.              

In many cases, it is more unfair than single motherhood. In addition to child care, the cohabiting woman is burdened with man care. She's providing the comforts of home, hearth and family. He, meanwhile, has the freedom to move on to new pastures without even having to call a lawyer.              

Calm down, will ya? OK, I'm calm.              

More than a quarter of American children are now being born to couples living together without marriage. This is the highest rate ever and double what it was a decade ago.               

(You'll never guess which state has the highest percentage of cohabiting parents. South Dakota, at 46 percent.)               

Although this sounds like a stabler home life for children than the single-parent household, it's only marginally so, The Wall Street Journal reports. Interestingly, the share of children being born out of wedlock without a father at home has shrunk a little.               

Jane Waldfogel, who teaches social work at Columbia University, told the Journal that for kids, the instability and uncertainty of living with cohabiting parents "is in some ways closer to single parenthood than it is to marriage."              

Cohabiting parents can break up so much more easily than married ones. No doubt some couples choose this arrangement specifically to keep that door ajar -- the well-being of children no longer serving as a lock.               

The frequent excuse is that Mom and Dad aren't financially and emotionally ready to get married. (But they are financially and emotionally ready to have children, right?) Many of our longest-lasting marriages were embarked upon by couples who were dead broke, but what did they know?               

We understand, this is the land of countless variation. I know two old hippies who have been living together for decades, devoted to each other and their children, and sharing the work. They are a cohabiting model but the exception, according to sociologists.               

There are many marriages in which all the heavy lifting falls on her. And somewhere in America there is a cohabiting father who performs all the child rearing, breadwinning and floor sweeping while the lady's at home doing her nails.

Sometimes it's the mother who declares her desire not to be tied down to a guy -- though that often sounds like bravado. The great majority of Americans say they want marriage. In the bar pickup culture, the mother with children at home is a more complicated prospect than the father going back to his bachelor pad.               

As expected, the higher you move up the economic and educational ladder the stronger the insistence on getting married before having children. The financial advantage marriage confers on these families may not be the only reason for America's widening wealth gap, but it's a significant one.               

Cohabitation with children may look similar to marriage with children, but it's usually a weak substitute. Expect more of it.               

Follow Froma Harrop on Twitter @FromaHarrop. She can be reached at fharrop@gmail.com. To find out more about Froma Harrop and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.


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