"WHEN I GOT PREGNANT . . ."
MAHKIYA AND MIKE
Mahkiya Washington, age twenty, her boyfriend Mike, and their seventeen-month-old daughter Ebony live with her sister in an apartment across the street from her mother's house. Though their building is not perfectly maintained—the door buzzers don't work, the screen door is broken and boarded over, and the apartment's drop ceiling is missing tiles in several places—it's clean. This young African American couple's North Philadelphia neighborhood, Strawberry Mansion, was once an opulent streetcar suburb on the leafy outskirts of the city. But that was a more than a century ago. Now the neighborhood is one of the city's poorest, and its only claim to fame is that John Coltrane's boyhood home sits on its western boundary. On Mahkiya's block, however, the unkempt physical environment masks a web of close social relationships: nearly all of the other residents here are members of Mahkiya's extensive kin network, and most, like Mahkiya, have lived in the neighborhood all their lives.
Mahkiya is the third of five children born to stable, married, working-class parents. Her father died when she was ten, and her mother supported the children through her work as a community organizer and the Social Security Survivors Insurance benefits the family received as a result of her father's death. Mahkiya and Mike were high school sweethearts and graduated together from Strawberry Mansion High School near the top of their class. During high school, Mahkiya says, her relationship with Mike was idyllic. "We went out, no arguments; wonderful, beautiful . . . it was no problems." After graduation, Mike enrolled in a college located in a small central Pennsylvania town. He could only stomach the "country living" for a few months, though, and decided to take a year off to work. Mahkiya enrolled in a historically black college an hour southwest of the city, majoring in accounting.
When Mahkiya was nineteen and living in the freshman dorm, the couple began to occasionally have sex without a condom during weekends back home. Mike expressed concern that these "slip-ups" might result in a pregnancy that would derail their college plans. Mahkiya told Mike not to worry, assuring him she'd seek an abortion if she got pregnant. But the positive result on her home pregnancy test near the middle of the school year created a crisis in her relationship with Mike. Almost immediately, she says, she felt a strong desire to bear the child. Her grandmother fed this desire, warning her granddaughter that she might "never have another [chance to] have a baby, so you enjoy this."
Whereas Antonia Rodriguez's boyfriend Emilio greeted the news of her pregnancy with a kind of stoic acceptance followed by joy and anticipation, Mike campaigned hard to avoid fatherhood. "He called me on the phone at school to say, 'Get an abortion. . . . If you don't get an abortion, we aren't going to be together.' Then he would just call up and say I was cheating on him, it wasn't his baby. . . . If I wasn't in my room, he'd say, 'You must have been with somebody else.' And I was like, 'I don't need this. I am trying to stay in school and still manage to be pregnant.' It just stressed me out."
But the news of the pregnancy soon reached Mike's mother, who initiated a campaign of her own to convince Mike it was immoral to "force someone to get rid of their baby." This tactic apparently worked. "So then he calls me back in the middle of the night, 'Mahkiya, I think we should keep the baby.'" Even after Mike's capitulation, though, "It was like he hated me for [being pregnant]. I still cared for him and loved him, but every day . . . he'd [call] and say, 'It ain't my child. Don't put my name on the birth certificate.'"
Mike's occasional bouts of "wild" behavior, which became more frequent during the pregnancy, also caused tensions in his relationship with Mahkiya. Prior to pregnancy, she says she might have joined Mike in some of the fun. But the practical realities of pregnancy meant that her behaviors were suddenly constrained in a way that Mike's were not. Like so many others, Mahkiya spent the last trimester of her pregnancy on the couch at home, bored and lonely, while Mike was out partying, clubbing, and "ripping and running the streets."
Mahkiya's relationship with Mike was also strained by dramatic changes in the expectations she placed on him once pregnant. Mike financed his romance with Mahkiya with a weeknight shift at McDonald's. Even this minimum-wage job provided ample money to purchase the right props for the romantic partner role. But when she got pregnant, this expectant young mother quickly did the mental math and realized Mike's meager earnings didn't add up to what it would take to buy the crib, the stroller, the diapers, clothing, and other things the baby was going to need. Worse still, the couple was nowhere close to having enough money to set up the independent household she believed a new family should have. Thus, though Mahkiya deemed Mike a "perfect" boyfriend prior to pregnancy, he became "nothing" when the pregnancy failed to prompt him to respond the way Emilio had—to "get off his butt" and land a "real job."
Mike and Mahkiya were one of the few couples we met who had been on their way to what might have been a bright economic future. Their local high school produced more dropouts than graduates, and despite the appallingly low test scores of its students, this young pair's high grades were sufficient to earn them admission to college. Though both wanted children together eventually, they had agreed that the first year of college was not the time to start. Mahkiya's strong desire to bring the pregnancy to term, in spite of the clear costs to her relationship with Mike and her educational career, surprised even her. But the most surprising part of the story Mahkiya tells is how the news so profoundly transformed Mike's behavior. She cannot fathom why the boyfriend who adored her could begin to treat her with such contempt.
"I'M PREGNANT." The story of courtship and conception told in chapter 1 is only the first act of a dramatic tale ending in childbirth. For poor youth like Antonia Rodriguez, Emilio, Mahkiya, and Mike, the news of a pregnancy can dramatically transform the relational dynamic. Two young people who have only been "kicking it" for a short period of time—often less than a year—suddenly realize they've ignited a time bomb. Most young women respond as Mahkiya and Antonia did—they attempt to get serious about life for the sake of the baby. Some of the young men do likewise, though few can manage to launch a business and purchase a home in such short order as Emilio did. Many young men, however, react on some level as Mike does, attempting to deny the new reality.
Once the dream of shared children becomes real, young couples moving at lightning speed along the relational trajectory leading to parenthood quickly learn that the imagined child is very different from a rapidly developing fetus. An expectant mother's experience of pregnancy almost always radically changes her sense of herself—she is transformed in her own eyes from an irresponsible youth to the solemn custodian of the priceless next generation. Overnight, her behavior must alter dramatically "for the sake of the baby." Even if she does not have the internal drive to make this transformation, the physical evidence her own body provides soon activates a powerful set of social expectations. Suddenly, the penalty for indulging in a drink at the neighborhood bar or a night spent hanging out on the corner with friends is steep, for she must endure the piercing social censure contained in the disapproving glances and contemptuous whispers of acquaintances and strangers alike. For these neighbors and friends, any expectant mother with a shred of decency ought to be home taking care of herself, not "ripping and running the streets."
Young men are not subject to the physical changes that announce to the world they're about to become fathers. Strangers do not look askance at them if they continue to party or hang with the boys on the corner. They get no special attention because of their "condition," nor are they the guests of honor at the baby shower. Only their girlfriends and sometimes their kin chide them to grow up, get serious, and begin taking care of their responsibilities. Their male peers, on the other hand, may well be encouraging them to celebrate their freedom while they can.1
Pregnancy and birth test the mettle of the soon-to-be mother and father. Some rise to the occasion; others do not. The advent of pregnancy quickly divides the committed from the fickle, but over the course of nine months, even men who show initial devotion may falter.2 Thus, few couples emerge from this turbulent period unscathed. Yet the magic moment of childbirth often has at least momentary power to heal these fractured relationships. Optimism and hope may return, and couples may again make promises to one another that they fervently hope they can keep.
"WELL, I GUESS IT'S THE POPE'S, RIGHT?" Despite the dreams of shared children that young couples so often indulge in before conception, men are as likely to respond with shock and trepidation—or even outrage and denial—as with pleasure. Like Mahkiya's boyfriend Mike, some immediately attempt to deny the child is theirs and accuse their mystified girlfriends of being "cheaters" or "whores." Others try to force the expectant mother to have an abortion, threatening to break up with her and have nothing to do with the child unless she complies. Still others simply abandon their pregnant girlfriends when they hear the news.
These responses provoke both heartbreak and anger, and even sometimes a lust for revenge in the would-be mother. A twenty-seven-year-old Puerto Rican mother of three named Millie, whose story continues in chapter 6, tells how she got retribution when her boyfriend tried to force her to get an abortion the third time they conceived, though its sweetness was short-lived. "He was harassing me from the moment he found out that I was pregnant. . . . 'Take it out, take it out, take it out.' I was like, 'All right, you give me the money and I'll do it.' So he got me the $600 and I [was so angry I] went on a shopping spree! So he flipped! And right there, he went to my house and actually beat me up that day." At the time this mother of a ten- , eight- , and seven-year-old had already lived with her boyfriend for nearly a decade in a stable, marriage-like relationship. She concludes her story in this way, "He wanted me to get an abortion, [and said he would leave if I didn't]. And I felt as though, 'It's there, I don't believe in abortion.' So I was like, 'If you wanna leave me, go right ahead. . . . I'm not gonna kill something that's mine.'"
The nineteen-year-old boyfriend of Aleena, a white seventeen-year-old mother of a toddler, heard rumors from friends that she'd been seen with another man right around the time their child was conceived, providing an easy excuse for him to deny paternity. "He went home and told his mom and dad that I cheated on him and that he knew it wasn't his child . . . and ever since then, you know, they always denied the baby. Then . . . they wanted to take me for the DNA test. . . . He's the only guy I've been with in the last three years! I never cheated on him. I never even hugged another guy when I was dating him. . . . [They] believed all his friends over me." Though young women usually claim their boyfriends' accusations are completely groundless, youth in these neighborhoods do move quickly from one relationship to another, and the rapid onset of sex means that there is sometimes legitimate reason for doubt. Brielle, a thirty-two-year-old African American mother of four children under the age of eleven, tells us, "Now my first pregnancy, I was shocked. . . . We only went together like six months, and I had . . . broken up with him [because I had] met somebody else. . . . I was wondering why my period didn't come on. [So] two months later I had to make this phone call, 'Guess what? I'm pregnant.' So of course I knew there was going to be doubts about whether it was his."
Abandonment is perhaps the most painful response to the news of a pregnancy from the mother's point of view. Madeline, an eighteen-year-old Puerto Rican mother of a four-month-old, told us, "He said he wanted the baby from me, but I guess that was just words to get me to bed. Because that's one thing I was really afraid of—getting pregnant at a young age. And he told me, 'If anything happens, don't worry.' That's why I was confused when he said he didn't want to have nothing to do with me. Because he talked about it. . . . We didn't actually plan . . . like, 'Oh, it's time to have a baby,' but we talked about what would happen if I would be pregnant. He was like, 'If you were ever to get pregnant, don't worry because I will be there for you. You won't [have to take care of it] by yourself. I will be there anytime you need anything.' After I found out how he felt [about the baby], I felt like killing myself."
Denial, threats, and abandonment sometimes even occur when the pregnancy is not accidental but planned. Denise, a white eighteen-year-old mother of two-year-old twins, told us that although she and her boyfriend "decided together" to have a child, he nevertheless "totally denied [my twins]. The first words that . . . came out of his mouth when I told him I was pregnant [were] 'It's not mine.' So I said, 'All right. Well, I guess it's the pope's, right?'" Denials and threats are sometimes backed with physical violence. In the most extreme cases, the violence seems to be aimed at the fetus itself. Twenty-seven-year-old Millie, the Puerto Rican mother of three we introduced above, says her children's father "hit me all over . . . hit me in the belly" when she refused his demands for an abortion after their third child was conceived. "He was like 'You don't wanna take it out, I'll take it out through your mouth.'"
Even when a young man does not immediately deny the child is his or demand that his girlfriend have an abortion, pregnancy often puts the romantic relationship into overdrive. The woman hopes the pregnancy will spur her boyfriend to become a responsible adult. She wants him to get serious about employment, stop hanging around his friends, and share in the pregnancy by attending doctor's visits. She also wants him to lavish a particular type of attention on her, helping to relieve her physical discomforts and cravings by rubbing her ankles or running to the 7-Eleven or the Wawa (a local convenience store) at midnight to buy the proverbial pickles and ice cream.
Most men just don't seem to understand these desires or are not prepared to fulfill their girlfriends' growing expectations.3 Joanne, a sixteen-year-old Puerto Rican mother of a nine-month-old, said of the fifteen-year-old father of her child, "Before I was pregnant, when we first went out, . . . everybody's all lovey-dovey and everything. [Then] I got pregnant. That was the most miserable part of my life. You would think that . . . your boyfriend . . . would baby you and everything." Eighteen-year-old Elaine, an African American mother of an eight-month-old, says, "[Our relationship] changed when I was pregnant. . . . I went through a lot of mood swings and stuff, and he wasn't there. He was there but he didn't support me, you know, comfort me and stuff. He just like, 'We having a baby,' and that is it. And I was like, 'Well, we got planning do to.' He ain't wanna sit down and talk and stuff."4
In response to the new pressures she begins to place on him and the growing disappointment she begins to express, he may become resentful. For the soon-to-be father, spending time with the soon-to-be mother can mean little more than constantly having to face his failures. This was certainly the case with Mahkiya's boyfriend Mike who, despite his achievements in high school, was a college dropout without a full-time job when the child was born. Men who once fantasized about having a baby with their admiring girlfriends sometimes aren't so sure they want to face the months and years ahead with the demanding woman who is about to become their baby's mother.5 For their part, women believe that the response to a pregnancy is the measure of a man, and hope the crisis will force their partners to move toward maturity.
Many men do not cope with the stress of a pregnancy well. After he learns that his girlfriend has conceived, some level of regret and doubt often creep in. What seemed like an enchanting possibility in private moments of courtship can become a terrifying responsibility in the harsh light of day. Even fathers-to-be who initially greet the news eagerly may later begin to act in ways that reflect their trepidation. Boyfriends who at first dote on their pregnant girlfriends may suddenly start staying out late, drinking or "drugging," or begin to "dog" them with other women. Amanda, a twenty-year-old Puerto Rican mother of a three-year-old son, says the relationship with her child's father suffered during pregnancy because "I guess he was just too into drinking. His uncle used to go out [drinking] and come and pick him up, and they never came back. I used to just stay home [because] I was pregnant when that started happening." As her pregnancy advanced, she explains, "he went out and he didn't care if he came home or not." Millie says her relationship with her children's father was "beautiful" until their third child was conceived. "It was beautiful. . . . But when the third one came it . . . changed. I guess [he] was reacting [to the fact that] I had so many babies. He went out looking for other girls and started messing with girls in the street. That's when our problems began."
Kyra, a seventeen-year-old African American mother, whose child is now nearly two, relates a particularly painful story of infidelity during her last month of her pregnancy. "Yeah, he was there for me until I was like seven months [pregnant]. This girl moved in across the street. . . . I was like only fifteen, and the girl was like twenty-three, and he's seventeen. She called me and was like, 'Yeah, I'm his girlfriend and he be over here with me.' A couple times I would catch him going across the street. . . . I got to calling over there and [me and her], we was talking and she was like, 'We had sex' and all this other stuff. At the time, I believed her, but then again I didn't. [Then] every time I turned around he was going over there! He was over there with another girl—he was lying to me. He stressed me out during the last month of pregnancy. I never forgave him for that." These behaviors are an unspoken rejection of the mother and child, at least in her eyes. His refusal to come home at night, the abandon with which he may begin to consume alcohol and drugs, and his sometimes brazen infidelities all seem to be an unacknowledged, though carefully choreographed, effort to drive her and the baby out of his life.
Other men may react in the opposite way and try to exercise an almost maniacal control over their baby's mother. As we show in chapters 3 and 4, the sexual mistrust that is so palpable in the relationships of many poor couples fuels both women's suspicions and men's possessiveness. For example, Dominique, featured in chapter 5, a thirty-four-year-old African American mother of three school-aged children, tells us, "When I [got] pregnant with my oldest daughter, . . . that's when, all of a sudden, [he started to become abusive]. He was always really jealous and possessive. . . . One day we were coming from the supermarket, and he [thought I'd been looking at other men, so he] just started hitting me."
Pregnancy can sometimes bring a couple closer together, though, which is how most mothers believe things are supposed to work. This was true for Antonia and Emilio, and it has worked out that way for Kimberly, a twenty-seven-year-old Puerto Rican mother of two, ages six and three. Her relationship with her boyfriend was rocky from the start, as he was repeatedly jailed for petty crimes and parole violations; however, each pregnancy has solidified the relationship and has helped keep him out of further trouble. She tells us, "If anything, [my getting pregnant] made us get closer. With his first daughter, he calmed down a lot. We got closer. The second kid united us more." Deborah, an African American mother of two, ages eight and twelve, who is now twenty-six, says, "[Our relationship] became stronger because [of the pregnancy]. He cared more because he had to protect me and my baby. That is the way he felt. He was worried about us . . . that was his every thought."
Sarah Lee, a twenty-two-year-old African American mother of a seven-year-old and an infant, also claimed that pregnancy drew her boyfriend and her closer. "During the pregnancy we was just going out to the comedy shows, eating, and always being together. Sometimes I may get cranky in my moods and don't want to be bothered, but other than that we have a nice time together. I say he is a real sweet man." These happy outcomes are not uncommon, though many of these relationships still falter after childbirth. We'll pick up on the stories of couples in these more stable unions in chapter 4.
"ALL OF A SUDDEN, HE WANTS HIS NAME ON THE BIRTH CERTIFICATE!" Though pregnancy brings the presence of the child closer to reality, nothing is more real than the birth itself. And though many fathers respond with denial and threats when dreams of shared children translate into an actual pregnancy, the advent of a child is a compelling reality that few can respond to with indifference. Young women often believe men's claims that they value children and desperately want to be part of their lives. Once a man knows he can no longer do anything to prevent the birth, the child becomes something of great potential value for him, for in these communities, young men's lives are at least as aimless and relationally impoverished as those of young women. A child is one of the few things a young man can say he has created and one of the few ways he can make an early mark on the world. And men believe a child's love is easier to win and hold than its mother's.6 While mothers say they find it hard to deny their connection to a man they've had a child by, fathers believe it is even more difficult for children to deny the bond with the man who gave them life. But the rewards of having a child come with risks as well. Unmarried fathers who "step off" of their responsibility to their children—as they often do—are still the subject of contempt in these communities.7
For these reasons, despite the heartbreaking behavior that some men subject their baby's mothers to during pregnancy, many reluctant fathers seek and find redemption in the magic moment of childbirth. Listen to how Millie describes her relationship with her child's father during her most recent pregnancy: "He left me [when I wouldn't have the abortion he wanted]. He said he fell out of love. He couldn't deal with it, and he left. And he was with a couple of girls out there. After the whole pregnancy by myself, he came back after the baby was born. He wanted to be with me again."
Aleena, whose boyfriend denied responsibility for the pregnancy, tells how he changed his attitude when the child was born. "All of a sudden, he believes that my son is his. My son looks just like his father, the olive skin, and everything, the dark eyes, all of it, same birthmark and everything. There is no way he can deny that baby." Children, once born, can exert a strong pull on a father's emotions. Yet not all attempt to reconnect with the mother at the magic moment of the birth. A man who fails to show up at the hospital to witness the birth or at least visit the child in the maternity ward shows that he is unwilling to accept responsibility. Of her oldest two children's fathers, Irene, a forty-four-year-old African American mother of five (three adults and two teens), tells us derisively, "They didn't even came to the hospital, let alone try to hang in there, try to buy Pampers."
Surveys show that in seven of ten cases unmarried fathers do come to the hospital and may even be there for the delivery itself.8 Often the euphoria of the birth temporarily calms the tumultuousness of the previous nine months. Lee, a white twenty-four-year-old mother of four (all under the age of five), said she had trouble with her children's father before their first child was born. Things got even worse after she conceived again, just months later. Yet here is her description of his emotional reaction to the birth of their second daughter and her twin, a son: "He was there. He watched everything. It was funny. When [my daughter] first came out—you know how their head is—he was really upset, I mean ready to cry. 'My baby's a cone head!' He was really upset. He didn't know [it was normal]. I really knew then that he really cared about this baby. I knew he loved her. He was just really excited [the twins] were there."
Men are typically delighted by a new baby and often vow to mend their ways. Because new mothers almost universally believe that a child is better off with both a mother and a father, they often desperately want to believe this promise to change. Shawndel, a twenty-five-year-old African American mother of two, ages five and three, explains her decision to reunite with an abusive boyfriend after the birth: "I want my kids to have a father even if he ain't a good father. . . . I don't want them to grow up without a dad like I did." Forty-year-old Carol, a white mother with three children, ages twenty-one, nineteen, and seven, also reunited with her youngest child's father for a time, though during pregnancy he denied paternity and then deserted her. He "showed up the day I came home from the hospital. I have no idea [how he found out she'd been born.] He was just there. He always showed up at the most important moment. . . . He wanted to hold her. He seen how she looked [like him], and his eyes just started beaming. Oh, you could tell by looking at him [he knew] whose baby she was!"
Some women, though, greet these hospital-bed conversions with skepticism. Twenty-five-year-old Cheyenne, a white mother of two school-aged children, says she was too jaded by the time her first child was born to be much impressed by the father's visit. "I wasn't together with him for the pregnancy at all. The pregnancy was by myself. . . . After she was born . . . he came up to the hospital, brought a big teddy bear or whatever. . . . [He told me,] 'I love you. She's so beautiful. Yadda, yadda, yadda.' You know, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, lies, lies, lies."
Kensington resident Denise says her boyfriend cheated on her during pregnancy, gave her gonorrhea, then denied paternity and kicked her out of their apartment—all within the first two months of the pregnancy. She was forced to move in with her aunt and her three children, in a tiny row home that was also housing a cousin and two other friends. After the birth, he wanted to reunite, but she refused. "He called me after I had the babies, and it really blew me [away] because I hadn't heard from him in like seven months. And then he was like, 'Congratulations!' and, 'I want to come see them.' And I was like, 'No. What do you want to do with them after you denied them? You said they're not yours and you just kicked me to the curb.' That's the last time . . . I heard from him."
"WHY SHOULD I GIVE HIM THAT TITLE?" One of the most reliable barometers of the state of the couple's relationship just after a child's birth is how the mother decides to name the baby. Lola, a twenty-four-year-old Puerto Rican mother of a two-year-old daughter, tells us, "I know one of my friends decided not to give the father's name to the child . . . because he said, 'It's not my baby.' But in the hospital, during labor, he showed up, and then she gave her his last name. At one point, I wanted to take Alice's [last] name off because I figured I'm the one—I supported her for a year before he decided to help me. I was like, 'If I'm the one supporting her, if I'm the one playing the role of the parents, then she should have my name. . . . Why have a name [of a father] that's not there for her?' At the time, I wasn't getting no child support, no visits for her. I was like, . . . 'Why should I give [him] that title?'"
Danielle, a white mother in her mid-twenties with two children (ages five and nine), also punished her second baby's father, who had deserted her during the pregnancy, by denying him the privilege of giving the baby his last name. "After I had her, I called his work . . . to let him know that he had a baby girl. So early Monday morning my phone rang, and it was him. He was like, 'Can I come and see her? What is her name?' He wanted to know why I didn't give her his last name, and I said, 'Well, you wasn't around. You're lucky you are on the birth certificate!'"
Men clearly read the failure of the mother to give the child their name as a signal that they have failed her during pregnancy. Sometimes, however, the meaning goes deeper. One nineteen-year-old African American mother named Tyhera, with a three-year-old daughter, tells of her boyfriend's heartbreak and shame when his first baby's mother gave the child her own last name, thus signaling that she would give him no role in the child's life. "The first one, he didn't even get a chance to take care of her. The girl had another boyfriend, so the boyfriend took on that responsibility for the child. The little girl has the mom's last name. . . . She didn't even name her after the real father. She didn't give her his last name."
Mahkiya Washington refused to give Ebony Mike's last name because he denied the child was his throughout much of the pregnancy. After she was born, Mike's rejections turned to enthusiasm. "He was happy, and it was [his] child then, and he said, 'Put my name on the birth certificate!'" But his new attitude was too little, too late. "I was like 'No, her last name is mine's!'" Mahkiya knows full well that her refusal to give her child Mike's last name is a public slap in the face.
This isn't to say that fathers can't sometimes still redeem themselves. Mahkiya and Mike broke up during the pregnancy but reunited a year after Ebony was born, when he finally landed a full-time job. "In the end, it turned out real good because he got a job, and I got a job, and we [got back together and] manage to take care of [our daughter] very well." This couple is not thinking of marriage yet, but they share an apartment with her sister while saving for the security deposit that would allow them to live on their own.9
Other mothers also tell of boyfriends who "came around," at least temporarily, after their child's birth. Chanel, a white thirty-three-year-old mother of three, ages fifteen, nine, and three, has recently gotten back together with her youngest child's father after a pregnancy marred by severe violence. When her daughter turned seven months old, "He started changing . . . he started coming around. Now you can't take them two apart. Her dad's her favorite." She has forgiven her child's father, who no longer beats her. Of the beating during her pregnancy she now says, "It's a man thing. They're scared [of the responsibility]."
"THEY WERE DISAPPOINTED, BUT EXCITED TOO." When young women learn they are pregnant for the first time, they are typically terrified of their own parents' response. Many fear that their own mother or father will throw them out of the house or try to force them to abort the child, and this does occasionally happen. Most of these parents have campaigned hard for years to get their children to stay in school and avoid early pregnancy, and some are enraged when their children ignore these dictates. Parents who have been down that road themselves are often desperate to keep their children from doing the same. We deal with this theme among our own mothers in chapter 5.
Victoria, a white sixteen-year-old mother of a one-year-old child whose own mother had her while still in her teens, said her first thought when she found out she was pregnant was "my mom—how my mom was gonna react. That's the only thing that went through my head. . . . She said if I ever got pregnant she would make me get an abortion. Before I told her, I called hot lines and stuff to see if she could make me have an abortion. They told me that she could not because I had to sign the paper myself. [Finally,] my [older] sister . . . told [my mother that] if she makes me have an abortion, she's gonna take me and she's gonna leave, and she's never gonna talk to her again." Elaine told us, "When I first found out I was pregnant . . . I was scared to tell my mom. . . . I thought she was gonna put me out. . . . I wasn't afraid of having a baby, I was just afraid of her."
Everyone, including the poor, acknowledges that having children while young and not yet finished with schooling is not the best way to do things. This is why the kin of these poor youth usually react to the news with disappointment or, more rarely, anger.10 Even in poor communities where nonmarital childbearing is the statistical norm, most still view early pregnancy as something of a tragedy, and girls in this situation may face censure from teachers, preachers, neighbors, and kin. But a pregnancy also often galvanizes those same adults to help and support her—if not for her sake, then for the unborn child's.
It is not the news of the pregnancy itself that provokes the greatest regret, but the realization that one's child will not be the rare exception to the neighborhood rule—the one who avoids early pregnancy, finishes high school, completes college, gets married, moves to the suburbs, and has children—in that order. Virtually every prospective grandmother would like to be the mother of that neighborhood superstar, and a pregnancy that comes first, rather than last, on that list ends the dream. But a pregnancy that occurs "out of order" offers another, alternative route to respectability—albeit a slightly tarnished one. For if the prospective mother can somehow manage to "struggle and strive," she may still achieve some of these goals. And the harder the struggle, the higher the social reward the community bestows.
While mothers' own mothers may mourn what might have been, they know the odds that their child would jump the class divide were never good, baby or no baby. Thus, the sense of loss an early pregnancy brings is, in many cases, purely hypothetical. Mahkiya's story offers a powerful example of these tensions in a would-be grandmother or great-grandmother's response. Her kin may have hoped the young honor student from Strawberry Mansion High would succeed in her bid for a middle-class life, and they do mourn the loss of this dream. Yet they recover rapidly from their disappointment. When Mahkiya finds herself pregnant, they staunchly support her decision to have the baby. In fact, her grandmother advises her not to end the pregnancy, cautioning that Mahkiya—at eighteen years of age—may never have another chance.
Denise recounts a similar story. Unlike Mahkiya, she chose to end her first pregnancy, conceived at the age of fifteen, in the wake of a boyfriend's desertion. She tells us her kin are still scandalized by that decision. When, at sixteen, Denise informs her mother, aunt, and grandmother that she is pregnant once again, they successfully pressure her to "go through with it." Denise then investigates another way out of her situation—adoption—but they firmly reject this option as well, characterizing it as "giving the baby away" and assuring her that they, her family, will help get her through this.
The African American grandmother has always played a powerful social and symbolic role in the lives of her grandchildren. But in the impoverished white and Latino neighborhoods we studied, where help from a child's own father is often in short supply, the mother's own mother is often an integral part of the parenting team as well. Poor single mothers across the racial and ethnic spectrum rely on their own mothers and grandmothers for much more than free babysitting or childrearing advice. Mothers' own mothers will sometimes put up the money for the crib and the stroller, especially when a child's father cannot or will not offer support. But a mother's parental or grandparental home also serves as a haven when relationships go bad, a job is lost, and the rent cannot be paid. Mahkiya moved back to her grandmother's home when she finally evicted Mike from her life. Jen, the pregnant, seventeen-year-old white mother of a toddler (profiled in chapter 3), moves back in with her stepmother when the bottom falls out of her relationship with her baby's father. And after Deena's relationship with her first child's father goes sour, this pregnant, white, twenty-one-year-old mother of a two-year-old (featured in chapter 4) finds herself back on her grandmother's living-room couch with her baby and new boyfriend in tow.
Thus, the tiny row homes of these crowded urban neighborhoods often house a revolving cast of characters that spans three, sometimes four, generations. In fact, nearly half of our mothers live in such households (see appendix A). Naturally, relations between the generations are not free of conflict. Many mothers complain about the grandmotherly tendency to meddle, the disagreements over childrearing strategies, and the sharp words over the men they choose to include in their lives. Thus, mothers tend to see their own mothers' homes as a temporary refuge, a chance to regroup while they figure out a way to reestablish their own independent households.
A grandmother's show of support should not be interpreted as a desire for her daughter to be pregnant. But just because her daughter's life is not A-plus perfect doesn't mean that she still cannot achieve a solid B-plus in life by coping successfully with the challenges life has laid at her feet. And given the tragedies that befall other neighborhood youth, how bad is a B-plus anyway? The pragmatic assessment of the probable losses and gains seeps into the accounts of the young, who so often insist that the pregnancy turned around their lives. Yet the persistent belief in the American dream and the sequence of steps "everyone knows" to follow in order to get there is reflected in a young mother's hopes for her own offspring. This is why young mothers also insist that they are going to teach their children to follow a different path. Starting a family young may have saved her own life, but no mother wants her daughter to end up with so little to lose that motherhood becomes her salvation too.
A young man's parents may react in much the same way as the young woman's do, though for them there is less of an immediate impact. And overall, the promise of practical support is far less sure. The mother of Antonia Rodriguez's boyfriend Emilio offered a great deal of assistance, harboring her son and his baby's mother until the couple could afford the row home they now occupy. Mike's mother lent Mahkiya support by convincing her son it was "immoral" to force Mahkiya into an abortion she didn't want.
But other would-be "mothers-in-law" join their son's campaign to pressure the young woman to have an abortion, or wholeheartedly back their son's efforts to deny paternity, sometimes even planting the initial doubt of her fidelity in his mind. Sons and their mothers are very much afraid of becoming saddled with the responsibility of children who are not their biological offspring. Some are constantly on guard for "trifling" girls who might take advantage of their sons in this way, despite the fact that many of them presumably faced similar doubts when they were younger.11 And while sometimes a young man's kin may take responsibility for supporting the girl he has impregnated even when the boy does not, this is the exception rather than the rule.
"TAKING CARE OF HIS RESPONSIBILITIES" The reactions of women and men to the reality of pregnancy often stand in startling contrast to one another. Young women often admit to being overwhelmed by the responsibilities that lie ahead. Yet they express willingness, and even eagerness, to embrace the new challenges. Though some, like Antonia and Mahkiya, may regret that the timing or the circumstances are not ideal, most seem hopeful and even confident that mothering is something they can do and do well. Many of these young women believe that children, not jobs or relationships with men, are their life's work, and they face pregnancy with the strong determination to "do the right thing"—to have the child and embrace the role of mother—even if it means giving up other opportunities.
The responses of young men run the gamut from Emilio's eager acceptance of the father role to Mike's denials and his campaign to get the young mother to end the pregnancy against her will.12 Other men take the news well initially but later behave in destructive ways, cheating on or beating their pregnant girlfriends, or partying all night with friends. Some men manage to behave well throughout the pregnancy but fall apart as soon as the child appears. Zeyora, a white fifteen-year-old mother of a six-month-old, remembers that her nineteen-year-old boyfriend "was happy [about having the baby], buying baby things all the time when he had money. He wanted a boy. He was in the delivery room with me. [But] that's when things started changing. . . . I think it's because of the baby, that he's not ready to be a father."
The pregnancy test, the ultrasound pictures, the swelling belly—all indications of the tsunami wave of changes ahead—cause a lot of anxiety and fear in prospective fathers who are often at first eager for the experience. Even in poor communities, expectant fathers are still supposed to provide, to "straighten up," and to deepen their commitment to the mother, even though they are not legally bound to her. Pregnancy forces these young men to confront their limited ability, and sometimes their lack of willingness, to pay the full price of parenthood.13 Emilio was both able and willing to do so, while Mike was neither, at least at first.
This is not simply because the young men in these communities are chronically irresponsible, though some of them certainly seem to be. Failure to take paternal responsibility has real consequences for these unmarried men, for if a father does not meet the mother's standards, the state steps in. The specter of child support is very real among young men in Philadelphia and Camden: Pennsylvania and New Jersey have two of the toughest child-support enforcement systems in the nation. Lola, a twenty-four-year-old Puerto Rican mother of a two-year-old daughter, whose child's father was twenty-three and stably employed at a legitimate job when she conceived, tells us, "First he thought it wasn't his. [Then] he was like, 'Now you are going to put me in child support, aren't you?' I was like, 'Well, we are not back together, . . . of course I'm going to put you on child support!' He was furious. . . . [Then] he didn't wanna give the baby his last name. . . . I later got the truth out of him. I said, 'You're not really concerned about whose child this is. . . . It's about [the] $90 or $40 [a week you'll have to pay]!' They turn really rebellious, they really do. They feel they don't have a life as long as they are supporting [the children]."
Couples who remain together usually manage to avoid child support, unless she claims welfare and is thus forced to participate so the state can reimburse itself for her benefits.14 But if the couple breaks up, the child-support system will appropriate a considerable portion of the father's income. If he doesn't pay, the police will visit him on his job and harass him in full view of his employer and coworkers. Then his driver's and other professional licenses can be revoked, and he may be imprisoned for the debt on a contempt of court charge or fined. And if he flees across the state line to avoid paying support, he can be jailed on a felony charge. More important, the mother will retain almost complete control over the child, regardless of whether he pays child support or not. Meanwhile, she can, on a whim, block his access to his child. Even worse, from his point of view, she can introduce another man into the child's life, one who may take the father's place.15
Young men are aware that once they are out of the mother's life, they may find themselves out of their children's lives as well, even though they might be required to bear the burden of an eighteen-year financial commitment. Though we did not interview fathers for this study, this scenario surely runs through a young man's head when he learns of the pregnancy. Ironically then, while pregnancy may ignite his fear that fatherhood means the end of his life as he has known it, his girlfriend sees it as the point at which her life has just begun.
CHAPTER 2: "WHEN I GOT PREGNANT . . ."
1. Nelson, Clampet-Lundquist, and Edin (2002).
2. Elijah Anderson's work (1989; 1991) offers a perspective on these young families in inner-city Philadelphia.
3. Timothy J. Nelson and Kathryn Edin, unpublished analysis of 180 low-income noncustodial fathers in Philadelphia.
4. Carolyn and Philip Cowan (1995; 1987) have found that the birth of the first child is a period of considerable difficulty for middle-class married couples.
5. Nelson and Edin (see n. 3 above).
7. Men in these neighborhoods commonly "step off" from their financial responsibilities as fathers and face social censure for doing so. Men often rationalize their behavior by blaming the child's mother for acting as a gatekeeper and prohibiting them access to their children. Another rationalization men employ is to claim the child's mother uses his money for her own needs, and not for the child. In some cases, these complaints are probably legitimate. See Nelson, Clampet-Lundquist, and Edin (2002).
8. See McLanahan et al. (2003).
9. Unmarried fathers who are employed are more likely to marry the child's mother within twelve months of the birth and are less likely to break up (Carlson, McLanahan, and England 2004).
10. Kaplan (1997) emphasizes how teen mothers' own mothers react with disappointment at the news of a daughter's pregnancy and argues that the community neither encourages nor celebrates early childbearing. We agree but believe her account downplays the degree to which many prospective grandmothers offer emotional support and practical aid to their pregnant daughters.
11. Nelson, Clampet-Lundquist, and Edin (2002).
12. Nelson and Edin (see n. 3 above).
14. Myers (2002).
15. Low-income noncustodial fathers routinely report that their child's mother denies them visitation (Miller and Knox 2001).