Magic Moment? Maternal Marriage for Children Born Out of Wedlock


To test the existence of the “magic moment” for parental marriage immediately post-birth and to inform policies that preferentially encourage biological over stepparent marriage, this study estimates the incidence and stability of maternal marriage for children born out of wedlock. Data came from the National Survey of Family Growth on 5,255 children born nonmaritally. By age 15, 29 % of children born nonmaritally experienced a biological-father marriage, and 36 % experienced a stepfather marriage. Stepfather marriages occurred much later in a child’s life—one-half occurred after the child turned age 7—and had one-third higher odds of dissolution. Children born to black mothers had qualitatively different maternal marriage experiences than children born to white or Hispanic mothers, with less biological-parent marriage and higher incidences of divorce. Findings support the existence of the magic moment and demonstrate that biological marriages were more enduring than stepfather marriages. Yet relatively few children born out of wedlock experienced stable, biological-parent marriages as envisioned by marriage promotion programs.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Although beyond the scope of this study, it is worth noting that mixed findings exist as to whether a cohabiting biological relationship offers more advantages to child well-being than a stepfather married relationship (Berger et al. 2008; Hofferth and Anderson 2003).

  2. 2.

    The NSFG is the best source for this study because in contrast to the NLSY-79, it permits analysis of Hispanics and pertains to contemporary patterns of marriage.

  3. 3.

    These children were excluded because they could experience only a maternal-stepfather marriage (they had already experienced a maternal-biological marriage), and so they only had one failure state.

  4. 4.

    The NSFG did not collect racial and ethnic data on children.

  5. 5.

    In a supplementary analysis, I analyzed the incidence of divorce of biological marriages formed pre-birth. Relative to marriages formed post-birth, biological marriages formed pre-birth lasted significantly longer. After 10 years, the cumulative incidence of failure was 38 % for post-birth biological marriages, 54 % for post-birth stepfather marriages, and 19 % for pre-birth biological marriages. Cox regression models indicated that the odds of divorce were 80 % and 220 % higher for post-birth biological and stepfather marriages, respectively, compared with pre-birth biological marriages. Divorce estimates for pre-birth marriages should be interpreted cautiously, however, because such marriages are at risk for a divorce at a relatively later time point than post-birth marriages (e.g., pre-birth marriages are not at risk for divorce until the child’s birth, at which point the marriages are already X months old, whereas post-birth marriages are at risk for divorce from the first month they are formed).


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The author thanks Elizabeth Ananat, Paula England, and Anna Gassman-Pines for valuable feedback.

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Correspondence to Christina Gibson-Davis.

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Gibson-Davis, C. Magic Moment? Maternal Marriage for Children Born Out of Wedlock. Demography 51, 1345–1356 (2014).

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  • Marriage
  • Divorce
  • Nonmarital childbearing
  • Race and ethnicity