Promises I Can Keep:
Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage
Whether married or not, poor mothers -- especially poor mothers who diverge from middle-class childbearing norms -- are disparaged by pundits, politicians, and other relatively privileged folks who blame the poor for the persistence of poverty. According to Ruth Sidel, "One of the reasons that American society is so ready to blame single mothers for nearly all the problems faced by the American family is the myth that individuals are largely in control of their destiny -- that teenagers knowingly get pregnant, that most single mothers have made a 'lifestyle' decision to raise children on their own, that the impoverished are simply not working hard enough." But as David Shipler documents in his prize-winning book, "The Working Poor" (2004), the causes of poverty are complex and impossible to isolate. Poor people make poor life choices that increase their vulnerability, but do not have the same options and opportunities as non-poor people do, and have fewer resources to help them recover from personal or economic setbacks. To borrow from Jane Juffer's analysis, non-poor mothers and poor mothers inhabit different spaces and communities, and their everyday lives are markedly different. Poor mothers have some choices and mobility, but not the choices and level of mobility middle class mothers take for granted.
In "Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage," Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas report the findings of their two-and-a-half year field study of 162 young, unmarried mothers living in Philadelphia's blighted urban neighborhoods. Although considerable research has been devoted to understanding the dramatic increase in non-marital child bearing among young women in low-income communities, Edin and Kefalas saw that the "perspectives and life experiences" of low-income single mothers were mostly absent from the body of scientific evidence. In the course of their interviews and interactions with the women in their study, Edin and Kefalas found that low-income teenagers do, in fact, "knowingly" become pregnant, and many consider early, out-of-wedlock child-bearing as not only a valid life option, but a mature and responsible choice.
"To most middle class observers, depending on their philosophical take on things, a poor woman with children but no husband, diploma or job is either a victim of her circumstances or undeniable proof that American society is coming apart at the seams," the authors write. "But in the social world inhabited by poor women, a baby born into such conditions represents an opportunity to prove one's worth." While the poor women they studied perceive marriage as a "luxury" -- "something they aspired to but feared they might never achieve" -- having children is viewed as a necessity, "an absolutely essential part of a young woman's life, the chief source of identity and meaning." And while the exclusive rhetoric of Single Mothers by Choice identifies the ideal single mother as a woman who has "completed college," and is "able to support a child without recourse to public funds," the young women in "Promises I Can Keep" express a high degree of confidence in their ability to be excellent mothers despite their disadvantaged circumstances.
If the stories in "Promises I Can Keep" have anything to tell us about the big picture of single motherhood in America, it that it's neither possible nor productive to try to interpret the experiences and expectations of young, low-income single mothers through the myopic lens of middle-class norms. "Middle-class beliefs about the right way to start a family are conditioned by a social context that provides huge economic rewards for those who are willing to wait to have children until a decade or more after attaining sexual maturity. …From this privileged vantage point, a disadvantaged young woman's willingness to bear a child well before she is of legal age is beyond comprehension."
The middle-class standpoint is an especially unreliable filter for understanding poor women's attitudes about unplanned pregnancy and abortion. "Abortion is sometimes accepted as necessary -- when a young woman's situation is deemed truly desperate," Edin and Kefalas explain, but "most do not view their own circumstances as dire enough to qualify."
Mothers who choose abortion when the have the means to avoid it are viewed as immature at best and immoral at worst, unable or unwilling to face up to the consequences of their own actions. But beyond the confines of this moral landscape is the fundamental fact that, for these disadvantaged youth, a pregnancy offers young women who say their lives are "going nowhere fast" a chance to grasp at a better future. Choosing to end a pregnancy is thus like abandoning hope. Whereas outsiders generally view childbearing in such circumstances as irresponsible and self-destructive, within the social milieu of these down-and-out neighborhoods the norms work in reverse, the choice to have a child despite the obstacles that lie ahead is a compelling demonstration of young women's maturity and high moral stature.
Obviously, demonizing low-income single mothers is dehumanizing and pointless -- given their circumstances and limited opportunities for self-determination, Edin and Kefalas write, "children offer a tangible source of meaning, while other avenues for gaining social esteem and personal satisfaction appear vague and tenuous." Yet it's equally problematic to romanticize the struggles of poor unmarried mothers as heroic or transgressive by default. Instead, those of us on the "outside" should strive for an objective understanding of the social and economic realities that shape the worldview of mothers whose attitudes about childbearing and child-rearing are, in many respects, profoundly different from our own.
Although young, low-income mothers "seldom view an out-of-wedlock birth as a mark of personal failure," unsympathetic political leaders almost certainly do. Rather than considering what a care-positive community would look like from the perspective of poor mothers -- whether single or partnered -- and what types of services and supports would enhance their mobility and self-sufficiency, public policies are presently geared toward discouraging out-of-wedlock childbearing among low-income women by increasing the opportunity costs (such as imposing work requirements and a five-year lifetime limit on TANF benefits) and promoting marriage as a cure to systemic poverty. The problem, say Edin and Kefalas, is that policymakers assume it's possible to compel women to modify their behavior without addressing the structural factors that push low-income women into single motherhood in the first place. "Conservatives are acting on the premise that not being married is what makes so many women and children poor. But poor women insist that their poverty is part of what makes marriage so difficult to sustain. …As long as they have so few other ways to establish a sense of self-worth and meaning, early childbearing among young women in precarious economic conditions is likely to continue."