Published: June 6, 2018

Download: Life Course Centre Working Paper: 2018-02


Sergi Vidal and Yara Jarallah.

Non-Technical Summary:

Recent decades have witnessed dramatic changes in partnership behaviour, with cohabitation, union dissolution and re-partnering (beyond marriage) on the rise in most industrialized countries, including Australia. As a consequence, childbearing within marital unions has decreased dramatically. While the increase in childbearing within cohabitation is well documented, less attention has been paid to the implications of increasing diversity in the number of partners and union statuses for contemporary childbearing. As childbearing years are the time when much of the increasing turnover in partnership occurs, these new partnerships provide opportunities for (further) childbearing. In fact, some initial evidence indicates that childbearing with new partners may constitute a large number of births in contemporary societies. The bulk of the studies, however, focused on continued childbearing with subsequent partners or childbearing in the context of step families. The dissolution of first marital unions and its relation to post-marital fertility has received little attention.

Our study contributes to understanding childbearing patterns after marital dissolution in four ways. First, we examine the associations between union dissolution decisions and post-marital first-time parenthood as well as parity progressions. Second, we elaborate and test an explanation to post-marital childbearing that builds on the thesis that relationships are instrumental for childbearing. We argue that individuals initiate union dissolutions to leave union contexts that are not deemed appropriate for parenthood or for a rewarding family life. Third, we address selective processes in post-marital fertility. Although union and childbearing decisions are highly inter-related, the specific mechanisms that lead individuals to dissolve unions, re-partner, and build or grow their families are still largely unknown and so we account for these unobserved factors in our modelling strategy. Fourth, while previous scholarship on childbearing after union dissolution has come from North America and Europe, we focus on a different context- Australia. We use data from the Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey.

Our results show that while union dissolution in Australia is associated with lower rates of first-time parenthood, rates of parity progression are similar across stable first marital and subsequent unions. This suggests that in Australia re-partnering serves as a driver for continued childbearing and compensates for lost births (from dissolution) to some degree. Against our arguments of dissolution initiation as an instrument for achieving parenthood, we find that initiating the dissolution of the first marital union does not significantly reduce the time to first or higher-order conceptions. This result supports the idea that post-marital childbearing rationales are heterogeneous and suggests that union dissolution decision making is complex and includes a range of conditions that might or might not be associated with fertility plans. Finally, we find that childbearing and union dissolutions are associated on individual-specific unobserved factors. Thus, we conclude that further research is needed linking the causes and context of union dissolution with post-marital fertility behavior.


January 23, 2018