Babies, not wedding bells, were on Natasha Montero's mind. Both she and her boyfriend, Paul Taylor, were divorcees when the couple decided to move in together in 2010. They knew they'd eventually marry, but both were in their mid-30s, and Montero said a marriage certificate wasn't at the forefront of their minds.
It was just a different "age and circumstance" to consider, she said. In her prior marriage, Montero, now 37, was diagnosed with polycystic ovarian syndrome, a hormonal disorder that can make it difficult to become pregnant. She said the chance of getting pregnant was slim, but she wanted to try for a baby before she said, "I do."
"We knew our end goal was marriage, but, in mapping out our future, we decided we'd try and become pregnant to see if it could happen, and if it didn't work out, we knew we'd get married and adopt," said Montero.
Montero got pregnant about eight months after moving in with Taylor. She was 36.
"We didn't think it would happen, but he's our little miracle," Montero said of her son, Alexander, who is now almost 7 months old.
Age played a major part in the decision to have a child before marriage, she said. Along with the idea that her biological clock was ticking, Montero said planning for a wedding, when extended family lived on different coasts and continents, seemed daunting. The New York couple said babies were the priority.
Montero and Taylor became engaged about one month ago. There is no wedding date set.
Now new research published Thursday shows that Montero is one of millions of Americans who are putting baby plans before wedding plans. A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly one in four first-born babies, or 22 percent, are born to unmarried couples living together. The numbers jumped dramatically from 12 percent in 2002.
"More people are cohabitating and more people cohabitating are likely to have children," Gladys Martinez, lead author of the study, told ABCNews.com. "We were surprised by the numbers because it was quite a jump from such a short time, just 10 years ago."
The findings were based on data from more than 23,000 face-to-face interviews with American men and women ages 15 to 44. Men and women with lower education levels were more likely to have more children than people who attended college. Hispanic women were more likely to give birth at an earlier age and have more children than other races, as well.
Experts say a cultural acceptance of having children out-of-wedlock, along with the economic downturn, contribute to the dramatic jump in children born to unmarried couples who live together.
According to recent studies, more than half of American married couples live together before they get married, and, for the most part, living together out of wedlock has become commonly accepted among Americans," said Ellie Kay, a family financial expert from Palmdale, Calif. In the case of some famous, unmarried celebrities, such as Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, the cohabitating is even "applauded."
According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 38 percent of Americans believe that unmarried couples living together is bad for society, but half said it doesn't make a difference, Kay noted.
Despite the normalcy and acceptance, Kay said it's still important to "take steps to protect your own interest because the law doesn't recognize your relationship, whether it's happy, longstanding or even if it's committed."
Yours, Mine, Ours
Unmarried cohabitating couples face difficulties that married couples don't generally have. The main issue is the question of "yours, mine and ours."
A legally binding marriage helps to organize that landscape, but without a contract, things can get messy if a relationship goes awry. It's a matter of self-defense when you don't have anything on paper to defend your interests, Kay said.
Housing, estate planning and insurance are all factors to consider when deciding to move in, and have a child, with a partner with whom you're not married.
"Unlike married couples, the courts won't assume you have equal ownership of the house in the event of a breakup," said Kay. "The house will go to whomever is on the title, even if one partner puts 75 percent of the money into the home and the other only antes up 25 percent, it will be an equal divide."
Kay said partners must make sure both names are on the title of a house. When a child is added to the housing issue and the couple breaks up, "the child's housing future may become collateral damage."
An estate plan is also particularly essential for unmarried couples because, "If you die without a will, your estate will be divided according to state law, which usually doesn't recognize domestic partners or common law spouses, and, in some cases, may not recognize the child."
As for health insurance, Kay suggested that, if both people are insured through work, keep the separate plans.
Otherwise, "If your partner is a legal dependent, then that would be the other exception," said Kay. "However, getting legal dependency declared is very difficult. You should draw up a durable power of attorney for health care and make sure you've drawn up advanced health care directives."
Ebbs and Flows of Non-Marriage
Committed unwed couples go through the same ebbs and flows of a typical marriage, and it is to-be-expected that there will be difficulties and disagreements, said Dr. Fran Walfish, child and family psychotherapist and author of "The Self-Aware Parent."
"I have treated many unwed couples who, after time, experience the same decrease in romance, sexual excitation and libido that married couples go through," said Walfish. "Generally I find that both partners love and engage with their children similarly to married couples.
That said, the alternative relationship can indeed work between two "willing, open honest partners," Walfish said. "They bring with them the same histories, strengths and challenges that married parents carry down."
As for Montero, the new mom said she was not surprised by the study's findings of rising rates of children born to unmarried, but committed, parents.
"The reality is that there are so many women putting their career first and really thinking about their future, which is amazing," she said. "In my situation, it didn't work out the first time around. We're giving it a second go-around, and we're throwing tradition to the wind and doing it our way."