Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Is Parenthood Planned?

Yesterday I wrote about economist Amalia Miller’s finding that women make 10% more over their career for each year they delay having a first child. That was the main point of her study. Today I want to write about an incidental point she made, when she compared women who got pregnant on purpose with those who had unplanned pregnancies.

Miller used the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, which followed the same group of people from youth to early adulthood, beginning in 1979. Miller reports this question and response from one of the follow-up surveys:

“Just before you became pregnant the first time, did you want to become pregnant when you did?”
11.6% of respondents said “Yes,”
4.2% said “Didn’t matter,”
63.8% said “No, not at that time,” and
20.5% said “No, not at all.”

As Miller reads this response, the vast majority of these pregnancies were unplanned.

I contrast this, though, with Promises I Can Keep, Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas’ study which I have written about several times. Edin and Kefalas were studying teen single mothers, so their group is not directly comparable to the much broader NLSY79 population that Miller is using. Still, one of the vital findings of Promises I Can Keep is that most of the children these teen moms had were “sort-of planned.” They knew they wanted to have children, and they were ok with having children with their current boyfriends. So they didn’t try not to have children, with the usual result.

If Edin and Kefalas’s moms had been asked the NLSY79 question about whether they wanted to get pregnant then, most of them would have answered “no, not at this time.” Yet that would have been a misleading result. It did not mean, in their case, that their pregnancies were unplanned in the sense that Miller is reading them. For women of the professional class, who plan their lives carefully, a “not at this time” pregnancy is a disaster. For poor teenage girls whose biggest life plan is to be a mother, it is not.

I estimate that for most women in the classes in between -- most especially the married women -- a “not at this time” pregnancy is not a disaster. It is an early delivery of an expected gift. For most women, their job plans are made to serve their family plans, not the other way around.


Anonymous said...

Although the connection is quite tenuous, your post reminded me of this poem by John Betjeman called 'The Planster's Vision'.

Cut down that timber! Bells, too many and strong,
Pouring their music through the branches bare,
From moon-white church-towers down the windy air
Have pealed the centuries out with Evensong.
Remove those cottages, a huddled throng!
Too many babies have been born in there,
Too many coffins, bumping down the stair,
Carried the old their garden paths along.

I have a Vision of The Future, chum,
The worker's flats in fields of soya beans
Tower up like silver pencils, score on score:
And Surging Millions hear the Challenge come
From microphones in communal canteens
"No Right! No wrong! All's perfect, evermore."

Gruntled said...

Kristin Luker, in her wonderful study of abortion activists, The Politics of Motherhood, found that pro-choice women plan their lives carefully. They find the pro-life women, who live a life open to the gift of life, as irrational. This is one of the rare cases in which familiarity with opponents widens the gap between them.