Friday, March 7, 2014

7QT: Seven Things I Didn't Know About Single Motherhood

Image by Ashleigh W.
By Mary C. Tillotson

While basically all the research shows that kids do best when raised by their own two biological parents who are happily married to each other, many children are raised by single mothers. Politicians and political commentators argue until they’re blue (or red) in the face over how to handle the issue. The left argues for increased contraception and abortion; the right argues for promotion of sexual abstinence.

What neither side is doing is talking to the actual single mothers living in poverty to hear what they have to say.

I recently finished Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, professors at Harvard and St. Joseph’s University. The two women spent several years in the poor areas in and around Philadelphia trying to understand why poor women so often raise children without fathers. They interviewed 162 women and condensed their research into a book – which you should read.

I’m linking up with Jen and the others. Here are seven things I didn’t know about single motherhood in poverty.


Many women intended to become pregnant, or at least sort of intended it.

Increasing access to contraception and abortion isn’t going to solve the problem. The women interviewed knew how contraception worked and had plenty of access to it, but weren’t using it (or weren’t using it well) on purpose. Most of these women’s pregnancies are not exactly planned, but not exactly avoided. (I’ll address the why of this later.)


Most men in their neighborhoods are violent, drug-addicted, drug dealing, unfaithful, unemployed, and/or in prison.

Telling these women “wait till you’re married” or suggesting that they lack self-control isn’t going to help either. Most of the women the authors interviewed agreed that it’s better to have a father around, and most would like to be married. But it’s a rare man, in these neighborhoods, who would make a good husband.

Many women find that their pregnancy and motherhood made them quit drugs, partying, and other destructive behavior, but men aren’t affected the same way.

For many of these women, marriage is a pipe dream.


Children don’t ruin these mother’s lives.

It’s true that motherhood often causes a woman to drop out of high school, but it’s likely that she didn’t have a lot going for her anyway. She isn’t ruining her plans to go to college and become a lawyer, because she probably wasn’t going to go to college or be a lawyer.

“It is not the news of [a daughter’s] pregnancy itself that provokes the greatest regret, but the realization that one’s child will not be the rare exception to the neighborhood rule ... While mothers’ own mothers may mourn what might have been, they know the odds that their child would jump the class divide were never good, baby or no baby. Thus, the sense of loss an early pregnancy brings is, in many cases, purely hypothetical.” (65-66)


Children help fill a void that everyone needs filled – love.

The researchers found that many of the women in poor neighborhoods had little in the way of good relationships with anyone, friends or family. They quote a few women on this topic (174-175):

“A lot of people ... say [young girls have babies] for money from welfare. It’s not for that ... It’s not even to keep the guy. It’s just to have somebody ... to take care of, somebody to love or whatever.” –Brielle, age 32, mother of four (ages 3-11)

“No, no I didn’t use no birth control, because I wanted a baby. I guess I needed something to fill up that hole.” –Sonia, age 23, mother of one (age 3)

“The way I was raised, [with] so much violence and confusion going on around me, I just wanted to love somebody. And ... then [my child] just filled me up with a lot of stuff that was needed.” –Aliya, age 27, mother of one (age 9)


Many poor women take pride in their motherhood.

The women interviewed in the study didn’t seem naive; they know they can’t inoculate their children against the neighborhood streets. They often take pride in things middle-class mothers take for granted: putting food on the table, keeping their children clothed, making sure they go to school. In these neighborhoods, mothers are shamed if their clothing is nicer than their children’s.

“They recognize that bringing a pregnancy to term in the face of difficult circumstances is a tough row to hoe, and they believe that choosing to do so is heroic.” (166)


Single moms do care deeply about their children.

Bringing children into the world under circumstances middle-class women find abhorrent doesn’t mean poor women don’t care about their children.

“The women we spoke to saw children as a blessing, and childbearing and rearing as natural parts of young adulthood. Parenting is the most important role these women expect to play, and they want very much to play it well.” (165)


Better schools would help.

These mothers want their children to succeed, and one of the best ways to do that is by giving them access to quality education for their children. Inner-city schools are typically the worst by any measure, and it’s hard for mothers to help their kids with schoolwork. Many of them work long hours, and, high school dropouts themselves, struggle to understand what their children are learning.

{What I’ve seen}

At great schools, teachers foster dreams of college and beyond, and they help the kids achieve them. If kids have a lot to lose by dropping out of high school, they’re less likely to make decisions – like getting pregnant – that would make it difficult to complete school. Those opportunities encourage young men toward maturity and discipline – traits women want in husbands and children need in fathers.

These teachers can provide emotional and academic support that the kids can’t get at home, through extended school days, extra-curricular activities, tutoring. The secret to educating poor kids isn’t a secret, a woman who works at a high-performing urban charter school told me. Education is the ticket out of poverty, many experts say.

In Milwaukee Public Schools, 66.2 percent of students graduate high school. I visited a private Christian school in Milwaukee that served the same demographic of students, all on public scholarships. How do those students do? Watch this video of their Senior Signing Day:


  1. Wow. What a fascinating post! I'm going to have to check out that book, for sure! My sister became pregnant out of wedlock, and she says it wasn't her intention, but I think if she was really being honest with herself, she would admit that she sort of intended to get pregnant. For her, I think the draw was independence from my parents- she wanted to seem responsible and adult on her own. And boy, she sure has changed as a result of that sweet little nephew of mine.

    Again, great post. Very, very interesting.

    1. Thanks! Yeah, I was really surprised at a lot of what I read. I'm all for this sort of thing staying within marriage, but if we're going to encourage that, we should try to understand where these women are coming from. Yes, read the book -- let me know what you think of it!

    2. Maybe when these single mothers raise their sons to be productive citizens (marriage material), the daughters of single mothers will have men worth marrying. Then the next generation can marry, and their children will have an easier time reaching their goals.

    3. This is what they're all trying to do. I think part of the problem is the absolute dearth of male role models in their neighborhoods and schools. I think giving moms more choices for where they can send their kids to school will help a lot. Also? These guys are probably doing a lot of good.

  2. Fascinating. We lived among a similar community for some years, and I remember my mom recounting a conversation she overheard in which a group of girls was talking about how some other girl was "all over" their babies, and "she just needs to get herself her own baby."

  3. Nice to see another black Catholic blogger around here I'm book marking you in my favs!

    1. Hi Alexis, thanks for dropping by! I am Catholic, but I'm not black -- sorry! The photo above is a stock photo I found on Creative Commons; I wasn't really paying attention to race when I selected it.

  4. Now I want to read that book. Your 7 points here line up with what I observed in my short time practicing family law (which involved a lot of custody and child support cases where the parents were never married).


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