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  • There is another reason to advocate for delayed childbearing that too often does not receive enough attention: it reduces the likelihood of having children with more than one partner. Tweet This
  • The multiple partner fertility (MPF) track for fathers is one that disproportionately leads away from living with their own children. Tweet This

It is a well-recognized fact that delayed childbearing is a societal good. There’s no constituency bemoaning the fact that teen births in the United States are at an all-time low. The continuous decline since 1991 is widely acclaimed and attributed to both increased abstinence and higher rates of contraceptive use among the sexually active. This means that kids are making the transition to adulthood with fewer sexually transmitted diseases and fewer educational disruptions and that a greater proportion of babies are parented by adults rather than minors.

But there is another reason to advocate for delayed childbearing that too often does not receive enough attention, perhaps because it has little to do with sexual health, educational achievement, or even economic well-being. In short, delaying childbearing reduces the likelihood of having children with more than one partner. This plays out in different ways for women, men, and children, and they are all positive.

Lindsay Monte published a study this February that described the characteristics of women and men who have multiple partner fertility (MPF), and her “demographic portrait” was quite different for women whose children had multiple fathers than it was for men whose children had multiple mothers. The children, of course, matter too. Let me sketch the portraits one at a time.

Mothers. Among MPF mothers in the United States, the median age at first birth is 21. That may not sound depressingly young given that a four-year college degree might be completed by then, but a median of age 21, of course, means that half of MPF mothers had their first child earlier. These mothers had a child with a second father at the median age of 26. Most bore their second child with a second father, but a substantial minority didn’t acquire a second father for their children until their third or later birth—and still the median age for entry into MPF motherhood was only 26.

What do these early life experiences look like in the lives of MPF mothers later on? Quite simply, childbearing with multiple partners predicts a greater chance of lone childrearing. While 82% of MPF mothers have ever been married, only 44% were married at the time they were interviewed by the 2014 Survey of Income and Program Participation. Moreover, less than 10% were cohabiting at the time of the interview, so just over half had a coresident partner.

Multiple children, no partner. Plenty of women who have children with just one man have been in that situation, too, but the odds just aren’t the same: 71% of them were married and 3% cohabiting at interview. That means that 26% of women whose multiple children are with the same man were unpartnered at interview, compared to 46% of women whose multiple children were with multiple men. Across the world, single parents are not as happy as partnered parents. Further, MPF mothers have lower social support from family, despite theoretically having more family on whom to call. A young start doesn’t ensure multiple fathers, multiple fathers don’t necessarily lead to a lack of an enduring partnership, and a lack of an enduring partnership doesn’t necessarily ensure comprised happiness or uninvolved relatives. It is just that mothers with a young start disproportionately follow this track.

Fathers. MPF fathers also enter into fatherhood earlier than men whose children are all with the same woman, but for fathers, the most poignant difference I saw in Monte’s data was in the proportion living with their children. Only 51% of MPF fathers lived with any of their children at the time of interview and 48% of MPF fathers had biological children with their current wife. I guess it is not surprising that a man’s best shot at living with his child is to be married to the child’s mother. Yet, it is still sobering that less than 5% of MPF fathers lived with all of their biological children. Men’s involvement with previous children decreases when they have children in new unions. The MPF track for fathers is one that disproportionately leads away from living with their own children.

Children. The consequences for children of having half siblings have already received attention on this blog (here and here). Therefore, I will simply highlight that they experience disadvantages that cannot be explained by the circumstances (including poverty) leading to a parent’s multi-partner fertility. For example, a child whose parents have divorced and whose mom has remarried is at higher risk of negative outcomes, but a child whose mom has another child after remarrying is still at higher risk of things like aggressive behaviordelinquency, school detachment, and depression in adolescence. Complex families seem difficult for kids. But should we expect anything different when we’ve also seen consequences for MPF mothers and MPF fathers?

In short, I believe that the consequences of MPF should be added to the arsenal of rhetoric supporting delayed parenthood.