Cohabitation And Conception: Lockdown’s Continued Impact On Families
Published on 17 August, 2022 | James Brown
From the point at which the spread of Covid-19 was declared a pandemic, the virus has made its significant presence felt in the UK in a wide variety of ways.
Even more than the horrifying death toll – 186,000 lives lost so far in this country out of a global total of more than 6.5 million (https://github.com/CSSEGISandData/COVID-19) – coronavirus has generated impact which will affect lives and businesses for some time to come.
Another example has been seen in recent days with the publication of data by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) on births last year (https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/livebirths/bulletins/birthsummarytablesenglandandwales/2021).
On the face of it, the headline numbers, seem relatively unsurprising. There were 624,828 children born in England and Wales – a slight increase (1.8 per cent) on the previous year but still below the figure for 2019 (640,370).
As is so often the case, though, a more intriguing picture is created if we look a little deeper at what the ONS has issued.
One of the elements which has already raised eyebrows is the fact that for the first time there were more children born outside of marriages and civil partnerships than within: 320,713 compared to 304,115.
In just 12 months, the number of children born to spouses or civil partners fell by three per cent, while those born to single parents or cohabitees increased by almost seven per cent.
It is a far cry from 1845, the earliest year for which full birth statistics are available, when children born outside of marriages accounted for only seven per cent of all 543,521 births in England and Wales.
Furthermore, the number of children born to unmarried parents has quadrupled in the space of 40 years.
There is little doubt that the ONS’s latest report represents something of a watershed moment, continuing the influence which cohabitation is having on household life in this country.
Yet, as I’ve been telling James Beal, the Times’ Social Affairs Correspondent, there are other, immediate factors which shouldn’t be overlooked as possible causes for the dramatic year-on-year shift.
During the period covered by these figures, far fewer couples were able to marry because of lockdown.
Even so, they weren’t prevented from living together.
In fact, less than 24 hours after Boris Johnson announced the first set of Covid-19 restrictions, individuals were advised by the then Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jenny Harries, that they could either move in together or remain unable to see one another for a “significant period” (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/24/budding-couples-in-uk-told-to-live-together-or-stay-apart).
Many chose to cohabit rather than have their relationships effectively put on hold for an indefinite length of time.
Being under the same roof meant that they were able to maintain a level of intimacy which simply wouldn’t have been possible had they been apart and that, of course, might have resulted in them becoming parents – a “lockdown blip”, as The Times summarised it.
What we can’t tell for now, at least, is whether those cohabiting couples who had children last year are just not inclined to marry or if they intend to make their relationship more formal at some point.
We will be reliant on future sets of helpful ONS’ data to illustrate which might be the case.
Nevertheless, it is clear that there is simply not the same stigma about having children out of wedlock that there was in previous generations.
Part of that might be down to the persistent myth of the ‘common law spouse’, something remarked upon in recent weeks in a report produced by the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee (https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/328/women-and-equalities-committee/news/172666/myth-of-common-law-marriage-leaves-disadvantaged-groups-disproportionately-at-risk).
It may be that some of those who became unmarried parents in 2021 did so in the belief that having a child might reinforce their legal status as a couple and almost put them on a par with couples who have either married or entered into a civil partnership.
That, however, as the Women and Equalities Committee, the Law Commission and many other experts have remarked, is absolutely not the case.