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

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I read this fascinating book in 2010, after seeing it recommended on the now-deleted Television Without Pity forums. I wanted to try to understand why so many poor girls and women have such a different outlook on childbearing and marriage than I do.

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Having kids is the one thing a poor girl can be good at and look forward to. It motivates them to tone down a wild lifestyle and want to do better for themselves. Sadly, the odds are stacked against going to college or getting a good job. There’s also the attitude “Don’t get above your raising.”

Many used birth control, but then stopped, got more sporadic, or gave in to a partner who didn’t want to use condoms. A lot of these children were neither accidents nor planned, but somewhere in between.

Youth is considered the best time to have kids, since there might not be another chance. Men worth marrying don’t often come along until they’re much older.

Whereas having a baby as a teenager would’ve ruined my life, these mothers usually believe they got pregnant “only” a year or two before they were ready. They can’t fathom why so many bourgeois women wait until their thirties or forties.

Marriage is an adult activity, something you do when you’re more mature and settled, with a man who’s proven his worth over at least 5–6 years. The guys they deem good enough to procreate with aren’t always deemed marriage material.

It’s contradictory to view marriage as a bigger step than bringing multiple children into the world. Cohabiting for years and doing everything married people do is also marriage in all but name.

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Many courtships proceed at lightning speed, with men saying they want to have a baby after a handful of dates. Many mothers get pregnant within a few months, when they barely know one another.

A lot of these couplings disturbed me because they involved teen girls and legal adult men, or other inappropriate age differences (e.g., 13 and 17). An older dude hitting on me as a teen would’ve given me the creeps instead of making me swoon, “Ooh, he’s older and he likes me, I must be soo mature!”

That’s how teen girls get taken advantage of, older dudes pretending they love them and think they’re so beautiful and special, just to get them into bed. I tend not to have age differences of more than a few years in my characters’ relationships until it’s leveled out (e.g., 41 and 51, 23 and 28).

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When this fantasy pregnancy and baby become reality, men often deny paternity or jump ship. Often there’s a brief reconciliation after the birth, but these relationships typically don’t last. It’s not humiliating or embarrassing to get pregnant out of wedlock and to have all of their kids very young, because almost everyone does it in their communities.

They by and large reject abortion and adoption, even though that would greatly improve their chances of getting an education, finding a good job, and moving out of the slums. Adoption is seen as “giving away your own flesh and blood” instead of a selfless act of giving your baby the chance at a better life.

They take the attitude “If you’re gonna have sex, accept the responsibility,” though I consider it far more responsible to take birth control religiously. However, the bourgeoisie also have divorced marriage from these adult activities. Gone are the days of the shotgun wedding and needing to be married to be a respectable part of the community. People who cohabit and have kids out of wedlock are no longer social pariahs.

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The authors don’t have any definitive solutions, but they posit some ideas. If these guys had help with job training and education, these women would have better partners to pick from, instead of feeling they have no choice but to wait until their thirties and have already had three children.

They all need economic help and more resources put into their schools and local job markets. Relationship training would also help, so these girls wouldn’t be so quick to hop into bed with guys they barely know. They’d correctly understand “I wanna have a baby by you” is a pickup line or a goofy sentiment so early in a relationship, when they haven’t even discussed marriage yet.

With all these changes, they might start to value their futures and respect themselves enough to postpone sexual activity and childbearing until they’re in a position to support a family, and mature enough to handle adult relationships.

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6 comments on “Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage

  1. Arlee Bird says:

    Views on family, childbearing, and family have gone topsy-turvy in the past many decades often to the detriment of the kids. Early or late, having children can be so rewarding for those willing to accept the responsibility. Kids have become a commodity in the minds of many.

    Arlee Bird
    Tossing It Out

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    • Carrie-Anne says:

      I definitely feel like the pendulum has swung WAY too far in the other direction from the way it was 50 years ago! While I’m glad young single mothers are no longer hidden away in unwed mothers’ homes and pressured into adoption, I also feel like there’s something to be said for the concept of shame (at least over the situation, not that they themselves are shameful). I was so shocked when I discovered many people now see no big deal about having multiple kids with someone who’s just a boyfriend or girlfriend, and old-fashionedly assumed all those kids were accidents.

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  2. I still think kids are better off with both a mother and father in their life.

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    • Carrie-Anne says:

      I can agree with that sentiment! I don’t think I’ll ever understand how anyone could be okay with having a baby by someone who was only a one-night stand or short-term casual dating partner instead of a spouse, or at least someone in a very serious relationship heading towards marriage anyway.

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  3. ChrysFey says:

    I wish things were different for them. That they could have better upbringing and morals, better opportunities. If only girls weren’t made to believe all they are good for or good at is having babies. Though, being a mother is a wonderful thing. It could change their lives, filling it with true love.

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    • Carrie-Anne says:

      It’s a very sad cycle, and so hard to break out of generational poverty and the “don’t get above your raising” mantra. My parents were married but very poor when I was born, and didn’t start making a respectably working-class amount of money till I was maybe three or four years old. It’s more difficult to leave poverty when there’s a child involved, but it can be done.

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