Editor's note: Read more stories from the 2018 American Family Survey.
SALT LAKE CITY — It's just a ditty that children sing on the playground, but for years, the "Kissing Song" was prophetic of the typical American family: "First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes baby in the baby carriage."
Rewritten today, the song might lead with a couple living together and establishing a career with good health insurance before having a baby.
Americans say they still value the traditional order of steps in building a family, according to new findings of the American Family Survey. But there's a difference in what they see as an ideal path and what they actually do.
More couples are living together before getting married and having children, according to the survey, a joint project of the Deseret News and the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. They believe that being in a committed relationship is more important than a wedding ring.
And often, it's money, not love, that governs a couple's decision about when to have their first child, since the poll reveals that most Americans believe it's important to earn a college degree, establish a career and become financially secure before having a baby.
The relaxing standards about cohabitation before marriage might be linked to a decline of religious affiliation among young adults, said Christopher Karpowitz, co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy and, along with Jeremy Pope, a principal investigator of the survey.
“Individual experiences vary, and there are many people who still experience the more traditional ordering of these relationship milestones, but on average, the patterns are clear,” Karpowitz said, adding, "It seems to be a cultural change that is occurring."
But the survey also shows that economic pressure is shaping American families and how they are formed. When asked what's the most important issues facing families, more than a third said it's the cost of raising children.
The American Family Survey, in its fourth year, is a nationally representative poll of 3,000 adults. This year's questions addressed public spending, immigration, parental fears for their teens, and other issues related to marriage and parenting.
The findings reveal a nation that still cherishes traditional ideals even as the beliefs and practices of the youngest and most liberal Americans are eroding longstanding norms. And while there are partisan divides, Republicans and black Democrats are similar in what they hold as ideals, even if their actual practice looks more like that of white Democrats.
What comes before baby
The experience of Jodi Ross, 50, a stay-at-home mom in Kent, Ohio, is emblematic of how Americans value marriage, even as they increasingly choose to live together without getting married, at least for a while.
Ross was divorced with two children when she met her current husband, who had three children of his own when they began dating. The two eventually moved in together without getting married. But when Ross became unexpectedly pregnant — and an ultrasound revealed two heartbeats — they were man and wife within four months.
The twins are now 7, and Ross, who once wasn’t sure if she wanted children, finds herself the mother of seven. She has taken a break from her career as an educator to care for her family. Before having children, she'd hoped to do a lot of traveling. “That didn’t take place, but I still feel very fulfilled,” she said.
In her desire to travel, Ross aligned with the 44 percent of American Family Survey respondents who said that it’s extremely or somewhat important for a person to be able to travel before having their first child.
But more important than seeing the world is earning money and establishing a career before buying that first crib, Americans say.
The most important thing is being financially stable (67 percent say this is extremely important); the second most important thing is having a good health insurance plan (57 percent say this is extremely important).
Having an established career is somewhat or extremely important to 91 percent of respondents, while 66 and 67 percent, respectively, rate buying a house and graduating from college as somewhat or extremely important.
As to the relationship status of the parents, more respondents (64 percent) believe it is extremely important to be in “a committed relationship” than in a marriage (42 percent) before having a baby.
With 57 percent of respondents saying that having a good health insurance plan is extremely important, that means more Americans believe it's more important to have health insurance before having a baby than to be married.
Karpowitz cautions there may be an underlying kindness in some of the responses. "People are trying to not be judgmental" of people who have children without marrying, he said.
Of the 3,000 people in the survey, conducted by YouGov between Aug. 3 and 14, 47 percent were married, 11 percent were cohabiting, 6 percent were in a relationship, and 35 percent were not in a relationship.
Of those who were married, the average age at the time of marriage was 24, and the average number of children they have is 1.6.
In practice, the respondents' average number of children was less than their ideal. Fifty-five percent said two children are ideal for a family; 24 percent said three.
No money, no family?
There are demographic differences in how people view the importance of marriage before becoming a parent. Younger Americans and white Democrats, for example, are more likely to both endorse cohabitation and to practice it; while older and more religious people — along with African-American Democrats — are more likely to say it’s important to be married before having a baby.
When ranking the ideal sequence of relationship milestones, most Republicans and black Democrats said marriage should come first, then cohabitation and sex, with children later.
White Democrats, however, chose sex first, then cohabitation, then marriage, then children. "In other words, white Democrats are the only group for whom their ideal relationship sequence matches their actual behavior (at least on the group level)," the report says.
But all respondents stress the importance of financial stability, even over a relationship, across all demographic lines, Karpowitz said.
"When we analyze by household income, there are few differences between the poorest and richest respondents: financial stability is valued highly, no matter how much money the respondent makes," the report says.
Respondents were asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement “The cost of raising children is affordable for most people." More than half said they somewhat or strongly disagree. Thirteen percent said they somewhat or strongly agree.
When Karpowitz and Pope analyzed the financial status of the respondents' households, they learned the concerns are not unfounded. Parents suffer financial hardships in greater numbers than people who have no children, the survey reveals.
Nearly three-quarters of people with children still living at home said they were worried about paying at least one bill every month, compared to a little more than half of people without children at home.
More than one-quarter of respondents with children at home said they had failed to pay an important bill in the past year, twice as many as respondents who are not currently raising children.
Moreover, more than 1 in 5 respondents with children at home said they had borrowed money to pay bills, compared to 16 percent of those without children in the home.
And 44 percent of families with children said they had experienced a significant economic crisis in the past year, compared to 30 percent of those without children.
Veronica Banton, a mother of two in Columbia, South Carolina, said she and her husband have struggled financially through much of their 10-year-old marriage. Banton was on Medicaid when her first child, a daughter, was born when she was 20. And she received government benefits for food while her children were young. “There’s definitely something to be said for having enough money that all your bills are paid,” she said.
The couple didn’t marry for a year after their daughter was born, and then, it was primarily for the financial benefits. Both Banton and her husband had parents who divorced when they were in their teens, so they didn’t want to marry unless they had a good shot at making it last.
Stephanie Coontz, a marriage historian and the director of research at the Council on Contemporary Families, said that the survey findings reflect the economic changes that have occurred since the 1950s and 1960s when most couples married young, "before even the man, much less the woman, had a steady job. In fact, the job wasn't necessary for the woman and wouldn't have done the family all that much good.
"Today, by contrast, it takes two earners to achieve financial security, and even two earners are not going to be secure if they don't have health insurance, haven't paid off their debts, and don't have a steady job," said Coontz, who is also a history professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.
Moreover, many couples, such as the Bantons, delay marriage because of this financial insecurity, Coontz added.
"People do think a committed relationship is highly desirable, but even in a committed relationship, they may hesitate to actually marry until they have achieved financial security and paid off their debts," she said.
"But in the long run, ironically, they often end up having a child before they have met their economic security goals, either because accidents happen during the waiting period or because a woman thinks she may never find a man who will be a real economic and emotional partner but doesn't want to give up on the meaning and commitment that a child provides.''
Karpowitz, at Brigham Young University, said the survey makes clear that Americans worry about the high cost of having children, and that economic instability, real or perceived, affects people’s willingness to have children.
“One of the things that many demographers have been worried about is the declining birth rate. Some of that is related to modern society and the challenge of creating financial stability,” he said.
“And it’s notable, I think, that those sorts of financial worries are top of mind for many Americans even in the midst of what, by many indicators, at least, is a booming economy. We’re in economic good times and Americans are still reporting a great deal of concern about those sorts of financial stressors.”
'Life just happens'
Now 31, Banton graduated from college earlier this year, defying the sequencing of major life events that most Americans prefer. Looking back on the past 10 years, she says she wishes she had traveled and earned her degree before becoming a mom.
For example, as a child and family studies major at Columbia College, Banton learned about best developmental practices, such as the importance of reading to your children regularly when they are young. “The information I have now would have helped very much my ability to parent,” she said.
But even though the couple wasn’t financially secure — not even close — when they had their first child, Banton sees the good in those years.
“Neither of my pregnancies were planned, and we weren’t financially stable during either of our pregnancies, but we were happy, and we got through it,” she said.
Worried demographers may derive hope from the finding that, like Banton, Americans still believe children are a societal good. Fifty-seven percent of respondents either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Raising children is one of life’s greatest joys.”
Also, despite changes in how Americans build their families, every demographic group still believes that having children should be last in the sequence.
“We haven’t found any groups that place having children, say, before marriage, even though that occurs for many people. That’s notable,” Karpowitz said. “People still believe that the ideal is for children to be raised in the context of marriage, or at least in the context of a very committed relationship between the parents.”
And Ross, the mother of seven in Kent, Ohio, says that no matter what people achieve — or want to achieve — before having their first child, it will never be enough. “I feel like you can never really prepare yourself (for parenthood),” she said. “I could have waited forever and never been ready. Life just happens.”