Sunday, April 15, 2007

Can You Keep A Promise?

I think Bitch Ph.D's review of Promises I Can Keep really offers some illuminating points about unwed mothers in inner-city, Black areas. Here's the nuts:
What [the authors] found is that the moms have mainstream, even conservative ideas of what marriage should be, and they don't want to get married if they don't trust that the men will be faithful, help provide for their children, not be abusive, etc. And that these fears are quite reasonable, given the men they have to choose from.

But. The women also have mainstream, conservative ideas about the value and importance of children--so much so that they often think of abortion as irresponsible. Which is an interesting and profound realization, I think, and one that those of us who are pro-choice would do well to think very hard about. A lot of the time we argue for abortion rights as if we were doing so on behalf of poor women; we need to realize that many poor women are not themselves pro-choice, and that if we really want to advocate for them, we should start by listening to what they have to say.

The key thing the women in this book have to say is that having kids while young and poor has been good for them. According to their own account (and the author's observations), their children have given them a reason them to straighten up their lives, grow up, and become responsible adults. Their children provide a source of love for these young women, where boyfriends, peers, and parents have so often failed them. I think most of us in the middle class think it's a little fucked up to want a child for the love that child will give you (and Edin and Kefalis say this too). But at the same time, I think those of us who have had children will say that one of the most powerful and gratifying things about parenting is precisely that experience of love. It's possible that poor young women, who are often much closer to the experience of parenting than their middle-class peers by virtue of helping raise their siblings, or seeing friends have babies, are simply more realistic about the emotional benefits of parenting than the middle class is.

The one major argument we usually offer, though, for why young and/or poor women shouldn't have children, is that doing so is economically damaging: they won't get ahead if they have kids too early. It turns out that this argument isn't true. Poor women's economic prospects are demonstrably no better if they postpone childbirth than if they have children young. In fact, there's some evidence that their lives, economically and otherwise, would be worse, as kids provide them an incentive to stop using drugs, to end abusive relationships, to get jobs, and to further their educations. Setting an example for their children, or improving their situations for their children's sake, proves to be a much more powerful motivator than doing so for themselves.

Now, I understand that some folks really don't care what happens to women once they get married, so long as the ring gets on the finger. But for the rest of us, this offers an interesting twist to the tired cliches about unwed mothers in the inner cities. It seems that these Black women aren't opposed to marriage, per se, they just have high standards about who they're want to marry in the first place. Men who are responsible, hard-working, caring, not abusive. Things everybody deserves in a spouse. Lecturing them about the evils of not being married when they have a kid, when the immediate option to marry might not be to the most attractive candidate, is both patronizing and misguided.


Anonymous said...

what a bunch of c--p!

PG said...

I guess I'm hopelessly middle-class, because the idea of having children because of what they will do for you -- love you, give you reason to straighten out your life -- really bothers me. Obviously if you're bringing the kids into the world (as opposed to adopting), you've already decided that you can make an existence for them that is better than non-existence, however low the standard for the latter is. But I see a difference between thinking, "I would be fulfilled by being a parent, AND I think I would be a good one," versus thinking, "I would be fulfilled by being a parent, even if I'm not sure how good a life I can provide for my offspring." Inasmuch as having children for the sake of having them (and in particular the focus on biological reproduction over the actual childrearing process) is a "mainstream, conservative idea," it is one I vehemently oppose. If you want to have children, you ought to prepare yourself for them, rather than trying to get it together when the children already are there.

Moreover, I can understand why a woman would have one child for these motivations, but having multiple children with men who are unworthy marriage candidates seems likely to create bad situations for the children themselves, even if unwed mothers are more likely than non-mothers of the same age and economic bracket to improve their lives. To prioritize how much having children makes the woman's life better, rather than how having children affects the children themselves, seems to me to be just as misguided as deciding whether women can get abortions based on fetal interests. Before a baby is born, the woman's interests come first; having chosen to have the baby, she (and we) should then put the child's interests first. So whether having kids improves a woman's life isn't as important to me as how well off the kids themselves are. If the woman finally leaves an abusive relationship once the guy starts slapping the kids around, good for her, but not so good for the kids who had to get abused before she woke up to what was happening.

I guess to me there's more of a long term solution in creating an educational system that honors young women's abilities and aspirations, and in particular includes information about sex and relationships that recognizes how early some people go looking for these things, and integrates practical information about protection from pregnancy and disease with strategies for dealing with one's own feelings of loneliness, isolation, sexual desire, etc.

Anonymous said...

"A lot of the time we argue for abortion rights as if we were doing so on behalf of poor women; "

Not sure that's entered into my pro-choice mindset. I support pro-choice because the decision to have achild, and all that it means and under all the conditions it can come about should be left to those involved. Not the crazy Aunt who prays before having snacks.

It is a matter of the rights of individuals and the religous context that the pro-lifers' bring to it is a tactic to enforce their moral system upon all others. The right of choice is a right for rich and for poor. The interesting historical point is the wealthy have always ahd access to it. It was a 'right of wealth' most often in this country. That's why the issue of economics came into it.