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The impact of the first child on family stability

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posted on 11.06.2021, 16:42 by Jan M. Hoem
Statistical investigations invariably show that couples run a lower risk of seeing their (marital or consensual) union break up if they have a child together than if they do not. Common explanations posit that only couples with a durable relationship have children, that responsible parents stay together for the sake of the child, and that the child itself produces an additional bond between the parents. In the inimitable terminology of economists, a child is a marriage-specific investment whose proceeds the parents do not want to lose by dissolving their union.
The insights of family counselors suggest that things may be a bit more complicated. In their experience, the arrival of the first child may serve as a destabilizing factor in the relationship between the parents, sometimes causing their union to break up. Tensions and conflicts that the partners can control as long as they only have themselves to care for, may become unmanageable when the child arrives, and the great needs of the newborn may cause new problems to surface. Unfortunately, much of the evidence for such an observation seems to be experiential and anecdotal, so the question arises whether it is caused by the counselors' special vantage point. Could the daily exposure to families that have difficulties with their internal relationships give the impression that such problems are universal when they are not? Could we be faced with yet another instance of biased observation centered on high-risk outcomes and lacking the counterbalance of less problematic cases? Will the apparent risk of union disruption in families with a newborn first child disappear in a statistical investigation based on a more balanced observational design?
The message of the present paper is that it will not, but that the risk of union disruption depends strongly on the family situation. When we control for a number of personal and structural variables (such as the mother's age, how long the union has existed, whether the union is consensual or marital, what calendar period we are in, and so on), it turns out that the risk is reduced in the first few months after the birth of the first child, but that it rises subsequently and reaches roughly the same level as before the woman became pregnant as soon as the (first) child gets to be one-and-a-half to two years old. A telltale feature is the strongly reduced risk of disruption during pregnancy, i.e., at a time when many partners with latent problems of cohesion may still have illusions about their relationship.
We speculate that these issues apparently have not surfaced in previous statistical work partly because to our knowledge no one seems to have given them sufficient attention and partly because much previous statistical investigations have concentrated on formal divorce, not actual union breakup. The delay normally caused by divorce proceedings can easily hide subtler effects of the kind that show up in the present investigation.


Stockholm University

Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS),

Bank of Sweden Tercentennial Foundation




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The impact of the first child on family stability

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310 Sociologiska institutionen | Department of Sociology