As I wrote in my last post, not all pregnancies can be neatly categorized as “intended” or “unintended.” Some fall in between: they are half-desired, half-feared; not exactly planned but not total accidents. I believe such pregnancy ambivalence may be more common among blue-collar women because they are torn between two cultural scripts: one teaching them to value motherhood highly, and the other—the script that middle-class kids follow—telling them to put college and careers first and delay starting a family.
Although hoping to have kids is common in every social class, working-class women express that hope particularly strongly—and it’s not something they want to put off too long. As one woman explained when talking about her first unintended pregnancy, “I personally, like, always wanted kids…. I think, like, after a certain point in your life I mean, like, you’ll wanna be a grandparent…. after like forty, I mean what can you really do like by yourself? Like I don’t think you’d wanna be lonely.”
Megan, the waitress who talked about her excitement at her unintended pregnancy, told me that previously she had been dating a man from a more affluent background and that “he didn’t plan on having kids for another ten or fifteen years.” They broke up in part because of that disagreement. “I was just like, ‘I’m not waiting that long to have kids. They’re gonna be graduating when I’m retiring. That’s not something that I want to do. I wanna enjoy being a mother.’”
Alex also placed high priority on becoming a mother, and she grew up surrounded by other young women who were having children early in life. “I’ll put to you this way,” she said. “You know the whole motherly instinct that every female gets when their body is pretty much saying, ‘Hey, you’re ready to conceive’? Well, my sister had my oldest niece at the age of eighteen. I think I was sixteen, almost seventeen, when my sister had my niece. So I grew up helping my sister to raise my niece. So I kind of gained that motherly instinct a little too early. By the time I was eighteen, I was like, ‘I really want a baby.’ I’m tired of taking care of my sister’s, I want my own…. By the time I got pregnant, my sister had my second niece already. I kept looking at them, like, ‘I helped raised you guys, why can’t I raise my own?’”
The desire for children goes beyond the mother-child bond, however. One woman described how kids bring her extended family together: “I look at my family…. My aunts and their kids and their kids, like, that’s what makes them happy, like, that’s what keeps bringin’ fun to our family and we can have get-togethers and, you know, this kid has somethin’ goin’ on. I’m goin’ to that. Like, I just couldn’t imagine like none of us kids ever having kids and then we’re just like, ‘Hey.’ And like, ‘I’ll just call you on the phone ’cause there’s really no reason to get together.’”
Blue-collar women are torn between two cultural scripts.
It’s not that respondents didn’t talk about college or career goals—they did. But when these goals conflicted with aspirations to start a family, and they felt pulled in two directions, family usually won out—even when their pregnancy was unintended.
One mother of three explained: “I was going to go to college, but I decided I’d start a family first. Because I figured, you know, if you’re young and you have a family first, then you can get that out of the way and then you can have like—sheesh!—fifty, sixty years to work! So that’s…not worth the life that you’re missing [if you don’t have kids].”
Another woman, Cassie, told the story of getting a full-ride scholarship to a design school in California. But she couldn’t bring herself to leave her family in Ohio. “I’d be all the way out in California learning this, and then I’d probably turn around and end up getting a job in California. So coming back home would have been hard. So it would have kept me away from [her then-boyfriend] for a long, long time.”
Looking back, she said that she was glad that she had stayed in Ohio, because otherwise she might not have reunited with her high school sweetheart, whom she was planning to marry. At the time of her first interview, they were also trying to conceive. Cassie was 22 and her fiancé was 20.
She echoed other women’s descriptions of their desire for children: “[Kids are] a huge blessing. That’s why I want one. I’ve helped take care of my family’s for years. The oldest great-grandchild is six. I helped take care of him since he was a newborn. I’ve always wanted kids, ever since we got out of high school I’ve wanted kids, but I’ve never actually tried until now.”
In a culture in which family is the top priority, top aspiration, and the source of meaning in one’s life, to not have children is to live a lonely and possibly meaningless life. “Being a mother to [my kids] makes me feel like I’m here for a reason,” another woman summarized.
Another cultural factor relevant to pregnancy ambivalence is the generally different approaches that blue- and white-collar folks take to planning. It’s possible that looking at pregnancy in terms of “intended” and “unintended” is an example of imposing a more white-collar managerial paradigm onto a blue-collar culture that doesn’t value planning as much as it does flexibility.
As one woman who worked with her fiancé at McDonald’s at the time she got pregnant told me, in her world it doesn’t make that much sense to plan meticulously for the birth of a child. “Don’t worry about finances because no one—I don’t care how much you plan or how much you set back, you are never financially ready for a child. It—you’re just not because things come up. And you know, you might try to plan for it and then your plan can go the complete opposite direction of where you wanted it to go.”
Additionally, blue-collar culture does not promote the middle-class parenting philosophy of “concerted cultivation” but instead a more laissez-faire style with different expectations about what it takes to raise a happy child. For example, there is less emphasis on accumulating financial resources before having children. One woman phrased her view on saving up money to have kids this way: “So many people, they want to have the best cars and the best house, and they think that’s the way to provide for their kids and it’s not. Going to the creek to catch crawdads—oh my gosh, I’ve seen a lot of rich kids that have come to stay at our house and they’ll say, ‘I want to live here. I want a mom that cooks food, and a dad that takes them on bike rides. And I don’t have that at my house because my parents work all the time.’ And that makes me sadder than anything. Cuz it’s like all that money is not worth the life that you’re [missing].”
Blue-collar parenting may also be less time-intensive. It’s more acceptable in blue-collar culture for kids to spend their time in unstructured and unsupervised ways—playing outside, riding their bikes to the park, hanging outside the local Whippy Dip, watching TV and playing video games—than it is in white-collar communities where parents spend more time managing their children’s time. As one white-collar parent told me, she thinks it is better to keep her child busy than to give him lots of free time because it “teaches him time management,” a highly valued skill among white-collar workers, but less valued in blue-collar culture.
We must take seriously the human desire for family among all people, including the least advantaged.
But what about marriage? If working-class women value family so much, why not marry before having kids, to increase their chances of growing up in a stable and financially comfortable home?
Many of the women I interviewed, like Alex, said that ideally they would have liked to be married before having kids. But as Alex explained, “I think I gave up on that, I think a couple months before I got pregnant, because I felt like that there wasn’t a real guy out there anymore. A guy that could be faithful, that could treat you right. I guess I didn’t believe that there was one out there anymore. That all those are back in the Stone Age. Because the way guys are now, they’re horrible.”
Alex’s friend, a single mother of three, who had joined us for dinner and an interview laughed, “I agree with that one!”
Both women had been cheated on numerous times and felt unsure if they would ever find guys they could trust enough to marry. But giving up on men and on having a family would be too painful, too lonely. Single motherhood was the alternate route. “There are a lot of single mothers that can do it,” Alex said.
Given the kind of culture that poor and working-class young adults live in, pushing birth control as the central solution to single motherhood somewhat misses the point. In Cassie’s words, “I love birth control. I think it’s great. But I’m not using it now. Kinda hard to use when you’re actually trying [to get pregnant].” That is, birth control doesn’t do much for the single women who actively desire to have children.
We know from the social sciences that when it comes to child well-being, there are some family structures and circumstances that are better than others. Encouraging young adults to wait to have children until it is responsible to do so is absolutely an important conversation. But we must also understand and take seriously the human desire for family among all people, including the least advantaged.
Furthermore, the conversation needs to be approached with cultural sensitivity. As I wrote in my review of Jessi Streib’s book The Power of The Past, many differences between blue-collar and white-collar Americans can be seen as “cultural complements” rather than problems to be solved. Many poor and working-class young adults prize family relationships above educational or career success, and I’m not so sure it is the place of an elite class to try to change that.
Instead of focusing on encouraging poor and working-class young adults to delay parenthood until they reach certain middle-class milestones—which might be far-off and uncertain given their lack of resources—our emphasis should be on finding ways to help the less-advantaged to form the stable families and marriages that they want, whether or not they ever get that college degree.