Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage

Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage

Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage

Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood before Marriage


Millie Acevedo bore her first child before the age of 16 and dropped out of high school to care for her newborn. Now 27, she is the unmarried mother of three and is raising her kids in one of Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods. Would she and her children be better off if she had waited to have them and had married their father first? Why do so many poor American youth like Millie continue to have children before they can afford to take care of them?

Over a span of five years, sociologists Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas talked in-depth with 162 low-income single moms like Millie to learn how they think about marriage and family. Promises I Can Keep offers an intimate look at what marriage and motherhood mean to these women and provides the most extensive on-the-ground study to date of why they put children before marriage despite the daunting challenges they know lie ahead.


Promises I Can Keep chronicles the lives of 162 low-income women at the turn of the twenty-first century. So-called single mothers, they’ve all had children outside of a marital bond. When we first met them in the late 1990s, a third of all American births were to unmarried women. Now, more than a decade later, the rate exceeds four in ten.

The story of how poor unmarried couples come together, conceive a child, and then break apart is the arc we chronicle in Promises. These residents of low-income communities across Philadelphia and its sister city, Camden, let us into their worlds so that we could better understand why poor women have children while young and unmarried, a situation which most observers would argue makes having a child a bad decision for all concerned. Rather than approaching the subject from a normative perspective, we try to answer the question of why. The logic behind our focus is this: Americans can argue until they are blue in the face that such women are making a mistake, but that won’t make their children any better off. To develop policy interventions that have real potential for success, understanding why these women make the family choices they do is essential.

But so-called single motherhood hides a deeper, more complex, reality. Take Deena Vallas from chapter 5, for example. With her soulful face and deep brown eyes—a South Philadelphia version of the Mona Lisa— . . .

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