promises I can keep

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.


October 9, 2007. books for grown-ups.


  1. alala replied:

    “why poor women don’t get married before having kids”

    I think that’s a very interesting (by which I mean loaded) way to frame the question, because it presumes that these women have the option, and are not taking it, and that the wishes of the children’s fathers are simply not a factor. I’m not a sociologist, but that doesn’t really sound true. Does the whole book operate on that presumption?

  2. Elizabeth replied:

    I thought this was an excellent book. I blogged about it last year —

    alala, the book definitely focuses on the women. I think the authors would say that the choice of whether to have children is within the women’s power, but that the choice of whether to get married is not.

  3. Anjali replied:

    Sounds fascinating. I look forward to reading it.

  4. landismom replied:

    Ah, Elizabeth, thanks–I knew that I’d read a review of this book on someone’s blog last year–should’ve known it was yours.

    Alala, I think that one of the important points that the authors make is that women do choose not to get married–because they take marriage very seriously, and don’t want to rush into it. I don’t want to overstate the case, but there are several examples cited of women who have the option to get married to their child/ren’s father, and choose not to, because of problems with the relationship.

  5. thordora replied:

    Testing the relationship sounds a lot like what many of us do anyway, just not to the same extreme-and face it-some women may have a lot more to lose than just the guy, so it really is a test.

    I wonder too, how much may have to do with unreliable masculine figures for many of these women (if not many of us)-if it’s more “allowable” in those class circles, even desirable to remain unmarried, then they do have the chance to test the waters before jumping in.

    I think I really want to read the book before I keep talking out of my ass though. 😛

  6. Kimberly replied:

    hmmm….clearly it’s a topic that’s close to my heart. And anecdote is not a synonym for evidence….but I wonder what they say about women like me? Women who come from solidly middle class families. A long line of 2 parent, stay at home mom homes. Who reject that dynamic and forge a new reality for themselves?

    Because the truth is, I never had any desire to marry the father of either of my children. Of course, I also had no desire to have them father my children, so best laid plans and all that….But what about the women like me, I wonder?

  7. landismom replied:

    Kmberly–to a certain extent, I would say that this book is not about women like you. (I say “to a certain extent,” because I’m making some assumptions about your economic status, based on the conversations we’ve had over the years, and stuff you’ve written on your blog—but those things are subject to reasonable misinterpretation, so maybe I’m misinterpreting).

    It’s really about women who are living in poverty–who grew up in some of the roughest neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Camden. I don’t think one woman in the book went to college, and many of them did not finish high school, having dropped out to have their children while they were still teens.

    I think that some of this research was prompted by–or at least related to–the welfare reform that was happening in the US in the late ’90s/early 21st century. Edin has done a bunch of work on welfare reform. There is a reference at one point in the book to Wade Horn, the ‘Marriage Czar’ who was appointed by Bush in his first Administration to increase the marriage rate in poor communities (you may not remember that moment, but I was organizing welfare recipients at the time, and the idea that the president was going to help them all get married was the subject of some hilarity, I promise you).

  8. Kimberly replied:

    oh my lord! I missed that! Was their slogan “Just say Yes!”?

    Yeah, I’m a bit of an anomaly. Technically we live in poverty–I claimed $5000 on my taxes last year, and I’ve received a cheque or ten from the government. The reality is somewhat different though. My kids are clean, well fed, and wear the same Children’s Place clothing yours do. We live in a nice (when it’s clean. oh god, gotta steam the carpet!) apartment in a nice middle class neighbourhood. I not only have a high school diploma, I have 2 university degrees. I was nearly 27 when Diva Girl was born.

    I think it’s an interesting book, and I’ll probably read it. But I don’t think that marriage is the answer. That’s way too simplistic.

  9. Mere replied:

    Hi LM! I want to comment on this post, but my thoughts are all over the place. So I thought I’d just say Hi, while I was here. Perhaps, I’ll come back to this comment when my mind isn’t reeling. LOL! But I’ll be back – I’m finally, almost a year later, finding time to catch up with my blogroll.

  10. Manda replied:

    This sounds like a GREAT book and I can’t wait to read it. I really enjoyed your post and will link you when I do my own review.

  11. MommyWithAttitude replied:

    Oh I had something important to say, but the Bush reminder has me laughing too hard!

    Sadly, finding a husband still really IS the most common way that women are able to escape poverty — and Bush would like to keep it that way.

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