There is an excellent new ethnography of family life: Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas. Edin and Kefalas spent several years as participant-observers with poor single mothers in the most blighted neighborhoods of Philadelphia and Camden, NJ. They found that poor women thought kids were essential, but marriage was a luxury. They wanted to have children, and thought it made most sense to have them before they were 25. Marriage is a dream for the future, like a steady job, a car, and a house with a picket fence. They didn’t want to marry a man until they had lived with him for some years, raised several children together, and tested whether he would be faithful and (in a very modest way) a provider. The women Edin and Kefalas got to know thought that they should wait to marry until they were about 40. Before that, men were just too wild and unreliable.
This is fascinating in itself, and helps people (like me) with bourgeois expectations of marriage, children, and work, make some sense of the “through the looking-glass” world of poor single mothers.
BUT, the marriage movement turns on a critical, opposing point: it is marriage and fatherhood which makes men become responsible and self-sacrificing grownups. Linda Waite and Maggie Gallagher, in The Case for Marriage, call this “the power of the Vow.” If women give men all the advantages of marriage – sex, kids, room and board, companionship, comfort, etc., etc. – without requiring any of the responsibilities, then of course many men will never grow up, or even stay. Even the poorest women, with the most uncertain marriage prospects, would be better off waiting for sex and children until after their boyfriends demonstrated some real capacity to be husbands, fathers, protectors, and providers. Planning to be a single mother and hoping to someday marry may seem like a lower risk strategy, but it just multiplies the family disaster of poor fatherless families.