Contexts, Vol. 4, Issue 2, pp. 16-22, ISSN 1536-5042, electronic ISSN 1537-6052. © 2005 by the American Sociological Association. All rights reserved.
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unmarried with children
kathryn edin and maria kefalas
Have poor, unmarried mothers given up on marriage, as middle-class observers often conclude?
To the contrary, most of the time they are simply waiting for the right partner and situation to make it work.
Jen Burke, a white tenth-grade dropout who is 17 years
old, lives with her stepmother, her sister, and her 16-month-
old son in a cramped but tidy row home in Philadelphia’s
beleaguered Kensington neighborhood. She is broke, on wel-
fare, and struggling to complete her GED. Wouldn’t she and
her son have been better off if she had finished high school,
found a job, and married her son’s father first?
In 1950, when Jen’s grandmother came of age, only 1 in 20
American children was born to an unmarried mother. Today, that
rate is 1 in 3—and they are usually born to those least likely to be
able to support a child on their own. In our book,
Promises I Can
Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage
discuss the lives of 162 white, African American, and Puerto
Rican low-income single mothers living in eight destitute neigh-
borhoods across Philadelphia and its poorest industrial suburb,
Camden. We spent five years chatting over kitchen tables and
on front stoops, giving mothers like Jen the opportunity to speak
to the question so many affluent Americans ask about them:
Why do they have children while still young and unmarried when
they will face such an uphill struggle to support them?
romance at lightning speed
Jen started having sex with her 20-year-old boyfriend Rick
just before her 15th birthday. A month and a half later, she
was pregnant. “I didn’t want to get pregnant,” she claims.
wanted me to get pregnant.” “As soon as he met me, he
wanted to have a kid with me,” she explains. Though Jen’s col-
lege-bound suburban peers would be appalled by such a dec-
laration, on the streets of Jen’s neighborhood, it is something
of a badge of honor. “All those other girls he was with, he
didn’t want to have a baby with any of them,” Jen boasts. “I
asked him, ‘Why did you choose me to have a kid when you
could have a kid with any one of them?’ He was like, ‘I want
to have a kid with
.’” Looking back, Jen says she now
believes that the reason “he wanted me to have a kid that
early is so that I didn’t leave him.”
In inner-city neighborhoods like Kensington, where child-
bearing within marriage has become rare, romantic relationships
like Jen and Rick’s proceed at lightning speed. A young man’s
avowal, “I want to have a baby by you,” is often part of the