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

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Millie Acevedo bore her first child before the age of 16 and dropped out of high school to care for her newborn. Now 27, she is the unmarried mother of three and is raising her kids in one of Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods. Would she and her children be better off if she had waited to have them and had married their father first? Why do so many poor American youth li Millie Acevedo bore her first child before the age of 16 and dropped out of high school to care for her newborn. Now 27, she is the unmarried mother of three and is raising her kids in one of Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods. Would she and her children be better off if she had waited to have them and had married their father first? Why do so many poor American youth like Millie continue to have children before they can afford to take care of them? Over a span of five years, sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas talked in-depth with 162 low-income single moms like Millie to learn how they think about marriage and family. Promises I Can Keep offers an intimate look at what marriage and motherhood mean to these women and provides the most extensive on-the-ground study to date of why they put children before marriage despite the daunting challenges they know lie ahead. Read an excerpt here: Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage, With a New Prefaceby Kathryn Edin and M... by University of California Press


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Millie Acevedo bore her first child before the age of 16 and dropped out of high school to care for her newborn. Now 27, she is the unmarried mother of three and is raising her kids in one of Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods. Would she and her children be better off if she had waited to have them and had married their father first? Why do so many poor American youth li Millie Acevedo bore her first child before the age of 16 and dropped out of high school to care for her newborn. Now 27, she is the unmarried mother of three and is raising her kids in one of Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods. Would she and her children be better off if she had waited to have them and had married their father first? Why do so many poor American youth like Millie continue to have children before they can afford to take care of them? Over a span of five years, sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas talked in-depth with 162 low-income single moms like Millie to learn how they think about marriage and family. Promises I Can Keep offers an intimate look at what marriage and motherhood mean to these women and provides the most extensive on-the-ground study to date of why they put children before marriage despite the daunting challenges they know lie ahead. Read an excerpt here: Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage, With a New Prefaceby Kathryn Edin and M... by University of California Press

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

  1. 4 out of 5

    Robert Owen

    Why in God’s name are poor women so prone to having children early and out of wedlock? On its way to answering this question, “Promises I Can Keep” offers middle-class readers a view into a parallel universe of poverty and the choices it provokes. As one reads of it, the rules governing this seemingly bizarre and counterintuitive world slowly become first logically consistent, then comprehensible and finally, intuitively obvious. The answer, it turns out, is that when viewed from an underprivile Why in God’s name are poor women so prone to having children early and out of wedlock? On its way to answering this question, “Promises I Can Keep” offers middle-class readers a view into a parallel universe of poverty and the choices it provokes. As one reads of it, the rules governing this seemingly bizarre and counterintuitive world slowly become first logically consistent, then comprehensible and finally, intuitively obvious. The answer, it turns out, is that when viewed from an underprivileged teenager’s perspective, having kids early and out of wedlock simply makes sense. The book summarizes Edin and Kefalas’s ethnographic study of 162 unwed mothers living in underprivileged communities surrounding Philadelphia. The book surfaces the attitudes and opinions of several study participants about marriage, children and motherhood, and how these converge against a backdrop of poverty to make having children early and out of wedlock a rational and desirable decision. In the world of the mothers interviewed the progression of life events that most middle-class women would view as “normal” is exactly reversed; having children comes first, followed by a quest for economic security and finally, if at all, marriage. The difference in poor and middle-class perspectives on this order has to do principally with life expectations and opportunity costs. For middle-class women having children early is potentially crippling to their future economic and social prospects. For the middle-class woman a teen pregnancy risks curtailing educational and career goals that would be, absent a child, reasonably attainable. For women for whom the prospect of completing college and entering into interesting and challenging careers are little more than wistful fantasies, they effectively lose nothing by having children early. What they gain, however, is both a sense of competence and agency as well as a tailor-made family that will be there to love, honor and depend on them in a way that is otherwise unavailable. The same bleak, poverty-driven outlook that makes early parenthood appealing to these women likewise limits the number of marriageable men available to them. Lacking any hope for a prosperous future, these men, in addition to being more prone to alcoholism, drug dependency, domestic violence, criminality and incarceration, are unable to find and keep jobs. While most of these women are in committed relationships when they conceive their children, these frequently disintegrate during pregnancy or within the first year of the child’s birth. As a result, women take a wait-and-see attitude that requires a multi-year trial period with any potential mate to ensure that the guy is a net benefit to her and her children in the long-term. Given this paradigm of low expectations, the women work to seek economic independence by whatever means they can so that if, notwithstanding their lengthy vetting process, the relationship disintegrates that they are not left destitute. First child, then economic security and finally, if at all, marriage. The book debunks the notion that poor women have babies in order to cash in on fatty welfare checks or that they are somehow morally lax in a way that middle-class women are not or are fundamentally ambivalent about marriage. Indeed, the authors make the point that their views about the sanctity of marriage is one of the principal reasons many of these women wait so long to get married…..they want to be as sure as they can that the man they ultimately marry is forever, and because it’s so important to them, they’re willing to take their time to do it. Also interesting is the fact that the attitudes held by all of the women interviewed were independent of race. The defining factor uniting this worldview was class, and not, as is so often assumed in discussions of unwed pregnancy, race. Comprehensible as this parallel universe is, it does not alter the fact that having children early and out of wedlock burdens the resulting children with huge disadvantages relative to their middle-class peers. As sincere, dedicated and loving as these underprivileged mothers may be, unlike middle-class women, their life experience has not equipped them steer their children on to more promising life paths. The result is a dynamic that, while it makes sense from the mother’s perspective, does nothing but help to perpetuate paradigms of hopeless poverty that made having children early and out of wedlock so appealing to these mothers to begin with. For anyone who is interested in race / class dynamics and in exploring substantive policy alternatives governed by reason as opposed to misogynistic conjecture, this book is very much worth the read.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Erin

    4.5 - One of the best non-fiction books I've ever read that aims to illuminate something through sociological methods. I lopped off half a star because much of the first half of the book can feel like one is reading a laundry list of opinions from women with citations as to where you can find their full story in the book. Lots and lots of 'Deena, 18 year old mother of 2 children ages four and six (covered in chapter 4) thinks......' I feel like the book probably could have been organized better 4.5 - One of the best non-fiction books I've ever read that aims to illuminate something through sociological methods. I lopped off half a star because much of the first half of the book can feel like one is reading a laundry list of opinions from women with citations as to where you can find their full story in the book. Lots and lots of 'Deena, 18 year old mother of 2 children ages four and six (covered in chapter 4) thinks......' I feel like the book probably could have been organized better in that regard but as you get farther the narrative is a lot less chopped up in that manner and you get larger parts of the stories. Regardless, it doesn´t invalidate the importance of the opinions and life stories of the women and the incredible set of values and beliefs held by them. I learned A LOT - Edin and Kefalas completely smash the stereotypes about poor teenage and unwed mothers that those of us in the middle and upper class brackets just seem to take for granted despite never even having known or interacted with them. It also completely revealed that my own opinion of 'they just need to know about or be able to afford birth control' and everything will be hunky dory, a-ok, was an utterly ridiculous, uninformed assumption on my part that invalidates much of their life experiences. This was also the perfect accompaniment to Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx, which I loved, but also felt incredibly frustrated because I didn't understand WHY things I took for granted in terms of the way my life should go didn't seem to be the same for those profiled in the book. Trying to keep in perspective that they led lives so much harder and so much different than mine didn't always help, but Edin and Kefalas illuminate the thought processes. I hope to give a more in depth review in the future, but my internet time is limited at the moment.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Sophia

    In times of economic uncertainty when 41% of births are to unmarried mothers in this country, poor single mothers are often vilified for their poor life choices. Much is assumed about why they put motherhood before marriage, but Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas actually attempted to find out by spending five years living in the poor inner-city neighborhoods of Philadelphia (where poverty similarly affects women of various racial groups) and interviewing poor single mothers. Promises I can keep: wh In times of economic uncertainty when 41% of births are to unmarried mothers in this country, poor single mothers are often vilified for their poor life choices. Much is assumed about why they put motherhood before marriage, but Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas actually attempted to find out by spending five years living in the poor inner-city neighborhoods of Philadelphia (where poverty similarly affects women of various racial groups) and interviewing poor single mothers. Promises I can keep: why poor women put motherhood before marriage gives voice to poor single mothers, who revere marriage rather than reject it. Marriage is seen as an elusive but deeply cherished goal, for which childbearing should not be delayed. Most interviewees place a high value on children, seeing motherhood as a rare positive social role they can fulfill, albeit slightly earlier than envisioned. Many mothers retrospectively credit their children as sources of validation, purpose, connection and order, which have improved their lives despite the hardships motherhood entailed. Edin and Kefalas maintain a sympathetic but objective academic tone, and manages to portray such women as rational actors with mainstream values, but facing a different set of opportunity costs with respect to early motherhood. Although subject to selection bias, I highly recommend reading this on-the-ground sociological account to understand this often-criticized social trend.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Erin Henry

    Really interesting and definitely challenged my assumptions. I was surprised by how the authors explain that the poor women wait for marriage because they have such a high view of marriage. And how much they desire children and often plan the pregnancies or at least don't prevent them on purpose. They so desire someone to care for and love and to love them in return. And given their societal standings they cannot attract "good man" and are not all that harmed economically or societally by having Really interesting and definitely challenged my assumptions. I was surprised by how the authors explain that the poor women wait for marriage because they have such a high view of marriage. And how much they desire children and often plan the pregnancies or at least don't prevent them on purpose. They so desire someone to care for and love and to love them in return. And given their societal standings they cannot attract "good man" and are not all that harmed economically or societally by having a child, as a middle class woman would be. The policy applications for ways to prevent teen or unmarried pregnancies are numerous and varied ranging from increasing male employment to enrolling teens in programs that allow them to care for someone else.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Mephistia

    Okay, so, I admit it. Despite trying very hard to be open-minded and compassionate toward everyone; despite always trying to give others the benefit of the doubt, I have sometimes harbored some very judgey thoughts about poor women who keep having kids. Like, one or two kids, I can kind of understand, because youth and inexperience and thinking they're in love and whatnot. It's like, okay, not the best thing to happen to you, but it happens. Whatever. I don't know why you chose to keep it, but yo Okay, so, I admit it. Despite trying very hard to be open-minded and compassionate toward everyone; despite always trying to give others the benefit of the doubt, I have sometimes harbored some very judgey thoughts about poor women who keep having kids. Like, one or two kids, I can kind of understand, because youth and inexperience and thinking they're in love and whatnot. It's like, okay, not the best thing to happen to you, but it happens. Whatever. I don't know why you chose to keep it, but you did, okay. So life goes on. But then you see those women who just keep getting pregnant even though they can barely afford to raise the kid and they don't have a steady income or home or partner to help them, and you're just thinking, "Why? Why? Why? Are you stupid? What is going on here? Didn't you figure out this was a bad idea the first time around?" And I felt so, so bad for having those judgey thoughts, because I just knew there was something I was missing, some key part of this dynamic I wasn't seeing. I mean, I knew the "welfare mom" thing was a myth, because I'd gotten pregnant pretty youngish myself -- true, I was married and my husband was employed, and we were as young as we were because we were LDS -- but still. I had been 21 and pregnant; I'd had to rely on state-funded healthcare and WIC for my pregnancy care, childbirth, and to supplement our grocery budget. By the time our son was two, my husband had advanced enough at work that we no longer needed to rely on state aid, and we went off it. However, that brief interaction with state aid had pretty clearly highlighted to us that it is not a well-funded program. That's like, starvation-level funds. The "cash benefit" is pretty b.s., too. These programs can't even really support an unemployed family, honestly -- they fall short in every respect, from groceries to rental assistance to cash benefits. All they can really do is supplement a minimum wage income, and they barely do that. In other words, anyone having kids to "milk the system" is clearly Doing It Wrong, because kids are way, way, waaaaaaaay more expensive then these benefits will ever pay out. And kids are for like, 18 years minimum -- most of these benefits, since the reforms in the late 90s, have strict time limits. So, yeah. The welfare mom thing is a total myth. So ... what about collecting child care payments? The book addresses this one. Apparently a lot of single moms don't collect child care benefits for any one or a combination of the following reasons: 1. They don't want the dad to find them/ have visitation with the kids. 2. The father is in prison and can't pay benefits. 3. The father only does under the table work and does not report his income, so no benefits can be collected. 4. The mother did not name the father on the birth certificate so as to prevent him from easily making a legal claim to parental rights. Even when the moms do collect child care payments, generally the dads in this income bracket are underemployed or unemployed, so the payments are minimal for the mom. Anyway, so the conclusion (skipping over a ton of research and really insightful writing) is basically that poor women have children before they marry because they have the same values and expectations of marriage and relationships that middle-and-upper income women do: Namely, they want a partner who supports them emotionally, contributes to the household financially, and is responsible. Because of the high rates of underemployment, unemployment, and incarceration, a lot of low-income men in their late teens and through their twenties are unable to provide this sort of equal partnership. So the low income women, who are holding down jobs and rental payments and paying the bills, often feel unable to commit to a guy. But these women aren't swearing off relationships, and they fall in love. They meet a guy and they think maybe he's different, and they support him and have fun with him and live together. And they use birth control, but they're maybe sporadic or careless about it -- the guys almost always express a desire to "put a baby" in her, and various other language intended to signal long-term commitment. So they end up getting "accidentally" pregnant and decide it was meant to be, and they have the kid. Overwhelmingly, the research shows that when this pair becomes parents, the woman kicks into responsibility/ adult/ provider mode. She wants to make sure there's food on the table, clothes on her kids' back, and the rent and bills are paid. The dad, meanwhile, wants all that -- but he has trouble finding a job, or deals drugs for money and gets arrested, or falls back in with a crowd of friends who party and go out instead of doing parent-stuff at home. And eventually, the mom feels like she's raising two kids instead of one, and she kicks the guy to the curb. Because in the end, she can afford to take care of herself and the baby, but not herself and the baby and the dad. Also, apparently low-income and middle/upper income families (as covered in Lareau's text, Unequal Childhoods) have different standards in childrearing. Apparently low income families are less likely to verbally engage with their kids, more likely to have the t.v. on at all hours, less likely to engage/ indulge in playtime with their kids, and less likely to actively be involved in their child's education and after school activities. For low-income parents, the fact that they "were there" is enough to qualify them for being "good" parents, regardless of the long-term success or failure of the child. Middle/upper income parents, on the other hand, tend to engage in verbal wordplay with their kids, explicitly teach them how to interact in white-class arenas, encourage them to question authority figures, and to actively engage in the child's education, sports, and clubs. Colloquially its known as "helicopter parenting," in its more extreme forms, but Lareau calls it "concerted cultivation". Anyway, the upshot of the two parenting styles is that for low-income families, raising a child is somewhat less expensive/ extensive both financially and time-wise than for middle/ upper income families. Really fascinating read. It shed a lot of light and answers on questions I didn't realize I had.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Preethi Krishnan

    What a beautiful book! It is one of those few sociology books that makes an academic argument while remaining humane. This book is an important ethnographic work which draws from conversations with 162 low income single mothers in the poor neighborhoods of Philadelphia and Camden. This book certainly manages to debunk some popular myths about single mothers. The title of the book articulates the primary research question driving this book - Why do poor women put motherhood before marriage? By fr What a beautiful book! It is one of those few sociology books that makes an academic argument while remaining humane. This book is an important ethnographic work which draws from conversations with 162 low income single mothers in the poor neighborhoods of Philadelphia and Camden. This book certainly manages to debunk some popular myths about single mothers. The title of the book articulates the primary research question driving this book - Why do poor women put motherhood before marriage? By framing the question this way, the authors already challenge one of the myths of non-marital motherhood - that motherhood is an indication of their victim-hood. The title itself suggests that poor women are "choosing" to be mothers first, rather than to be married. The book begins with the three popular explanations that social scientists have provided for this phenomenon. One, women's move into the labor market makes marriage a less lucrative choice since they are economically independent. Two, the provision of welfare to single mothers reduces the incentive to marry. Finally, the economic situation in particular, reduces the availability of marriageable men. The authors question the first two explanations outright. They argue that women with higher wages are more likely to marry than those with lesser wages. Secondly, in states where welfare schemes did not account for inflation, the net worth of welfare reduced 30%. Yet marriage rates did not increase but continued to plummet. Finally, the authors suggest that reduction in the pool of marriageable men might be the best explanation for this phenomenon. Although, the definition of who can be identified as marriageable might have changed over time. So,do women put motherhood before marriage? One, for many women the decision to have a child might have been somewhere between an accident and a planned one. But the authors suggest that most of the women had access to birth control and had used birth control earlier, before they had their child. They argue that poor women do indeed choose to be mothers. If so, why do they choose motherhood before marriage? The authors argue that it is a middle class assumption that poor women would have a better life if they did not have children. For most women, life would not have changed much whether they had children earlier or later. On the other hand, most of these mothers felt that their life had changed for the better, after they had a child. For many women, the presence of the child in their lives gave them meaning, purpose and love in their rather chaotic life. Some of these quotes from their interviews made me tear up as I read the book. Mothers were saying these things: "My son gives me all the love I need." "It was easy giving her [her daughter] love." "Why is it so hard for people here to believe that women would want their children?" On the other hand, their personal relationships were not exactly fulfilling. Many women experienced violence and insecurity in their relationship with the father of their child. Because of these experiences, most women wanted to be financially independent before getting married. Without financial independence, they expected that they would have to toe the line of conventional gender roles. They also considered marriage to be sacred and divorce as sacrilege. As the author says, while marriage became less important economically, the institution was gaining more status symbolically. The authors did not interview the men who were going in and out of the lives of these poor mothers. However it was interesting to see how these men kept changing their commitment to the mother and the child over the entire period of the study. It was evident that the birth of a child had changed the lives of the mothers but fathers could choose not to be affected by their babies. However, the most interesting contribution of this book was this insight - For most part of feminist theorizing, we may have looked at both motherhood and fatherhood as responsibilities and therefore the demand to make fathers take more responsibility might have seemed important(although that demand was also not pursued as vehemently as equal wages). But here, these poor mothers were making the argument, indirectly, that perhaps the fathers were losing out on meaning and purpose by not having a child in their lives. Risman's study of middle class single fathers also suggests that a child can make a father more nurturing. However, there were few single fathers in her study as well. The class analysis was brilliant. Middle class women put off bearing children until later in life because they had other options to provide them meaning and validation. Moreover, they had more things to lose in making the choice to be a mother. In the case of poor women, it was the arrival of the child that gave them validation, purpose and meaning. This book is a must read to understand the nuances of motherhood as it unfolds in the lives of poor women. It is also written beautifully. I cried through the chapter, "How Motherhood Changed My Life." :) But I am glad I read this book. Do read it. Highly recommended.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Anthony

    The sheer amount of work that went into Promises I Can Keep makes the book important. I spent the last 30 minutes combing through its extensive bibliography, which is full of books, journal articles, and other primary sources like government reports. The authors' methodology, detailed in Appendix A, shows that they interviewed 162 low-income mothers at least twice, sometimes thrice. The interviews were fairly long and as personal as an interview gets. A template for each interview is helpfully i The sheer amount of work that went into Promises I Can Keep makes the book important. I spent the last 30 minutes combing through its extensive bibliography, which is full of books, journal articles, and other primary sources like government reports. The authors' methodology, detailed in Appendix A, shows that they interviewed 162 low-income mothers at least twice, sometimes thrice. The interviews were fairly long and as personal as an interview gets. A template for each interview is helpfully included as Appendix B (sample question: Did you consider abortion or adoption?). Unfortunately, mothers who had lost custody of their children to the state due to allegations of abuse or neglect were excluded from the sample. However, some of the mothers who were interviewed admitted that they were guilty of past neglect, including drug addiction cohabiting with abusive men. The book's lasting importance will surely owe to the many verbatim quotations from the mothers. As Ivy League sociologists, the authors are unable to resist sympathy for their subjects. They're quite open about this, and refer in the conclusion to lasting friendships and acquaintances made while the book was being written. The primary weakness of Promises I Can Keep comes with the authors' attempt to answer the question posed in the subtitle: why do poor women "put motherhood before marriage"? In their conclusion, Edin and Kefalas briefly review three hypotheses: economist Gary Becker's women's economic independence theory, developed in his Treatise on the Family (1981), sociologist Charles Murray's welfare-state hypothesis, developed in Losing Ground (1984), and sociologist William Julius Wilson's male marriageable pool hypothesis, from The Truly Disadvantaged (1987). The first two are dismissed with relatively short shrift. Wilson's idea, which the authors summarize as "the declining number of marriageable men in inner-city neighborhoods...creat[ing] an impossible dilemma for young women who wanted to start families," is closer to the mark, in the authors' view. But Edin and Kefalas take issue with Wilson's definition of marriageability, which is essentially "being employed." To Edin and Kefalas, receiving a minimum-wage paycheck doesn't cut it anymore; before their mothers consider a man "marriageable," he must be not only employed but stable, economically and psychologically. But that's not all! The authors report that their mothers are now requiring that they, themselves be economically stable before considering marriage. So, poor mothers have more prerequisites to marriage, compared to middle-class women, than in decades past. ("Middle-class" is apparently the authors' proxy term for "anyone who is not poor.") As the data in Appendix A show, 70 percent of the interviewed mothers (and 77 percent of the black interviewed mothers) aspired to marriage. Perhaps that's why poor women are marrying later. But why do they have children before they get married? They freely explained their logic to the authors, and it was disturbing. In fact, my middle-class jaw spent most of chapter 6 ("How Motherhood Changed My Life") on the hardwood floor. "Poor women are often more favorably oriented toward having a child than not. Once pregnant, poor mothers pursue parenthood with few of the reservations that middle-class observers assume they must (and should) have about raising children when they are young, poor, and single." (170) These "observers" and "critics" are never named (with the exception of the solitary mention of Charles Murray's book). This is too bad, because preserving these conservative critics' anonymity enables a parade of straw men. For example, I don't know of anyone, public or private, who thinks that "poor women have children in a twisted competition with their peers to gain status" (171). There are probably more than a few real people who would agree that poor women have children "so they can 'milk' the welfare system," but I doubt that anyone relevant (sociologists, policy makers, etc.) would take such an unscientific, contemptuous opinion seriously. The actual reasons given by these mothers for having children are not complicated. Two common threads are that they want to feel needed (by the child), and they want to feel respected (by their family and community), and they don't think they will feel either needed or respected if they don't have kids soon after they become fertile. I'm not being flippant: the authors interviewed several mothers who had their first child at 13, 14, and 15. It's unfair to expect a 23-year-old mother to have a poet's articulateness when she's asked to describe her motherhood. But, "at least I don't throw my children in the trash or drown them in the bathtub" (174) fails to impress. The authors sympathetically refer to the "bleak social landscape" of a 19-year-old mother in describing the importance the mother ascribed to motherhood (175). The authors do not describe why the mother felt that forcing a child to accompany her in that bleakness was justified. Lost in all of this are the interests of the children. Chapter 6, by far the book's most depressing, was riddled with horrible reasons (and non-reasons, like the fact that some parents abuse their children, and I don't) for having children. And the authors make a clear case that abortion and adoption are frowned upon, and poor females scrupulously avoid them, because the mothers do not want to be frowned upon. Resorting to abortion or adoption, the authors write, are markers of immaturity in inner-city neighborhoods. Contrariwise, when a 14-year-old — a middle schooler — decides to bring her unborn child to term and keep the child, she shows how mature and ready for the real world she is. Since she has dropped out of high school to have her baby, though, her "real world" is one with the paucity of opportunities available to people without a high school diploma. One way in which the 12 years' passage between the publication of this book and today highlights this absurdity is that, since the Great Recession, cultural commentators have made much of the fact that 30-year-olds with college degrees sometimes live with their parents. Contrast this caricature of middle-class immaturity with the faux maturity of a child giving birth to a child. It is outrageous that these communities do not consider imparting on their future generations that, maybe, just maybe, a 14-year-old really is too immature to raise a child. But it's unfair to expect the authors to present their subjects' perverse logic only to push back against it later, and Edin and Kefalas are realistic in their recognition of the benefits that two-biological-parent households confer on children. The mothers themselves express a preference for two-parent households, unaware of the reality that stepparents don't benefit children the way that biological parents do. If raising children were an altruistic behavior, as Edin and Kefalas seem to want to believe, we would expect to see fewer single mothers rushing into cohabiting relationships with abusive, inattentive, or adulterous men than we do, particularly because stepchildren are at greater risk of abuse than biological children. To poor women, presumably the benefits of fleeting male companionship and economic assistance outweigh that risk. To this middle-class observer, the take-home message is children are often conceived for selfish reasons. * * * The authors write: "Women near the bottom of the American class ladder hope their children will give them a vicarious second chance at the social mobility that has slipped out of their grasp. Even though a woman's own prospects might be limited, a new baby's life is a clean slate." (179) This was a confusing passage. First, the conclusion is utterly unsupported by any evidence, including the authors' interviews. To judge by interviews alone, young mothers have children because they want to feel needed and respected; respected not for raising successful social climbers, mind — respected for struggling to raise children in poverty. That means that it is important to the mother that her children's prospects aren't that great. Second, the authors do not explain why they equate a "second chance" with a "clean slate." The latter term calls to mind the debate on the relationship between biology and environment, which would almost certainly disfavor the children written about in this book. Does a poor mother's fifth child really start with the same "clean slate" as a middle-class woman's first? Or is one slate blanker? * * * The bombshell for "middle-class" readers of Promises I Can Keep will be this: poor women don't shun marriage; they revere it, and that's why they have kids before they get married. Fine. But do not expect to be disabused of the idea that our country contains remarkably irresponsible thinking about motherhood.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Susan Bazzett-Griffith

    An intriguing and academic approached book about why low-income women have children earlier and out of wedlock more often than middle and upperclass women, this book is written with an objectivity that is refreshing. Though the book is older, I found the information and interviews still very relevant- I liked that the research was conducted directly in neighborhoods, via interviews, and there was little sugarcoating of the circumstances the young mothers found themselves in. I liked that there W An intriguing and academic approached book about why low-income women have children earlier and out of wedlock more often than middle and upperclass women, this book is written with an objectivity that is refreshing. Though the book is older, I found the information and interviews still very relevant- I liked that the research was conducted directly in neighborhoods, via interviews, and there was little sugarcoating of the circumstances the young mothers found themselves in. I liked that there WAS commonalities enough to draw conclusions- culturally, motherhood is seen as an accomplishment, creating family bonds of love is highly valued and possible when economic security or even romantic security is not expected, and people's assumptions that many of these young mothers would have had brighter futures/better prospects for a future are not necessarily accurate, according to both statistical probability and the admission of the women themselves, who often responded that if not for their children, they'd likely be dead or in jail-- children give purpose to life when none can be found in traditional accomplishments or possibilities. Being a mother, a good mother, even a young unmarried good mother, isn't ever seen as a negative or even really a setback by the majority of the women interviewed here. Their love for their children and their determination to raise them right is inspiring and heartwarming. A really intriguing read. Four stars.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Amanda

    Compelling qualitative study of low-income women in Philadelphia and Camden and the curious way in which they build their families - first by having children, then seeking economic stability, and then (perhaps) getting married. I knew many of the facts presented but was surprised to learn that the life trajectory of girls growing up in these communities is pretty much the same whether they have children out of wedlock or not. So much for the idea that they're destroying their futures by not wait Compelling qualitative study of low-income women in Philadelphia and Camden and the curious way in which they build their families - first by having children, then seeking economic stability, and then (perhaps) getting married. I knew many of the facts presented but was surprised to learn that the life trajectory of girls growing up in these communities is pretty much the same whether they have children out of wedlock or not. So much for the idea that they're destroying their futures by not waiting to have kids - their futures are already bleak. In fact, many mothers reported that having a child turned their lives around - they stopped drinking, doing drugs, were inspired to get jobs or go back for a GED, etc. Having a child gives them a sense of hope and purpose in a world that offers them little else. I docked a couple of stars because although the findings were intriguing, many of the women's comments were repetitive and probably could have been condensed (although interesting to see how similar their responses were across age and racial lines). Would have appreciated fewer quotes and more analysis and policy recommendations. It would have also been nice to take a closer look at the impact that young, unwed childbearing has on the children themselves.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Laura

    First, I have to admit I'm super biased. This author was one of my professors and also my major adviser,and I had some poor experiences with both. (a favorite moment was when she was advising me..."Hmm you only got a B in Intro to Sociology, who was your professor?" "You" "oh wow you got a B in Into to Sociology!") The book was well researched, and she spent a lot of time in the areas, with the mothers doing her interviews. It works as a classroom aide, or for anyone interested in the topic, but First, I have to admit I'm super biased. This author was one of my professors and also my major adviser,and I had some poor experiences with both. (a favorite moment was when she was advising me..."Hmm you only got a B in Intro to Sociology, who was your professor?" "You" "oh wow you got a B in Into to Sociology!") The book was well researched, and she spent a lot of time in the areas, with the mothers doing her interviews. It works as a classroom aide, or for anyone interested in the topic, but it is clearly a scholarly work and not a Malcolm Gladwell type fun read.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Claire Wessel

    Having grown up in a relatively poor urban neighborhood, I definitely saw the difference in attitude towards motherhood as compared to the average middle class person's attitude, and the difference in poor reality versus middle class perception of that reality. This book's research highlights these differences and explains the reality of motherhood among poor women very well. Wonderful research and an interesting read. If you've ever wondered why poor women seem to have children in circumstances Having grown up in a relatively poor urban neighborhood, I definitely saw the difference in attitude towards motherhood as compared to the average middle class person's attitude, and the difference in poor reality versus middle class perception of that reality. This book's research highlights these differences and explains the reality of motherhood among poor women very well. Wonderful research and an interesting read. If you've ever wondered why poor women seem to have children in circumstances that you would avoid having children in, this is the book to answer that question.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    Fantastic report of a sociological study conducted in the late 90s to early 2000s. I wish all academics could write such enjoyable prose! These authors interviewed 162 single mothers-- median age 24-- living in eight "economically marginal neighborhoods" of the Philadelphia metro area. Their 38 questions-- the entire interview guide-- are listed in the Appendix and I was pleased to see that many of their Qs were open-ended. They elicited stories of these single women's lives, pregnancies, relati Fantastic report of a sociological study conducted in the late 90s to early 2000s. I wish all academics could write such enjoyable prose! These authors interviewed 162 single mothers-- median age 24-- living in eight "economically marginal neighborhoods" of the Philadelphia metro area. Their 38 questions-- the entire interview guide-- are listed in the Appendix and I was pleased to see that many of their Qs were open-ended. They elicited stories of these single women's lives, pregnancies, relationships with their children's fathers, attitude toward and aspirations for marriage, and child rearing practices. And the book includes many anecdotes or miniature case studies to illustrate the findings from their data. "The 'one man for life' ideal may no longer be the statistical norm in America, yet young, disadvantaged women, whose prospects for lifetime partnership are far dimmer than most, still cling to the hope that it can be achieved." (p. 74) Seventy percent--70%--of the women they interviewed said they wanted to marry. But they want their partner to prioritize children as much as they do; until they see evidence over time that a man will "be there" for both her and the children, then they would rather not marry. In the meantime, nearly half of the women interviewed live in multigenerational households, where mothers and grandmothers are part of a young mom's financial, material, and emotional support. I look forward to reading more books by Edin, especially!

  13. 5 out of 5

    Khalia

    I am currently childfree by choice because I would be in peril if I birthed a child at this time. It boggles me that women elect to have children when their finances don't permit much leisure for themselves. A woman on page 165 vehemently expressed, "it is selfish and wrong to remain childless!" I think it's selfish and wrong to have children when any segment of your life doesn't extend for the well-being of you and your child.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Lauren Caton

    This book opened my eyes to my own biases when referencing low income mothers. This book shatters premises that drive conservative "marriage-based" and "welfare queen" arguments. Worth the read, especially if you are in the field of healthcare, sociology, and policy.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Victoria Wilkinson

    Confession: I didn't finish the book. (And I always finish books.) But this one repeats the same thing over and over. Surprise: moms love their kids because they make them feel special and give them purpose. Did we really need an in-depth study to tell us this? Worse, there's something about the manner in which it was written that devalues the women it studies. Clearly, the authors care about young mothers - some of the people who did the studying even moved their own families to impoverished are Confession: I didn't finish the book. (And I always finish books.) But this one repeats the same thing over and over. Surprise: moms love their kids because they make them feel special and give them purpose. Did we really need an in-depth study to tell us this? Worse, there's something about the manner in which it was written that devalues the women it studies. Clearly, the authors care about young mothers - some of the people who did the studying even moved their own families to impoverished areas so they could make connections and understand better their situations - but they also set themselves off from them. They create and "us" and "them" dichotomy that undermines the worth of the young mother's experiences. By standing back and staring at their lives with a microscope, the authors present these young mothers as some foreign animal far different from themselves. This distance devalues the worth of the young mothers' experiences. It feels like the hypothesis of this book is "Wow! These girls got pregnant too young and too fast and are way too poor. Why would anybody ever want that? Let's go find out what makes them make such bad decisions." That may very well be the question that makes people pick up the book - it was what inspired me to read it. But I got disgusted when the book didn't turn out to be as devoid of judgement as I expected an academic work to be.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Katie

    Relying on both ethnographic and (loads of) interview data, these authors do a nice job centering the voices of low-income single moms. They allow these women to answer a question that's often bandied around by politicians, religious figures, social workers and academics. Why do low-income women so often delay marriage in favor of having children? Why do they bring children into the world when they have so few resources themselves? Instead of taking a moralistic or paternalistic tone, the author Relying on both ethnographic and (loads of) interview data, these authors do a nice job centering the voices of low-income single moms. They allow these women to answer a question that's often bandied around by politicians, religious figures, social workers and academics. Why do low-income women so often delay marriage in favor of having children? Why do they bring children into the world when they have so few resources themselves? Instead of taking a moralistic or paternalistic tone, the authors let the women speak for themselves and what they found was really interesting. Low-income women have virtually the same attitudes toward and value for marriage that middle-class women do - they just have less resources to make it happen: fewer marriageable men, less economic opportunities to be independent within a marriage, and not enough resources to have even a modest wedding. For these women, the passage to adulthood is not marriage but becoming a parent. Because they have so few opportunities for advancing a career or education, early childbirth has low opportunity costs - they have less to lose. Further, taking on the challenge of parenting confers status and respect from the community and provides women with deep, stable, emotional bonds. These are all things that are impossible to see from the outside. When we just look at statistics of unmarried parents in poor neighborhoods, it easy to draw all kinds of inaccurate conclusions. For me, this reinforced the necessity of qualitative research in understanding the world.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Meera

    I read this book in order to give me some insight into the mothers of my patients, as well as my teen patients, as teen parenthood is quite prevalent in my pediatric practice. The authors spent a great deal of time in neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Camden, which also hits close to home. The stories of the women profiled in this book are so similar to the lives I see every day. While so much they discuss is familiar, the authors offer insights that have really informed my understanding/give co I read this book in order to give me some insight into the mothers of my patients, as well as my teen patients, as teen parenthood is quite prevalent in my pediatric practice. The authors spent a great deal of time in neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Camden, which also hits close to home. The stories of the women profiled in this book are so similar to the lives I see every day. While so much they discuss is familiar, the authors offer insights that have really informed my understanding/give context to what I see. I already find that it has helped me understand and communicate better with famiies. The writing in this book is a bit dry and academic, and the information somewhat anecdotal. Still I think it is worth reading if you have any interest in the subject.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    This is a good companion piece to Code of the Street. Whereas Code of the Street focused on the ethics of males in Philadelphia, Promises I Can Keep does the same with young women. The thesis is very cool: out of wedlock children are a sign of a commitment to marriage as an institution, since these young women feel that the men they have children with are not worthy of marriage. Having children, however, is a source of esteem and love and the offsetting financial impact is so little that it is w This is a good companion piece to Code of the Street. Whereas Code of the Street focused on the ethics of males in Philadelphia, Promises I Can Keep does the same with young women. The thesis is very cool: out of wedlock children are a sign of a commitment to marriage as an institution, since these young women feel that the men they have children with are not worthy of marriage. Having children, however, is a source of esteem and love and the offsetting financial impact is so little that it is worth having the children. Very intersting.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Ben

    I read this to get an understanding for the real reasons that poor people have more children, since the commonly repeated stories seemed suspicious. The author's did a great job with their interviews in showing the causes using the actual decisions and thought processes of the people making them. It doesn't leave anything much desired. While it is slightly repetitive, and low on theory, it gets 5 stars for changing what I want out of life.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Gwern

    Incredibly sobering, explains a lot about inner-city illegitimacy, and the best thing I've read about the topic and why women would do something which from far away seems like a completely terrible idea.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Kati

    Full review here: http://landismom.wordpress.com/2007/1... Full review here: http://landismom.wordpress.com/2007/1...

  22. 5 out of 5

    CTEP

    For April Book Club, I read the fascinating book Promises I Can Keep by sociologist Kathryn Edin. This book talks about the growing single motherhood phenomenon in the United States. It is based on a five-year ethnographic study of a large sample of single mothers, giving an intimate look at what marriage and motherhood mean to these women, and provides a fascinating study of why so many people are putting children before marriage, despite the daunting challenges they know will face them. I chos For April Book Club, I read the fascinating book Promises I Can Keep by sociologist Kathryn Edin. This book talks about the growing single motherhood phenomenon in the United States. It is based on a five-year ethnographic study of a large sample of single mothers, giving an intimate look at what marriage and motherhood mean to these women, and provides a fascinating study of why so many people are putting children before marriage, despite the daunting challenges they know will face them. I chose this book because so many of my clients are single mothers and I wanted to know more about their experience. I felt frustrated when clients were dropping out of important programming such as GED, because they were pregnant and alone. Most of my single mothers are native speakers of English. New Americans tend to come from social and religious backgrounds, such as Islam and traditional Catholicism, where intact families are more common than single parenthood. However, I have noticed more and more of the children of immigrant clients becoming single parents at an early age, as families assimilate into US culture. The authors set up to disprove the comfortable middle-class assumptions that women in poverty become single mothers because they can't afford birth control, or want to gain more welfare benefits. In talking to their research subjects, they found out that many people become single parents because they want to, and that they are happy to be having these babies. A high percentage report that parenthood saved them from a life of drugs, partying, crime and feeling they had no one to love them. 'I want to have a baby by you' is often the highest compliment many teenagers in generational poverty can receive. I read this book almost in one sitting, because I was having so many 'aha' moments. Suddenly, so much about my clients made sense, and I felt myself understanding and empathizing with their experience and life choices much more. The authors argue that action must be taken on a policy level to slow down the rate at which young women are having children out of wedlock, mainly because the children of young mothers have significantly diminished life chances. On a personal level, I would never choose to raise children alone because of the hardship involved, but I can now see that, for many young people living in urban poverty, it is often a comprehensible and even logical choice.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Ietrio

    This is a work of literature masquerading as a science project. What I find unclear after reading it: is this the product of failed writers or failed academics? In both cases the goal is the same: a step up on the academic ladder to the sweet spot of a bigger pension plan. Maybe get some paid TV appearances. The emotion is high. The litterature is pretty boring. The science is simply not there. The red flags start popping up from the begining. Page 2: > In 1950 only one in twenty children was born This is a work of literature masquerading as a science project. What I find unclear after reading it: is this the product of failed writers or failed academics? In both cases the goal is the same: a step up on the academic ladder to the sweet spot of a bigger pension plan. Maybe get some paid TV appearances. The emotion is high. The litterature is pretty boring. The science is simply not there. The red flags start popping up from the begining. Page 2: > In 1950 only one in twenty children was born to an unmarried mother. Now the rate is more than one in three. 3 Having a child while single is three times as common for the poor as for the affluent. Having a child now, whatever now is, or in 1950? Is it 1950 or 1950s or 1950-ish? The end notes are well hidden and reveal more traps: > The comparison referred to here as between the “poor” and “affluent” is between the least educated third and the most educated third of the educational distribution. But back to the two phrases starting one paragraph in the introduction. Why there is no contraception? Why those women refuse to have a career? These questions seem irelevant to the writers. What is important is a history of the township. The rest is a succession of anectodical sketches. This is when the plural of anecdote becomes data. And on every page is the despise. The characters of the short stories are not women, they are Mothers. Also the mild christian fundamentalist authors are ready to do a lot of gymnastics in order not to see the elephant in the room: religion. Also the title is misleading, the "why" in 221 pages is some wordy and uncategorical fallacious last 20 pages, non sequiturs, appeal to authority and so on. I get it. They like government money in any form. Who wouldn't? They feel good about themselves and superior to these women and their bad choices. But this blend of christian feminism makes the text an exhibition of pointlessly broken lives in a time of internet, autonomous cars and legal termination of pregnancy.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

    This important book answers the question, "Why don't those poor women get married before they have babies?" The authors were embedded in six poor African American, Puerto Rican, and White neighborhoods in Philadelphia for two years and interviewed hundreds of mothers. While the answers differ slightly for each ethnic group, the conclusions are that motherhood is one of the only ways of establishing a woman's identity as a responsible adult in these neighborhoods (where women's opportunities are This important book answers the question, "Why don't those poor women get married before they have babies?" The authors were embedded in six poor African American, Puerto Rican, and White neighborhoods in Philadelphia for two years and interviewed hundreds of mothers. While the answers differ slightly for each ethnic group, the conclusions are that motherhood is one of the only ways of establishing a woman's identity as a responsible adult in these neighborhoods (where women's opportunities are so limited), that the pool of marriage-able men is breathtakingly shallow, and that motherhood is essential--a life without children is a tragedy--but marriage is an ideal and a luxury that no one in her right mind would embark on without years of testing a man's worth as a potential husband and without her own financial security. The actual conclusions are more nuanced that my summary, and the research is well-supported from a social science standpoint. The authors' contrasts of the approach that makes sense to impoverished young women in the inner city with the attitudes that seem obvious to middle-class people with some financial security are especially valuable.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Summer

    I've been eager to read this book because, to me, the answer is so obvious - babies are good but men ain't shit. So, I was like "How did they write a whole book about this?" At first I was a little skeptical when I saw the book was written by middle class women who entrenched themselves in poor neighborhoods. But I came to see this was the only way it could have been written - we never would have explained ourselves this way! Edin and Kefalas do a really astute job describing our thought process I've been eager to read this book because, to me, the answer is so obvious - babies are good but men ain't shit. So, I was like "How did they write a whole book about this?" At first I was a little skeptical when I saw the book was written by middle class women who entrenched themselves in poor neighborhoods. But I came to see this was the only way it could have been written - we never would have explained ourselves this way! Edin and Kefalas do a really astute job describing our thought processes that I don't think insiders would do as well. If I tried to write this book, it would be like a fish writing about water. Overall, it was a really good read. Of course, I didn't learn anything, this is just life for me. I'd kind of like for it to be followed up by a book that digs a little deeper. Some questions worth exploring would be "Why do so few poor women get child support orders?" and "Why are so many poor dads deadbeats?" This is a good book for baseline knowledge of the subject.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Rachel B

    I didn't care for the format of this book. The authors interviewed/followed 162 women, and they organize the book by subjects. Then they quote multiple women on each page and have to give their background each time they're mentioned, which was repetitive and made it rather impossible to see a woman's story as a whole. In summary, a few reasons poor, young women put motherhood before marriage: - Children are viewed as essential to a good life, a way to give mothers respectability and purpose. - Ear I didn't care for the format of this book. The authors interviewed/followed 162 women, and they organize the book by subjects. Then they quote multiple women on each page and have to give their background each time they're mentioned, which was repetitive and made it rather impossible to see a woman's story as a whole. In summary, a few reasons poor, young women put motherhood before marriage: - Children are viewed as essential to a good life, a way to give mothers respectability and purpose. - Early pregnancy (even in young teens) does not diminish their future prospects much, if at all, as many of these girls were already headed in bad directions (dropping out of school before getting pregnant, using drugs, being very promiscuous, etc.) and didn't view college/careers as attainable, anyway. - Their men are unreliable (in financial and fidelity issues, especially) so girls tend to "test" relationships with pregnancy. The girls want to be independent in every way, so that if (or when) a relationship goes south, they are not the ones getting screwed over.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Yoke Mun

    Edin set out to better understand why more poor mothers were having children at a young age and she did just that through the research in this book. She provided a lot of insights on this phenomena and did a great job exploring the lived experiences of these mothers, from the stages of courtship to having the child. I don’t think I would’ve picked it up if it wasn’t an assigned reading for a class, but I learned quite a bit from it.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Maria

    3.5. Balanced assessment. Did a good job humanizing and legitimizing a culture that is very unfamiliar to middle-class folks. Definitely answered my questions. A bit wordy and not very well constructed—mixing all the women’s stories up together instead of focusing on one at a time made it so hard to keep track of them that I eventually gave up trying and focused solely on the statistics, which may have defeated their purposes a bit.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

    One of the only books I could find that looks at single mothers living in poverty... which is crazy because it's a massive demographic force (and political scapegoat, unfortunately). This was also one of the most beautiful books on motherhood I've ever read. Beautifully done and academically rigorous.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Jody

    4.5. Docked the book a half star for often briefly introducing a person in one chapter with a reference to that person’s more complete story in a later chapter. An excellent read which challenged and educated me on many of my white, middle class socioeconomic views on child bearing and marriage. This book should be standard reading for policy makers in the areas of children and single mothers.

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