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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 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.
BEFORE WE HAD A BABY ..."
ANTONIA AND EMILIO
Antonia Rodriguez and her boyfriend Emilio, a young Puerto Rican couple, live in Philadelphia's West Kensington section, colloquially dubbed "the Badlands" because of all the drug activity and violence there. Both sides of their block are lined with small, unadorned row homes, some well over a hundred years old. A century and a half ago, this densely populated neighborhood was home to hundreds of small manufacturing concerns. Though few of these businesses exist today, the America Street Enterprise Zone, one of four such zones within Philadelphia, has revived some of the area's industrial vigor. Antonia and Emilio's immediate neighborhood is a mix of industrial strips, residential blocks, and narrow thoroughfares choked with small businesses, including an astonishing number of storefronts offering auto repair, auto parts, and auto detailing—trades that provide an economic niche for Philadelphia's Puerto Rican men.
Twenty-year-old Antonia is slight, with shoulder-length brown hair, large brown eyes, and a warm, friendly manner. She invites us in through the enclosed porch, and as we move through the living room to the kitchen, she proudly points to renovations that she and Emilio have made to the tiny row home since they bought it five years ago, when the median price of a home in the neighborhood was about $5,000. After we settle around the table in her newly remodeled kitchen, Antonia tells us she is the youngest of three children from her mother's first marriage and the black sheep of her Catholic family. Antonia's older brother and sister both graduated from high school and have stable jobs, one in the military and one at a mortgage company. Her sister also has a child, but she is married to the father. Antonia describes her sister as her "very best role model."
Unlike her siblings, Antonia became a parent very young—at fourteen—and left high school at fifteen. She's been unemployed and on welfare ever since, except for a brief stint behind the counter at McDonald's. Yet Antonia sees herself as bright and ambitious and believes she will go somewhere. She is sorry she didn't graduate from high school with her peers and "march down that aisle, have all those memories." She also regrets that the pregnancy prompted Emilio, whom she describes as very smart, to drop out just one month shy of graduation so that he could work full time and support his new family.
Antonia met Emilio when she was eleven and he was sixteen, about to enter his sophomore year at Edison High. "I always liked him," Antonia recalls. "I thought he was handsome. But he never paid no mind to me because I was young." She soon found out that his aunt, whom he often visited, lived next door to her own family, so Antonia spent much of the summer between the sixth and seventh grade camped out on her front stoop hoping to capture his attention. "I always told [his aunt], 'Tell him to just stop by to say hi. I'm not gonna bite him.'"
Two summers after she developed her crush, Emilio "walked by, he stopped, and we started talking ever since." In Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods, "talking" is a handy euphemism for anything from casual flirting to sex. Antonia's problems at home and the frequent angry confrontations with her mother, whom she describes as verbally abusive, took her relationship with Emilio to the next level with breathtaking swiftness. When Antonia's mother evicted her at age fourteen, Emilio convinced his mother to let Antonia live with them. Soon after moving in, Antonia started "feeling kind of sick and hungry." Since they were not using any form of birth control, she immediately thought she knew the cause. "I said, 'Oh my God, I think I'm pregnant.'" After a positive home pregnancy test, Antonia and an older cousin did what many other low-income young women in her position do: they quickly made a furtive trip to Planned Parenthood to confirm the results. When the test "came out positive," Antonia was "happy, but then again I was scared because I was only—what?—fourteen years old."
Despite their youth, Antonia insists she and Emilio had already planned to have children before she got pregnant, but had agreed to wait a year or two so both could get further in school. In the half-year before the child was conceived, Antonia says she and Emilio spent hours imagining, "If in the future we have kids ... I wonder who he'll look like. Yeah that'll be great ..." Yet neither anticipated that the first pregnancy would occur less than six months into their relationship. The pair nonetheless dealt with the situation in what they deemed the only responsible way: "I didn't think I was gonna have a child at [such] an early age, but I faced it. We faced reality, and we moved on." Emilio faced it by looking for an apartment where they could set up housekeeping on their own. Shortly thereafter, he dropped out of school and began working two jobs to finance the move—a weekend job at Checkers, a local fast-food joint, and a weekday job as a mechanic in his uncle's garage.
* * *
Pregnant by fourteen, a high school dropout at fifteen, and already a mother performing all the tasks of a wife—just when other girls her age are merely hoping to get a learner's permit to drive a car—Antonia is no neighborhood success story. But in poor neighborhoods like West Kensington, where Antonia has lived all her life, the haphazard way she and Emilio embarked upon family life is hardly unusual. Across the city of Philadelphia, more than six out of ten births are now outside of marriage, many to couples whose circumstances are no better than Antonia and Emilio's. And though Antonia may have been younger than most single mothers when she had her first child, nearly half of all first nonmarital births are to teens.
What forces compel childbearing among the poor at a time in the life course when most of their affluent peers probably worry about whom to invite to the prom? To answer this question, we share parts of the hundreds of in-depth conversations held on front stoops and in the kitchens of these bleak urban neighborhoods. The stories of those we spoke with offer an intimate look into the private moments of courtship, as well as the drama of how relationships unfold during the often tumultuous experience of pregnancy and childbirth. Women's voices tell the stories; the perspectives of the men who father their children are not heard. But as you will see, these women have their own theories of why the men in their lives behave as they do.
"I WANNA HAVE A BABY BY YOU."
Like Antonia Rodriguez, young women who come of age in poor communities like West Kensington usually meet the men who father their children in their neighborhoods: on their front stoops, at the corner store, in their school hallways, or through mutual friends. Yet once a young pair begins casually flirting, or "kicking it," the relationship often moves at lightning speed along the trajectory that culminates in the delivery of a shared child. Kimberly, a twenty-seven-year-old Puerto Rican mother of two children, ages six and three, provides an excellent example: "There's this bridge in Puerto Rico that he took me to [on our first date]. That's where he asked me to be his girlfriend. That's where we had our first kiss.... It was really nice. I got pregnant quick though. We started [dating] April I, and by May I was pregnant."
Romance and dreams of shared children seem almost inevitably to go together for Madeline, an eighteen-year-old Puerto Rican mother of a four-month-old, who casually explains, "In the beginning, when you first like a guy a lot, oh, you wanna have his baby." And young women are not the only dreamers. Lisa, white and thirty-two, now a mother of two teenagers, recalls that her children's father announced his desire to father a child by her almost immediately after they met. "From day one ... I'd say within a week ... of being with him, he wanted to have a baby by me. He talked about how pregnant women are beautiful and it'd be beautiful if we had a baby."
To the outside observer, begging one's girlfriend for a baby just days or weeks after initiating a new romance might seem to be little more than a cynical pickup line, and that is certainly how it is sometimes used. But in the social world of young people like Antonia and Emilio, nearly everyone knows that a young man who proclaims his desire to have a baby by a young woman is offering high tribute to her beauty, for this avowal expresses a desire for a child that will have her eyes and her smile. The statement's significance extends beyond praise for her physical charms, though. A man who says these words with sincerity bestows an even higher form of flattery: she is the kind of woman he is willing to entrust with the upbringing of his progeny, his own flesh and blood. Yet expressing the desire to have a baby together is far from a promise of lifelong commitment. What it does reflect is the desire to create some sort of significant, long-lasting bond through a child. Lena, a white mother of a one-year-old, who is only fifteen when we talk with her, says her boyfriend told her he "wanted to get me pregnant ... so that I won't leave him. So that I'll stay with him forever. Then he said [to me], 'When you have kids by somebody, they'll always go back to you.'" And when Lisette, an eighteen-year-old African American mother of two toddlers, discovered she was pregnant, "[The father] said to me, 'You know, I got you pregnant on purpose because I want you in my life for the rest of my life.'" For Lena and Lisette and the men in their lives, marriage is both fragile and rare, and the bond that shared children create may be the most significant and enduring tie available.
The heady significance of the declaration "I want to have a baby by you" is also fueled by the extraordinarily high social value the poor place on children. For a lack of compelling alternatives, poor youth like Antonia and Emilio often begin to eagerly anticipate children and the social role of parents at a remarkably tender age. While middle-class teens and twenty-somethings anticipate completing college and embarking on careers, their lower-class counterparts can only dream of such glories. Though some do aspire to these goals, the practical steps necessary to reach them are often a mystery. We return to this theme in chapter 6.
African American, sixteen-year-old Brehanna conceived a child when she and her boyfriend Jason were only fourteen. Her sister too had her first child young, and Brehanna says she wants to be just like her. This high school dropout from East Camden, now a telemarketer, tells us that from the early days of their courtship, "We was always going out to the mall and going [window] shopping for [baby things]. We always talked about having a baby. We used to always talk about having kids and everything."
Thoughts of children—when to have them, who with, what they'll be Like—often preoccupy the hopes and dreams of Brehanna, Jason, and their peers throughout adolescence and into the early adult years. Visions of shared children stand in vivid, living color against a monochromatic backdrop of otherwise dismal prospects. An unabashed confidence that they're up to the job of parenting feeds the focus on children that most poor youth display, and this is at least partly because they've already mastered many of its mechanics. This point was brought home when one of us (Edin) was asked to speak about urban poverty to a group of several dozen Camden middle school youth in a summer employment program. While she talked, her daughter Kaitlin, then three, toddled around in the middle of the room. Suddenly, the child tripped and fell. Almost instantly two-thirds of the youth were on their feet, ready to spring into action on her behalf. While she'd been talking, most of her young audience had been listening with one ear while at the same time closely monitoring the child, and they were doing so out of habit—something she could not imagine herself having done at the same age. Inspired by this insight, she asked, "How many of you help take care of younger siblings or cousins?" Almost all raised their hands. Then she asked, "How many of you know how to change a diaper and make up a bottle?" Again, dozens of hands shot up in the air. "I didn't know how to do either until I was thirty and had a baby!" she admitted to the group.
A childhood embedded in a social network rich with children—younger siblings, cousins, nieces and nephews, and the children of friends-creates the illusion of a near Dr. Spock-like competence in childrearing. Tatiana, a twenty-two-year-old African American mother of two preschoolers and a first grader, brags, "My sister used to make me have my niece all the time. I really had experience.... I had a lot of experience." Sonia, a twenty-three-year-old Puerto Rican with a three-year-old son, says the prospect of becoming a mother at eighteen didn't scare her because, "I was the responsible one. I was already a mom.... I would cook, clean, do everything else .... I've always been a mom. That's why it wasn't nothing new to me." Destiny, an eighteen-year-old white mother of two toddlers, explains, "When we were living with my mom, I was taking care of my little sister and my little brother anyway. She was working two jobs, so I was taking care of them mostly. I got patience, a lot of patience. It wasn't like I wasn't able to take care of no kids anyway!"
"MY DAUGHTER WAS DEFINITELY PLANNED. I WANTED A KID!"
Children come early to couples in West Kensington and other decaying neighborhoods in Philadelphia's inner core—in fact, most conceive their first child within a year of being together. As talk of shared children is part of the romantic dialogue poor young couples engage in from the earliest days of courtship, this is not surprising. Nonetheless, for these mothers, only one in four children is conceived according to an explicit plan—about one in five for our African American and Puerto Rican mothers, and one in ten for our whites (see appendix A).
Some youth decide to begin trying to get pregnant so they can escape a troubled home life. Roxanne, a white mother of an adult child, a teenager, and a one-year-old, now in her early forties, recalls the first time she and her boyfriend had sex. "We went down to the shore. I remember we had sex eight times in a row without using anything. He agreed [to try and get pregnant, and it worked the first time]. I got pregnant to get out of my house, to get away from my father, to get away from my mother. I couldn't stand living there any more." Young women like Roxanne hope that motherhood will somehow free them from the trauma of difficult personal situations, though they're not always sure exactly how the rescue will be accomplished.
But children are no mere escape from strained familial relationships. Young women also hunger for the love and intimacy they can provide. Aliya, a twenty-seven-year-old African American mother, who got pregnant at seventeen with her one child, passionately exclaims, "Some people may say it was for the wrong reasons, but it was like too much around me going on.... I guess that was my way out of all these situations. [But] I wanted a child because it was mine. It was [for] love." For those like Aliya, pregnancy offers the promise of relational intimacy at a time few other emotional resources are available.
Trust among residents of poor communities is astonishingly low—so low that most mothers we spoke with said they have no close friends, and many even distrust close kin. The social isolation that is the common experience of those who live in poverty is heightened for adolescents, whose relationships with parents are strained by the developmental need to forge an independent identity. The "relational poverty" that ensues can create a compelling desire to give and receive love. Who better to do so with, some figure, than a child they can call their own? Pamela, a white middle-aged mother of seven children, ranging in age from fourteen to twenty-eight, reflects, "I think [I got pregnant] mainly because I wanted to be loved. I went through my childhood without it. Somehow, I knew that ... I would grow up and have kids, and it was something that was mine. Nobody could take it away from me. It was something that would love me. I would be able to love it unconditionally. There was no strings attached to it." Pamela concludes, "I just knew, growing up, 'Oh, you're gonna have your kids.... The kids are still gonna love you. They're yours.'"
Excerpted from Promises I Can Keep by Kathryn Edin, Maria Kefalas. Copyright © 2011 Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Foreword by Frank Furstenberg
1. “Before We Had a Baby . . .”
2. “When I Got Pregnant . . .”
3. How Does the Dream Die?
4. What Marriage Means
5. Labor of Love
6. How Motherhood Changed My Life
Conclusion: Making Sense of Single Motherhood
Appendix A: City, Neighborhood, and Family Characteristics and Research Methods
Posted October 31, 2005
I know one of the woman you wrote about and she did not put motherhood before marriage. They both do hard core drugs and they chose that over their children. They gave up their rights and a great grandparent is taking care of these wonderful children. I see them when I can and I am not a relative. They are lucky to have extended family.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 8, 2014
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