Self-Fulfilling Status?

A new study by Rachel Shattuck finds that young women’s wishes about parenting and marital status may materialize in adulthood. The research, published in Demography, investigated whether their preferences regarding having children outside marriage, as stated before their childbearing began, predicted their likelihood of having a nonmarital first birth.

Shattuck used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, which asked about 4,000 girls aged 11-16, “Would you consider having a child in the future as an unmarried person?” Then they followed up years later. When the women reached ages 24-30, a higher percentage of those who had answered ”yes” did have a nonmarital first birth, compared with those who had said ”no” (39% vs. 26%). However, as many as a quarter of the women who had stated a preference against having a child outside marriage ended up doing it anyway.

The women’s adolescent preferences did not, however, fully account for socioeconomic differences in the likelihood of that outcome. Those with high educational attainment and professional work experience in adulthood as well as those who dated college-educated men were less likely to have nonmarital first births. In fact, high educational attainment mattered more than stated preferences. Highly educated women avoided non-marital births through a combination of greater ability to access and afford effective contraception and abortion services and a greater likelihood of marrying. Wishes only go so far.

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