Promises They Can Keep: Low-Income Women's Attitudes toward Motherhood, Marriage, and Divorce

By Cherlin, Andrew; Cross-Barnet, Caitlin et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, November 2008 | Go to article overview
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Promises They Can Keep: Low-Income Women's Attitudes toward Motherhood, Marriage, and Divorce


Cherlin, Andrew, Cross-Barnet, Caitlin, Burton, Linda M., Garrett-Peters, Raymond, Journal of Marriage and Family


Using data on low-income mothers in Boston, Chicago, and San Antonio, we test three propositions regarding mothers' attitudes toward childbearing, marriage, and divorce. These are drawn from K. Edin and M. J. Kefalas (2005) but have also arisen in other recent studies. We find strong support for the proposition that childbearing outside of marriage carries little stigma, limited support for the proposition that women prefer to have children well before marrying, and almost no support for the proposition that women hesitate to marry because they fear divorce. We suggest that mothers' attitudes and preferences in these three domains do not support the long delay between childbearing and marriage that has been noted in the literature.

Key Words: childbearing, divorce, marriage, motherhood, poverty.

The question of why some low-income women and men have children years before they marry, if they ever marry, has interested social scientists for a century, with most of the attention focused on African Americans. Before World War ? sociologists such as Du Bois (1903), Frazier (1939), and Drake and Cayton (1945) noted the effects on Black family life of the heritage of slavery, urbanization, segregation, and discrimination, sometimes drawing cultural distinctions between the poor and the middle class. In midcentury , ethnographic accounts (Hannerz, 1969; Ladner, 1971;Liebow, 1967;Stack, 1974) and the controversial analysis of Moyhihan (Rainwater & Yancey, 1967) continued this tradition. The issue received further attention in the 1990s (Franklin, 1997; Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1995). More recently, the question has reemerged as part of the policy debates over government programs to promote marriage among the low-income population (Amato & Maynard, 2007).

In response to this resurgence of interest, a small but influential literature has emerged that examines contemporary low-income women's attitudes and preferences toward life course pathways involving childbearing and marriage. The most widely cited contribution to this literature is Edin and Kefalas (2005), a qualitative study of low-income mothers in the Philadelphia area. They argue that a radical separation of childbearing and marriage exists in the life course of many low-income women in the neighborhoods they studied. Young women, they claim, are unwilling to postpone childbearing because of the high value they place on children, even though it is difficult for them to find suitable young men to marry. Many of them, consequently, begin bearing children as teenagers. Moreover, it is argued, many of them prefer to marry at a substantially older age, such as in their 30s. The authors also claim that women are hesitant to marry because, should the marriage fail, they fear the shame and stigma of divorce.

Edin and Kefalas (2005) focused on answering policy questions rather than on placing their findings in a theoretical context. Yet their study is relevant to life course theory, which asserts that norms and expectations about the timing and ordering of events can serve as points of reference, guiding individuals through the life course in a socially prescribed order. Individuals are said to benefit when life events occur "on time" (e.g., within a normatively expected age range) and in a socially prescribed sequence (e.g., marriage before childbearing). On-time, normatively sanctioned transitions are less stressful and usually occur in the context of reasonable social support (Elder & Shanahan, 2006; Hagestad & Neugarten, 1985). When an individual experiences an event or transition outside of what the social context considers the appropriate order and "off-time," however, less social support may be available to them, and the consequences of the transition may be negative. Applications of the life course perspective to the timing and sequencing of childbearing and marriage in low-income populations are well represented in the research on nonmarital pregnancy in the 1980s and 1990s (Burton, 1990; Furstenberg, Brooks-Gunn, & Morgan, 1987; Hamburg, 1986; Hogan & Kitagawa, 1985).

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