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Friday, April 13, 2007

Book Review: Promises I Can Keep

posted by bitchphd
Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas's Promises I Can Keep is the first in my long-promised and long-delayed series of "reviews of all the great stuff I've been reading lately." It's been out for a while (2005), so this isn't exactly a newsy review, but it's a fabulous book and if you haven't already read it, I think you should.

The authors are sociologists/anthropologists who did a study of poor single moms. So the book is kind of sociology/ethnography. Which means that it does a great job of combining interesting, readable stories about individual women (told in the women's own words a lot of the time) with a longer-focus analytic view that helps interpret the stories. It's kind of rare to find a groundbreaking academic book that's a great read, but this one is.

What Edin and Kefalis 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.

Of course, in the end, a lot of these women still aren't able to provide much for their children, despite great effort, and even those who do provide well aren't always able to save their kids from the dangers of poverty and drugs. But a lot of that failure isn't theirs. It's not their fault that impoverished neighborhoods are dangerous, that poor schools are appalling, that there aren't many job prospects, that gangs are omnipresent, or that the process of college admissions is mysterious to them. In the middle class world, these obstacles don't exist; so from our point of view, waiting to have children is kind of a "guarantee" of a good outcome. We tend to assume that poor outcomes are the result of early childbearing when in fact, as this book suggests, this may well be a case where correlation has nothing to do with causation.

For the middle class and the wealthy, it makes a lot of economic sense to postpone having children. We're wrong, though, to prescribe waiting to poor women, for whom there are no economic disincentives to early childbearing. For these women, early childbirth is, at worst, neutral, and at best a positive improvement on not only their economic but also their emotional and mental well-being. We're used to thinking of what we have to teach the poor; this book does a great job of showing us what the poor have to teach us about parenting, childrearing, and looking at things from a more genuinely feminist point of view--one in which children really are a central part of life, rather than an optional choice.

You can read the book's second chapter here, and an article by the authors that excerpts some of the book's material here. You can also get a sample issue of Contexts, the journal in which the latter article appeared, by clicking that link and going to "pdf sample issue" in the left-hand pull-down menu, under "content."

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