Single Mothers and Marriage: Poverty as Motivation for Childbearing

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We have discussed single mothers in poverty primarily in terms of the mother experiencing more detrimental poverty after her becoming single – becoming a single mother influenced her being in poverty. While this is sometimes the case, there is another demographic of single mothers in poverty who were in poverty before becoming a single mother – essentially, that the poverty influenced her becoming a single mother. In examining the lives of single mothers in Pennsylvania, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas discuss Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage. Their findings show that women in positions of poverty often find themselves in high risk situations promoting high risk behaviors – this has been a pattern throughout history as women’s agency has fluctuated between eras and is certainly prevalent today, the major difference being that modern society is perhaps less critical or condemning of out-of-wedlock pregnancies.

Much of democracy’s current stance on out-of-wedlock pregnancies is formed by the reformation of social policy. As Planned Parenthood becomes more accessible and gains more attention in the political sphere, there seems to be a growing, mutual understanding that unwed pregnancies happen, and options ought to be available for the young women in these positions. Even still, unwed pregnancies can (and do) carry some stigma. Particularly for the middle or upper class women, who statistically tend to have fewer children than those in poverty, it seems perhaps an irresponsible decision or unfortunate circumstance dictated these young single mothers’ predicaments. The evidence that emerges from Edin and Kefalas’ studies, however, show that a large proportion of women are highly aware of the consequences of having unprotected sex and often desire to be pregnant – even if that means they are pregnant long before they are ever married or have the full financial capability of caring for the child.

Thus begins an interesting paradox. It is frequently cited that low income women are less likely to obtain an education than middle or upper class women. While this is true, many single mothers actually choose not to marry until they are finished with their school work, have a degree, and are working. We may be reminded of earlier research that professes the difficulty in raising a child while attending school and working, but many women are able to successfully emerge both financially and emotionally from the hardships and stresses it causes. In one particular case, a woman even moved geographically to help improve her personal situation as well as attempt to provide stability to her in-and-out boyfriend while she worked full time.

In many of Erin and Kefalas’ case studies, women comment on the stability that a child brings to their life – rather than relying on a relationship with a boyfriend or fiancé, the child is theirs, permanently. Children can often act as emotional stability to counteract the stresses and emotional consequences of poverty.  After spending sometimes years helping to raise siblings while their mother, father, or both spent the days at work, these young women often feel ready to have children of their own. Feeling that they have practiced the role of mother for an extended period of time, the use of birth control generally drops as the relationship with their romance progresses and they are keenly and consciously aware of the potential consequences of the sexual acts. In fact, the emotional stability of the relationship between partners may decline as birth control continues, posing as a sign of infidelity.

Of course it is necessary to recognize that these cannot be held as “blanket statements” that typify the motivations for all low-income women; nevertheless it remains that there is a proportion of women in poverty who do feel this way, particularly if they have children. Because of patterns in low-income households that expect children to begin raising their siblings at a young age, the emotional stresses of poverty that young women are seeking to relive, and the fulfillment of purpose that childbearing fulfills, many women in poverty are likely to elect to becoming a single parent consciously. There is no evidence that childbearing has a profound effect on already disadvantaged young women in their education or career, except perhaps the stigma that we still attach to their decisions.


Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).


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