Motherhood Before Marriage

(Photo: Bogdan Hoda/Dreamstime)
An American credo to ponder

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the September 24, 2007, issue of National Review magazine.

Young women who idealize marriage, fiercely disapprove of divorce, and eagerly embrace the self-denying demands of motherhood might be thought a welcome antidote to the breakdown of the American family. But some young women who hold just these attitudes are responsible for what William F. Buckley Jr. calls “the single greatest problem in America.” That problem is illegitimacy.

A fascinating, in-depth study published in 2005 — Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage – explores the views of low-income single mothers whose children are illegitimate. Its insights on out-of-wedlock births shatter the paradigms of poverty warriors left and right.

The harmful effects of growing up without a father in the home are depressingly well documented. Children raised in single-parent homes are more likely than children raised in intact families to have emotional and behavioral problems, to engage in crime, to fail in school, to abuse drugs, and to be on welfare as adults. The recent Census Bureau report measuring the 2006 poverty rate reminds us that, if poor mothers married the fathers of their children, the number of poor children would be reduced by over two-thirds. Over a third of all American children are born out of wedlock, and illegitimacy rates in low-income communities are more than twice the national average.

A range of supposed root causes has been offered to explain illegitimacy. Many conservatives fault the perverse incentives of welfare programs, which subsidize destructive behavior. Some of these conservatives advocate the restructuring of government aid around different, positive incentives. Others believe that desperate straits would compel smarter, self-interested behavior on the part of welfare recipients, and so make the politically futile argument that all welfare should be ended. Supporters of abstinence education hope to reduce the number of out-of-wedlock births by discouraging sexual activity among young people wholly unready for parenthood.

Liberals who discount the role of fathers would make single-mother households more economically viable by boosting welfare payments. Some liberals think more job-training programs would increase the number of marriageable men in poor neighborhoods. Most liberals agree that greater access to family-planning services and birth control would reduce illegitimacy.

But none of these theories satisfactorily answers the most fundamental question: Why do extremely disadvantaged single young women have children they cannot raise successfully, thereby damaging their prospects?

The authors of Promises I Can Keep give answers that are both original and credible. (Their work was first called to my attention by the Heritage Foundation’s Robert Rector, the most informed poverty expert I know.) Kathryn Edin, a University of Pennsylvania professor, and Maria Kefalas, a professor at St. Joseph’s University (also in Philadelphia), spent a few years developing relationships with about 160 single mothers in eight poor neighborhoods in Philadelphia and Camden, N.J. Their study group included blacks, whites, and Hispanics. About half of the mothers, whose average age was 25, had not graduated from high school. Three-quarters had had their first child as a teenager. Most were dependent on welfare, and fewer than half were employed. They were among the most disadvantaged of America’s single mothers.

Edin and Kefalas hoped to learn what caused the “dramatic break” between marriage and childbearing among the poor. What they learned was how poorly we understand the poor. Where outsiders see self-defeating behavior with wholly unfortunate consequences, these hopeful young mothers see purpose and redemption.

The young, low-income single mothers in the study have no regrets about their decisions. They prize both marriage and motherhood — but not in that order. They have placed the bar for the former extremely high and the bar for the latter alarmingly low.

The institution of marriage is so highly valued by these mothers that it has become an ideal perennially deferred to the future. “I don’t believe in divorce, that’s why none of the women in my family are married,” one single mother explains. They hope to be married one day, when they have found a suitable mate and can expect a lifelong commitment. But they are unwilling to postpone childbearing until they find that sure bet.

They also see their children as essential to their lives. Children are the most important accomplishment within their reach and the chief source of their identity. The love of a child is the one relationship they can count on to last. One woman who became a mother at only 14 explains, “I never felt my daughter held me back from anything. . . . She taught me how to be responsible and mature.” Poor single mothers contemplate life without their children and imagine being “dead,” “in jail,” “messed up on drugs,” or “nowhere at all.”

Romantic relationships proceed at lightning speed, and it is high praise when a boyfriend declares, “I want to have a baby with you.” Pregnancies are more likely to be planned than accidental. Facing an unwelcome pregnancy, such mothers are less likely than more affluent teenagers to choose abortion, because they disapprove of shirking responsibility. Adoption is generally out of the question because it would mean giving away “your own flesh and blood.” And abstinence education misses the mark when the target audience longs impatiently for motherhood.

Unemployment is not especially likely to break up a child’s relationship with his father, since these young women — eager to have children and confident in their ability to raise them alone — tend not to be looking for a breadwinner. (Infidelity, on the other hand, frequently ends relationships.) The mothers are surrounded by role models “who have succeeded in doing well by their children, ensuring that they’re clean, clothed, housed, fed, and loved.” Unlike middle-class parents, they can’t assume that they will be able to provide the bare necessities to their children, so they take pride in meeting a standard that emphasizes survival over achievement. Edin and Kefalas explain, “The well-dressed child transforms the shabbily dressed mother.” Managing to raise and care for a child as a single parent wins respect. And because these mothers consider “being there” the most important tenet of good mothering, they judge themselves successful even when their children fail in school, get pregnant as teenagers, or wind up on drugs or in juvenile detention.

The high incidence of illegitimacy in poor communities won’t be reduced as long as disadvantaged young women see marriage as a luxury and children as a necessity. Unfortunately, it takes much more than the creation or adjustment of a welfare program to change attitudes that seem rational to a young woman based on her experience and environment. Without a better understanding of “the single greatest problem in America,” we have little hope of improving the lives of poor single mothers and their children.

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