Editorial Staff

“I Wanna Be a Baby Mama.” Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage

Choosing to have a child is not an entirely rational choice, it is also an emotional choice.

Until people realize that there is more than just a rational, straightforward cost-benefit analysis that goes into the decision to have unprotected sex, to get an abortion, or to give birth to a child knowing full-well that you can’t feed and clothe the child without crossing your fingers and wishing for the best, there will be those who claim that poor black (and non-black mothers) are immoral and lacking in good judgement.

Personally, I can think of concrete, worthwhile reasons to not get pregnant right now: I want to graduate with my bachelor’s degree in a few months and don’t want the added stress of figuring out where I can access prenatal care; I want to attend graduate school for an MBA in the near future; I want to married before having any more children; I think that I can get a pretty great man to marry me, but the quality of the man I can get will necessarily decrease as my own ‘baggage’ increases; I want to move around a bit–both nationally and internationally–for the next five or six years and I would not be able to do that with a small child in tow.

What reasons does a poor young woman in the hood or trailer park have to avoid getting pregnant? Sure, she could dream of a life outside of her poor surroundings, she can imagine getting married to a wonderful man and having kids with her husband. But what if no one tells her that this is the reality that she should aspire to, and furthermore, what if she doesn’t think that reality–a great husband and kids, all living happily in the ‘burbs–will ever be a reality for her?

A poor woman with only a high school diploma or some college only has the option of dating, mating, and relating to men who are on the same level in life as she is. The men that this poor young woman is able to date probably lack job opportunities, don’t have enough education to get a high-paying job, might possess a juvenile criminal record. These are the men available to her, so these are the men she dates.

For a teenager or young women in her twenties, there are reasons why having a baby without a reliable partner seem feasible. By having a child when she is young, the chances that she and her baby will be in good health throughout the pregnancy are higher than if she were older, she also has an abundance of family members who are also relatively young to help her raise the baby.

Women choose to bring children into the world in untenable situations because they are looking for someone to love, who will love them back. A young woman whose only dating options are thugs knows that these thugs don’t love her, but if she has a baby then that baby will give her love. A baby will give her the chance to have something to be responsible for, a baby will be a chance to show how mature she is, a baby will give her something to do with herself other than the option of sitting around the house being lonely or laying up in bed with a thug. So what does she do? She makes the decision to have a baby.

My pastor once told me that as Christians our first ministry is our home. We can’t come to church to minister to anyone and our own home is a mess. To paraphrase him, there are too many church women spending an exorbitant amount of time in church–attending every church meeting, chairing every church organization, throwing fifty-dollar offerings up on the altar in the hopes that Jesus will bring them a husband–when their own daughters are out running the streets looking for someone to love them, to give them a hug and tell them they are beautiful. Well, if Mama is too busy in church to tell you she loves you and Daddy isn’t around, that leaves the thugs. And the thugs will always tell you whatever they need to tell you to get you to do what they want you to do; but for girls with low enough self-esteem, they don’t need to be told anything at all–they imagine that providing sex will get a man to provide them with love. Girls who are trading sex for what they hope will be a return offering of companionship and love are wrong in their assumption, but they don’t feel that other options are available to them.

Is it reasonable to assume that poor women can be expected to forgo the pleasures of child-rearing, the love and companionship of a child, the sense of responsibility and maturity that rearing a child develops in a parent, when these same women don’t see a middle-class lifestyle where children come after marriage as being an attainable reality?

Bashing poor unwed mothers is fashionable and suits our cultural beliefs that personal failings are always the fault of the individual, that our personal failings have little to no relationship to the options available to the individual or the cultural milieu that creates those options. None of us makes choices in a vacuum. We all do a complex calculus–using logic and emotions–to make a decision.

If we want poor women to stop having babies in less than ideal circumstances then we need to make the young men who are available for these women to date better partners, and we need to give these women reasons to wait to commence childbearing. In order for women to put marriage before motherhood, they will need good reasons that are clearly understandable–from their point of view–for doing so. Until those reasons materialize, you can expect the motherhood before marriage to continue.

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