Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage

I read this book in the hopes of learning why more young people do not enter college. The relevant information is shared below. In brackets, I have placed brainstorming ideas on how to ease or combat a prohibitor to college entrance.

By K. Edin and M. Kefalas

Introduction

“…children of single parents are still at greater risk” (3) [therefore, we need to target single parents and their children].

“While the poor women we interviewed saw marriage as a luxury, something they aspired to but feared they might never achieve, they judged children to be a necessity, an absolutely essential part of a young woman’s life, the chief source of identity and meaning.”

“…a baby born into such conditions represents an opportunity to prove one’s worth” (6).

“…an expectant mother uses pregnancy to test the strength of her bond with her man and take a measure of his moral worth” (7).

“But this insistence on economic independence also reflects a much deeper fear: no matter how strong the relationship, somehow the marriage will go bad. Women who rely on a man’s earnings, these mothers warn, are setting themselves up to be left with nothing if the relationship ends.”

“…it means lifelong commitment.”

“…poor young mothers seldom view an out-of-wedlock birth as a mark of personal failure but instead see it as an act of valor” (9).

“…central tenet of good mothering can be summed up in two words–being there.”

“Millie’s experiences show why the standards for prospective fathers appear to be so low. The answer is tangled up in the young women’s initial high hopes regarding the men in their lives, and the supreme confidence they have in their ability to rise to the challenge of motherhood. The key to the mystery lies not only in what mothers believe they can do for their children but in what they hope their children will do for them.”

“In some profound sense, these young women believe, a baby has the power to solve everything” (10).

“…mothering role, how it can become virtually the only source of identity and meaning in a young woman’s life.”

“…they manage to credit virtually every bit of good in their lives to the fact they have children…”

“…poor urban neighborhoods that have seen the most dramatic increases in single motherhood” (11). 

“Forty-five percent had no high school diploma, but 15 percent had earned a GED. A surprising number, nearly a third of the total, had participated in some kind of post-high school educational activities such as college, nurses- or teachers-aid training, or cosmetology school.

“…almost half were neither working nor in school when we met them. Forty percent held low-end service-sector jobs at the time, working as telemarketers, childcare workers, teacher’s aides, nurse’s aids, factory workers, cashiers, fast-food workers, waitresses, and the like” (25).

One: “Before We Had a Baby…”

Early pregnancy causing parents to abandon education and move directly into low paying jobs. 

“Yet expressing the desire to have a baby together is far from a promise of life-long commitment.”

“…the bond that shared children create may be the most significant and enduring tie available.”

“…extraordinarily high social value the poor place on children” (31).

“While middle-class teens and twenty-somethings anticipate completing college and embarking on careers, their lower-class counterparts can only dream of such glories. Though some do aspire to these goals, the practical steps necessary to reach them are often a mystery.” [We need to take the mystery out of this process.]

“A childhood embedded in a social network rich with children–…creates the illusion of a near Dr. Spock-like competence in childrearing.”

“As talk of shared children is part of the romantic dialogue poor young couples engage in from the earliest days of courtship…”

“Some youth decide to begin trying to get pregnant so they can escape a troubled home life” (33).

“Children…Young women also hunger for the love and intimacy they can provide.”

“…pregnancy offers the promise of relational intimacy at a time few other emotional resources are available.

“Trust among residents of poor communities is astonishingly low–so low that most mothers we spoke with said they have no close friends, and many even distrust close kin. The social isolation that is the common experience of those who live in poverty is heightened for adolescents, whose relationships with parents are strained by the developmental need to forge an independent identity. The ‘relational poverty’ that ensues can create a compelling desire to give and receive lobe. Who better to do so with, some figure, than a child they can call their own” (34). [The need to build supportive communities to thwart emotional isolation.]

“…many young women come to see parenthood as the point at which they can really start living” (35).

“…nearly universal agreement that all children ought to have a sibling or two to play with” (36).

“The potent mix of social shame, self-doubt, and compelling desire leads to accidents waiting to happen” (39).

“These young women often reject the idea that children–or at least the first child–will damage their future prospects much” (40).

“So though their neighborhoods and schools offer plenty of examples of young mothers who had to leave school and face extraordinarily hard times, they still provide an ample supply of counterexamples–young unmarried women who have succeeded in doing well by their children, ensuring that they’re clean, clothed, housed, fed, and loved. Armed with these role models, they insist that it doesn’t take a college education, a good job, a big house, matching furniture–or a marriage license–to be a good mother” (41). [Could women in this situation provide mentor duties for various programs?]

“Children, whether planned or not, are nearly always viewed as a gift, not a liability–a source of both joy and fulfillment whenever they happen upon the scene. They bring a new sense of hope and a chance to start fresh.

“…the way in which a young woman reacts in the face of a pregnancy is viewed as a mark of her worth as a person. And as motherhood is the most important social role she believes she will play, a failure to respond positively to the challenge is a blot on her sense of self” (43).

“…most still view the termination of a pregnancy as a tragedy…Virtually no woman we spoke with believed it was acceptable to have an abortion merely to advance an educational trajectory.” [So it would be unwise to focus on reducing young pregnancies. We have to focus on what comes next.]

“In absolute terms, the poor have more abortions than the middle class, but that is because they also have more pregnancies” (44).

“In choosing to bring a pregnancy to term, a young woman can capitalize on an important and rare opportunity to demonstrate her capabilities to her kin and community. Her willingness and ability to react to an unplanned pregnancy by rising to the challenge of the most serious and consequential of all adult roles is clear evidence that she is no longer a ‘trifling’ teenager” (45).

[Could we capitalize upon this can-do attitude to include education and job training?]

“…poor young women grab eagerly at the surest source of accomplishment within their reach: becoming a mother” (46).

“…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” (47).

Two: “When I Got Pregnant…”

“A child is one of the few things a young man can say he has created and one of the few ways he can make an early mark on the world.

“Unmarried fathers who ‘step off’ of their responsibility to their children–as they often do–are still the subject of contempt in these communities” (60).

“…the mother’s own mother is often an integral part of the parenting team as well” (66). [Could recruit mother/daughter teams to school or family combos?]

“Thus, the tiny row homes of these crowded urban neighborhoods often house a revolving cast of characters that spans three, sometimes four, generations. In fact, nearly half of our mothers live in such households” (67). [So, would living independently even be a benefit?]

Three: How Does the Dream Die?

The goal remains to marry and attain a stable relationship. [Couples counseling? Individual training to set up expectations, boundaries, and communication skills? What if there were a system set up that when one man left, the single mother would be paired with another single mother as a resource? They begin to work as a team.]

“Lack of money is certainly a contributing cause…”

“Job insecurity is endemic…” (75).

“Over time, however, a chronically unemployed father proves too much for most mothers to bear.” 

“Money usually becomes an issue because he seems unwilling to keep at a job for any length of time, usually because of issues related to respect. Some of the jobs he can get don’t pay enough to give him the self-respect he feels he needs, and others require him to get along with unpleasant customers and coworkers, and to maintain a submissive attitude toward the boss” (76). 

“Young mothers regularly rail against young fathers who squander too much of their earnings on alcohol, marijuana, new stereo components, computer accessories, expensive footwear, or new clothing, while the needs of the family are, in their view, not adequately met” (78).

“These disagreements over the father’s work effort and spending habits cut right to the heart of the couple’s relationship because, for the new mother, his behavior with regard to money is an emblem of his dedication to the family. Financial responsibility is often the yardstick by which she measures his love for and commitment to her and the child. For young and impoverished mothers working to establish a stable environment for their children, the making and spending of money is much more than a matter of income and expenses, of budgets and balance sheets: it is a morality play. Few women expect their baby’s fathers to be the sole breadwinners, but they believe that good fathers should at least try to stay employed, work at a legitimate trade, and turn over most of their earnings to the family” (79-80).

[Need to work on male level of responsibility.]

“…mother usually points to far more serious offenses as the prime forces that pull their young families apart. It is the drug and alcohol abuse…criminal behavior…incarceration…repeated infidelity…patterns of intimate violence…drug dealing…” (81).

“Young mothers reject drug dealing for both symbolic and practical reasons. On a symbolic level, residents of even the poorest communities believe that a good father must earn his living by respectable means. While drug money may substitute for legitimate pay at times, mothers agree that it ought to be a stop-gap measure during financial crises, not a long-term career. Practically speaking, dealing drugs is simply not a family-friendly activity. For starters, most mothers believe that life in the trade will land their baby’s father in a cell or a casket–not the ideal scenario for the man they are relying on the ‘be there for them and the child” (82-3).

“Though middle-class mothers are only rarely investigated for child abuse or neglect, the poor are much more likely to be under the scrutiny of Child Protective Services, whose workers are sometimes derisively called ‘baby snatchers’ by mothers in the communities we studied. Second, mothers also know that dealers often become ‘their own best customer,’ and ‘druggies’ make poor parents as well as poor partners. Mickey told us, ‘The drugs he was selling he started doing, which was cocaine.’ Finally, even those raising children in the worst of urban neighborhoods want desperately to teach the right values. Thus, the only thing worse than a baby’s father who is trying to make a living on the corner is a son or daughter who ends up doing the same” (84).

“…a prison record is an ongoing handicap for a man struggling to be a responsible father and support his children” (86). [Do we need to build in support for the formerly incarcerated through job partners that accept and know how to work with these men?]

“…heavy drinking and an addiction to drugs…It is impossible to overemphasize the devastating impact of drugs and alcohol on the lives of the men in the eight communities we studied. Outside observers often find it impossible to ignore the public displays of these addictions, the men with bloodshot eyes drinking ‘forties’ on the stoops, the strung-out addicts huddled in doorways or weaving down the sidewalks. But the destruction these toxins wreak inside of the family is equally profound. Drugs and alcohol can quickly transform men who are valued partners and fathers into villains who threaten the well-being of the family” (87).

“The first evidence of an addiction to alcohol or drugs is often a startling change of personality, a dramatic reshuffling of priorities that results in draining precious economic and emotional resources from the family as the addiction ‘takes him over’” (88).

“Physical abuse can be just as corrosive of trust as repeated infidelity, and though it occurs across class lines, it occurs more often among the poor” (94).

“Domestic violence, the chief culprit in most stories of relational ruin, is more common among our Puerto Ricans and whites than among the African Americans. Part of the reason may be that African American mothers are less likely to cohabit with a male partner, and the lack of common residence could serve as a protective factor. Infidelity was an equal opportunity relationship wrecker. The third most common problem, criminal behavior, was a more prominent feature in the breakup stories of our African American mothers. Given the restricted legal labor market for unskilled black men, this is not surprising. Similarly, incarceration figured in the accounts of more African American mothers. …drugs are more likely to bring trouble with the law” (98).

“Women seem to welcome the social closure that a birth brings… Very often, though, the father seems to catch cabin fever.

“Fathers also get fewer rewards from their peers in their new status as a parent than mothers do.”

“The transition to parenthood means that the demands on young men dramatically increase just as the rewards of the relationship are radically reduced” (100).

“Many men respond to these pressures by returning to their street-corner associations in a relatively short period of time” (101).

Four: What Marriage Means

“Unlike women of earlier generations, poor women today almost universally reject the idea that marriage means financial reliance on a male breadwinner.” Maybe why more women are in college? “…they believe their own earnings and assets are what buys them power” (112).

“These women believe that getting married to a man and living off of his earnings practically ensures an imbalance of power they’ll find intolerable” (113).

“Poor young women who put motherhood before marriage do not generally do so because they reject the institution of marriage itself, but because good, decent, trustworthy men are in short supply. Though they hope for marriage and often hold it as a central goal, most are at least somewhat skeptical that it can be achieved” (130).

“They hold marriage to a high economic standard, one requiring as much from themselves as from the men they hope to marry. Even more important are the relationship standards they hold for marriage. Though many do find men who are seemingly decent, the mistrust generated by painful past experiences means that even the most hopeful mothers approach marriage with extreme caution. Marriage, which should be for life, requires all the thought and care in the world. In the meantime, they get on with the business of creating a family” (131). 

“Some have argued that the decline of marriage, which is most pronounced among the poor, can be traced to declining male wages. Indeed, men with a high school education or less have seen large losses in hourly wages over the last thirty years, and far fewer are able to find full-time, year-round employment. But it is clear from these stories that even if the employment and wage rates in these neighborhoods returned to their 1950s levels, in the heyday of Philadelphia’s economy, the marriage rate probably wouldn’t increase much. Though male wages for unskilled workers were higher in those days and jobs more plentiful, unskilled male laborers were not paid that well, and the nature of Philadelphia’s system of small craft production meant that even jobholders in the 1950s still faced a highly unstable job market.

“Most studies suggest that at best, declining male employment and earnings can only account for about 20 percent of the sharp downturn in marriage. Our stories suggest that many of the men who would have been considered marriageable in the 1950s would not be so today, for few 1950s marriages waited on the acquisition of a home mortgage, a car, some furniture, and two solid jobs. Even fewer 1950s brides insisted on monitoring their mates’ behavior over four, five, or six years’ time before they believed they could trust them enough to wed” (135).

“This does not mean that marriage has lost its significance, either for the culture as a whole or for the poor. The most fundamental truth these stories reveal is that the meaning of marriage has changed. It is no longer primarily about childbearing and childrearing. Now, marriage is primarily about adult fulfillment, it is something poor women do for themselves, and their dreams about marriage are a guilty pleasure compared to the hard tasks of raising a family. Though women living in disadvantaged social contexts often wish they could indulge in a marriage at the same time that they’re raising their children, it is simply not practical for most. If a marriage is to be lasting, it must have a strong economic foundation that both partners help to build, in which the woman maintains some level of economic independence. The couple relationship must also be strong enough to overcome the problems that so frequently lead to divorce, because marriage, which most still say is sacred, involves making promises–promises to be faithful and stay together for a lifetime. And as Deena Vallas puts it, most are not willing to make promises they are not sure they can keep.”

“…unless poor women can improve their own positions through education and work, they have no choice but to abandon the dream of marriage altogether or attempt to change the available men” (136).

Five: Labor of Love

“Spending time with their children is one of the most powerful tools women like Dominique feel they can use to shield their children from the dangers of their neighborhood’s streets.”  [Bring older kids to class?]

“Modeling a commitment to education…” (139).

“…The neighborhood is often the greatest impediment to their aspirations for their children” (149). [Providing on or near-campus housing for families during the length of their education. Home placement after graduation.]

[Both learning in the same classroom?] “These mothers often admit that their own difficult experiences with school make them tentative and anxious when dealing with teachers about their child’s academic progress. For a mother who still struggles with reading, her seventh-grader’s language arts homework may contain vocabulary words she has never heard. Likewise, a fifth-grade math curriculum may be beyond the capacity of a parent who struggled in school herself, leaving her ill-equipped to help with homework. Even many middle-class parents we know complain that they barely understand some aspects of their fifth or sixth grader’s math homework. Jasmine, thirty-eight, a Puerto Rican mother of two adult children and a four-year-old, who dropped out of school in the eleventh grade, worries in particular about math. ‘I’m lousy with math, and that’s the one thing I’m afraid of. I’m thinking, Am I going to be able to help him out with math?’ She says that when she was in school, ‘I didn’t have no one to [help me]. That’s why I struggled…I would just sit there [in math class] terrified.’”

“A central problem among the mothers we spoke with was how to reinforce the value of school to their children when they themselves had often not listened to their own parents in this regard. Mothers with histories of academic failure often find themselves in the awkward position of preaching the message ‘Do as I say and not as I do’ while they threaten, bribe, and cajole their children not to ‘mess up,’ urging them to ‘do better than Mommy.’ Paula, a Puerto Rican forty-year-old who did not manage to realize her dream of completing college, tries to encourage her fifteen-year-old to take a different path by pointing to the consequences of her own missteps and failures. ‘I want her to be more educated…I used to go to school [and] clown around a lot…check out the boys. And I never really paid attention to reading and all the spelling.’ At the same time that she tells these cautionary tales, she attempts to instill the high aspirations that she believes will motivate her child to do well. ‘You want a real good job making $40,000 to $50,000 per year. You want to be a doctor? You have to know how to read real good, spell real good and know your math real good.’ ‘Nowadays,’ she reasons, ‘if you want a job [even]…flipping burgers, you need a high school diploma” (153)! 

“A woman’s boy is meant to have children! Your breasts, your ovaries were given to you by God to bear children, not just to give a man sexual pleasure. It is selfish and wrong to be childless” (165)!

Six: How Motherhood Changed My Life

“…many unmarried teens bear children that are conceived only after they’ve already experienced academic difficulties or dropped out of school.”

“Poor youth are driven by a logic that is profoundly counterintuitive to their middle-class critics, who sometimes assume that poor women have children in a twisted competition with their peers to gain status, because they have an insufficient knowledge of–or access to–birth control, or so they can ‘milk’ the welfare system. Yet our mothers almost never refer to these motivations. Rather, it is the perceived low costs of early childbearing and the high value that poor women place on children–and motherhood–that motivate their seemingly inexplicable inability to avoid pregnancy.

“These poor young women are not unusually altruistic, though parenthood certainly requires self-sacrifice. What outsiders do not understand is that early childbearing does not actually have much effect on a low-skilled young woman’s future prospects in the labor market. In fact, her life chances are so limited already that a child or two makes little difference, as we document in the next chapter. What is even less understood, though, are the rewards that poor women garner from becoming mothers. These women rely on their children to bring validation, purpose, companionship, and order to their often chaotic lives–things they find hard to come by in other ways. The absolute centrality of children in the lives of low-income mothers is the reason that so many poor women place motherhood before marriage, even in the face of harsh economic and personal circumstances. For women like Millie, marriage is a longed-for luxury; children are a necessity” (172).

“…many mothers tell us they cannot name one person they would consider a friend, and the turmoil of adolescence often breeds a sense of alienation from daily as well.” [The need for peers and friends.] 174

Conclusion

Making Sense of Single Motherhood

“Providing more access to stable, living-wage employment for both men and women should therefore be a key policy objective” (219).

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tattooedprofessor

I'm a doctor of philosophy in Literary and Cultural Studies which makes me interested in everything! I possess special training in text analysis, African American literature, Women and Gender Studies, American lit, World Lit and writing. I work as an assistant professor of English in Memphis.

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