I just finished reading the book Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage by Kathrn Edin & Maria Kefalas, and I was really moved by it. It’s a sociological study of poor women who are white, black and Latina in several neighborhoods in the greater Philadelphia area. All of them are mothers, and all of them were unmarried when they had kids.
The major question the book seeks to answer is why poor women don’t get married before having kids. For most of the women in the book, pregnancy was unplanned, which seems like a pretty good explanation to me. But beyond just not getting married before pregnancy, what the authors find is that poor women do want to get married–but that for women who want to have a white-picket-fence life, it doesn’t make much sense to wait to have kids. The picket fence is only going to be attainable later in life, and who wants to raise their kids when they’re old?
In addition, there’s a common thread of women who don’t trust the man they’re with to really be there for them. He may be the baby daddy, but that doesn’t mean he’s bringing home any bacon, nor does it mean that he’s not someone else’s baby daddy, too. The women express, multiple times, a desire to ‘test’ their man, to see if he’s really the right one. The last thing they want is for their hard-won marriages to end in divorce.
It gave me new insight into a couple of experiences that I’ve had in my organizing career. The first was something that happened when I was in my late 20s, working on a political campaign near LA. I had a number of young guys working on the campaign with me, one of whom asked me one night if I had any kids.
My immediate reaction was to say, “oh my god no.” He looked at me funny, and said, “why did you say that?” I kind of stammered around, and eventually told him that, among my circle of friends, most people didn’t have kids. He, of course, was younger than me, and had several. It wasn’t so much the age distinction, though, it was a class line that separated us.
The second involves a woman I’ll call Ms. B., who I first met four or five years ago. She’s in her late forties/early fifties, has grown children, and is a grandmother. Since I’ve known her, Ms. B has been in a relationship with the same man, N. I don’t know if he’s the father of her children—I’ve always assumed so, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of thing I want to ask about—but they’ve clearly been living together for a long time. Last year, they got married.
I’ve wondered, when it happened, what had made them finally decide to get married, and after reading this book, I feel like I have a little more insight into the process. It also made me realize how much of my own thinking about marriage and children was a result of social programming from the time and place where I grew up.