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The rough road of single motherhood — and one mom who defied the odds

Published: Thursday, March 6 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

She wasn’t scared. “I just really wanted a baby because that was unconditional love, and I had never really had anyone to love me. I wanted to love someone and be loved back. I wasn’t scared, which was weird. I was happy.” She remained on good terms with the father, but he was more into frequenting the bar than fatherhood. Smoking, drinking and partying wasn’t the family life she wanted. After the child was born, he paid child support and visited occasionally — but she didn’t feel she had found the right man. She felt right about the child.

Sociologist Kathy Edin spent two years living in Camden, N.J., one of the poorest cities in the country, where she interviewed hundreds of poor, single mothers and fathers. Her discussions with them, and five years of follow-up research, are recorded in her books “Promises I Can Keep” about low-income single moms and “Doing the Best I Can” about unmarried dads.

She said that one of the things people don’t understand about single motherhood is that cases like Dever’s are common: Young women find themselves without viable partners, and marriage can seem out of reach. But they still see bearing and raising children as the most meaningful way to spend their lives. For some of them, this is rooted in religious beliefs, for others it’s just human nature — and a milestone of adulthood that feels attainable when things like college and career are not.

Low-income young men and women would like to do things “within sequence” —meaning dating, then marriage, then children — but they don’t see a clear path to make that happen, she said. Financial security is usually seen as a precursor to marriage for both the poor and affluent, and financial security is a long way off for many low-income young people.

“The chances of being economically stable prior to your 30s, if you are low income, are quite low,” said Edin. “That’s the rectal thermometer on the American economy — you have more parents working at near-minimum wage and scraping by. Then, life course sequencing gets off because nobody wants to wait until 35 to have a baby — the middle class does it, but they are not smart to do it — because fertility goes way down.”

Edin’s work reveals that it’s not just low-income women, but also low-income men that consider having kids as an important part of fulfillment. Given bleak career prospects and little hope for upward mobility, being a parent is one of the few positive identities and roles that feels attainable to the 100 inner-city fathers that she follows in her second book. They describe their children as their “saviors” and inspiration for getting off drugs or getting off the street.

It’s the economy

For number-crunchers and conservatives alike, the response to the rise in single parenting has been to try to re-establish the link between childbearing and marriage. Marriage as a solution for poverty has been pitched since the 1990s, when Clinton welfare changes gave federal funds to state marriage promotion programs. With a few exceptions, hundreds of millions of dollars of counseling has not improved rates of marriage or poverty.

Andrew J. Cherlin, a professor of sociology and public policy at Johns Hopkins and author of “The Marriage-Go-Round,” said desire for marriage is not the problem. The vast majority of Americans want to get married, and most will — at some point.

“Up and down the income ladder, across virtually all races, everyone would like to be married,” said Cherlin. “Those who think they can do it well do in fact get married. Those people tend to be financially stable and educated.”

The issue with the current decoupling of childbearing and marriage is two-pronged, he said. There’s a common belief that men have to have a job to be married, and yet men without college degrees used to work in factories. Now those jobs are gone, and the current economy leaves young men without stable employment or means of providing for a family. “The decline of the industrial economy has been crueler to young men than young women,” said Cherlin.

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