Thursday, November 1, 2007

Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage

Promises to Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage (University of California Press, 2005, 293 pages) is well worth reading for anyone who is interested in family formation and also in how the nation's poor are living. The book is based on a six-year study by Kathryn Edin, Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, and Maria Kefalas, Assistant Professor of Sociology at Saint Joseph's University. Both schools are in Philadelphia, and the book is the result of a years'-long field study in five impoverished neighborhoods in the city and three poor neighborhoods in Camden, NJ, right across the Delaware River. Given that Philadelphia is a heavily segregated city, two neighborhoods were white, two were predominantly African American, and one was three were Hispanic. The Camden neighborhoods were a mix of African American and Hispanic. The authors lived in the neighborhoods; got to know the neighborhood stores, churches, and schools; and interviewed in-depth and over time 162 young mothers.
First off, their findings put to rest the notion that women have children as a means to collect welfare money for themselves. That was not the case with any of these women. However, probably by virtue of the fact that they were willing to be interviewed, none of these women were drug addicts or what they themselves would call "bad mothers" who pursued a degraded or addictive life, with uncared for children in tow. (One mother did say, however, that she had had her child taken away from her for a period of time by Social Services, and had then straightened up to get the child back and to keep it.) Many women indicated the contrary: having a child had saved them from a lifestyle of drugs, partying, alcohol abuse, and promiscuity. Many said that if it were not for their child or children, they would be dead or in jail.

This held true for African Americans, whites, and Hispanics.
The book concludes that the attitude toward marriage of these women was closely aligned with the overall American societal view of marriage as an undertaking that should be postponed until both partners are ready and that should not take place until there has been a trial run with co-habitation and enough time for testing the trustworthiness of the other partner. As women, they did not want to enter into a marriage until they had accumulated some money of their own and enough resources and skills to make it on their own if the marriage should end in separation and/or divorce. The women wanted to show that they could bring something to the table so that they would not need to be subservient to the man, but could pull out stakes if abuse of the woman or children (usually accompanied by moral and financial disintegration of the man) should occur. Women in both the middle and poor classes do not have enough faith in the men that they are with to pool their resources and put in together and work together to achieve the white picket fence dream of minimal economic security. They want to make their own money on their own first and they also want an escape hatch.
The women also indicated that they did not want to enter into marriage and then have to divorce. They all seemed to indicate that they took marriage very seriously and did not want their marriage just to be a piece of paper and did not want to break their vows. Hence, they seemed to indicate, their caution in entering into it. Several of the women said that their male partners were ready and willing to marry, but they were not, at least not yet. The authors note that steady employment and other criteria that would have made a young man marriageable in the 1950s no longer deemed sufficient by the women of today. Women wanted more assurances of their survival in marriage--mostly assurances that they wanted to create on their own first.
However, whereas middle-class women are postponing marriage and also postponing childbirth, poor women see having children early in life, certainly when they are in their twenties, as a necessity. They also see being a "good mother" as a necessity, which means that the woman is willing to sacrifice to ensure that her child is clothed, clean, well-fed, and safe. Almost all the women said that being a good mother means "being there" for your child, in good times and in bad. And, it is noteworthy, these women considered their offspring to be "my child," "my children"--never "ours."
The authors documented that although the male partners in the pregnancies of these women all had varying reactions to the pregnancy--at its announcement, during, at the point of childbirth, and thereafter--most relationships between the woman and that man disintegrated within the short to mid-term. In most cases, the man would revert to the type of behavior that the women had foresworn--partying, infidelity, drugs, alcohol abuse, crime, domestic violence, especially if there was a loss of employment.
In this regard, the book documents that Philadelphia has been hit very hard by the process of deindustrialization beginning in 1970. The wages of low-skilled men have plummeted over the years, and the opportunities for steady employment with some hope of advancement are few and far between. In the picture below of the Kensington neighborhood in Philadelphia, one of the neighborhoods surveyed, note the vacant factory.

In contrast, women, motivated by the desire to provide their children with a better life, were much more willing to go to school and to work, to work doubly hard to achieve their financial goals and to try to achieve a middle class living standard to the extent possible and with varying levels of success, most likely depending upon their determination and also the degree of familial support from parents, grandparents, etc.
For these women, their children were a source of positive identity--someone to love unconditionally and someone who would love them in return unconditionally, someone for whom they would have to create order and leave behind the habits of their often-chaotic young lives.
For these women, men were important but remained as adjuncts that they did not expect or want to depend upon, although almost all women interviewed retained marriage as a life goal. The book did not attempt to analyze the toll that this form of matriarchal system takes on the children--particularly on boys raised from an early age without fathers.
The intimacy that the authors achieved in this work, their clarity of writing, and the extent to which they allowed the women to tell their own stories and to explain themselves make this book a compelling and fascinating read. It is also an eye-opener on the degree to which (1) poor women look to their children as the major and sometimes only positive source of their identities and (2) the degree to which marriage is falling by the wayside as an institution in America, despite the fact, as the authors state at the outset, that it has been shown again and again that children do best in an environment in which their biological parents are lawfully wedded and living together.


Tessa said...

Everything they're doing sounds pretty sensible. The higher-class pattern of putting off childbearing until the mid-thirties or later certainly doesn't work very well. This raises the question of whether marriage can work if women have any independence. The old model kept families together by making it impossible for women to leave. Now that women can survive on their own, how do you get them to surrender that freedom and put up with a permanent partner?

Anonymous said...

work for a company which employs the 'working poor', 70% of whom are black. The male employees generally are paying child support (in the form of attached wages) for 2-3, sometimes 4 different women and children. The female employees all have kids, many with multiple men, almost all unmarried. (Flashback to my experiences in the rural south, circa 1964, where all the 'little girls', some as young as 15 or 16, had babies. These girls lived at home.
Whereas the researchers (acc. to your review of their work) believe welfare is not an 'incentive' to have children, a social system which supports the culture of unwed births and single moms does. That may include families (especially grandmothers, many of whom end up raising the babies of babies); state aid in various forms - food stamps, housing supplements, medicare, etc. My own secretary, who is 25 and has two kids from two different fathers, lives alone and makes $15/hour, sends both kids to a private school (school of choice) and just bought a new FHA-financed house. She knows every trick in the book, with a little help from me and other people, and there are so many services available out there it's amazing.
What is most striking, however, about the research, is the casualness (from a middle class standpoint) with which babies are brought into the world. I have more anxiety and trepidation about getting a dog than these kids do about having children -- they have seen their mothers, aunts, grandmothers, sisters, neighbors and cousins do it. It's part of the natural course of life, almost an expected rite of passage, and as was pointed out it's something to love, to have as your own. The natural maternal instinct binds the mother to the child, but women can't expect that from men (men have no maternal instincts , black white poor or rich. But that is another subject). The other thing is what you pointed out at the end, the dispensability and uselessness, of marriage and men, in this system as a function of this culture. It's like African American women (in particular) just don't think these men have anything to offer as a partner in fathering a child or building a life and future. Even if they have a job or income, that doesn't seem like a sufficient incentive or advertisement for these guys. Companionship doesn't seem necessary, though probably sex and romance are, of which there's no shortage. Added on to that is the failure to see how or why a man's presence and influence could be an important value for a child. There is a blindness here and a dependency, for the mother on the child, which (for me) has almost a criminal component. I guess they call it dysfunctionality in sociological-speak. How can that be overcome?
Just my thoughts over my coffee. Thanks for pointing out the book.

Linda said...

Thank you Tessa and Anonymous for your comments. The book really offers a lot of food for thought I think on family formation in the USA for both poor and middle-class. I guess it is a phenomenon we know to exist but when confronted with the way in which these women deal with their situations in such stark terms, it makes one think. Is this trend irreversible? If not, what then? I also get the feeling that the glorified view of the picket-fence marriage, which the authors say is held across the spectrum of the society, turns into an excuse for not making a commitment to marriage or rather to another adult person. Thanks again.

elena maria vidal said...

Very interesting article! Thanks!!