James, then 20, was shopping with his girlfriend at Walmart when he teasingly suggested that she should get a pregnancy test. They had been together for a few months, and were just about to move in together.
“I’ll buy it for one day,” James told his girlfriend, “you never know.”
When his girlfriend got home, she took the test: positive.
“At first I kinda laughed, because I was like, ‘Whoa!’”, remembers James. “And she laughed, too. She thought it was funny, you know, because she didn’t think nothing ’bout it. She took another one and it was positive—took two. And I was like, ‘Whoa!’… She’s crying. I’m like, ‘Oh, shit,’ you know? It was like, ‘Oh, man. That’s not cool.’ She didn’t want a kid.”
James wasn’t intending to have a child yet, either. But he didn’t use condoms—“I don’t want something that’s gonna have to block that [fulfillment]”—and his girlfriend didn’t use birth control. They talked about getting her on birth control a few times, and they had even agreed that she should get on it. But they were hesitant, he says, because they didn’t want to approach her mom about it.
“We wanted to get on birth control but at the same time didn’t want to tell her mom,” he says. “Because her mom would be like ‘Oh, so you guys are just havin’ sex all the time?’”
When his girlfriend did get pregnant, abortion wasn’t an option in his mind.
“If she would’ve got an abortion, I would’ve left her,” he says, adding that he would be okay with adoption, but not abortion. “Why take his life? Not for me.”
He says his girlfriend has the same views as him, which he describes this way: “We’re both having sex, we know what the consequences are.” It was never a question for James: it was time for him to be a dad. So in one week, he joined a small Pentecostal church, got baptized, and found a new job as a salesperson at a furniture store. When I interviewed James almost two years after their son’s birth, James and his girlfriend had separated, but he remained intensely involved in his son’s life, driving thirty minutes to see him every day.
Most working-class men greeted the news of an unplanned pregnancy with a mixture of fright and excitement.
James’s experience is typical of the unmarried young fathers I interviewed. Most times, men greeted the news of an unmarried pregnancy with a mixture of fright and excitement. Except in a few instances, men described the pregnancies as unplanned. They wanted to have kids someday, and becoming a father was something that many of them looked forward to. But they didn’t foresee it happening yet.
What struck me, though, is how devoted these fathers became to their children. For some of the men, being a good father meant getting married. For instance, here’s how Myron, then 20, describes finding out about his fiancée’s pregnancy.
“I got a text message, a picture of a pregnancy test, one that says pregnant or not pregnant saying pregnant…. I had a couple of my buddies over. We were cooking out. I looked at the phone and I just sat down. They said I went pale white. I sat down in the chair and they’re like, ‘What?’
I showed my buddy Donny. He looked at it and he goes, ‘Oh, man.’ He’s like, ‘What are you gonna do?’… I was like, ‘Well, I’m gonna marry her, and it’s my kid. That’s awesome. That’s my kid.’ I just got excited.”
Myron did marry her, but by the time of their baby’s birth, he suspected that she was cheating on him, and they had separated. Myron was in the hospital room for her birth, even as his estranged wife said that she hoped that he was not the father. When she refused to let him spend time with his new baby, Myron took her to court, and won visitation rights. A paternity test would definitively reveal that Myron was the father, but in the interim Myron’s own father discouraged him from getting too involved until he knew the results—“You don’t want to be paying for a kid that’s not yours,” he told him. Myron disagreed. He wasn’t even going to take a paternity test until his dad talked him into it. “I see it as this is my kid,” he said. “I was there when she was born. Even if she’s not my kid, she’s my kid. If I had found out she wasn’t, oh, that would’ve tore me up big time.”
Other men viewed marriage after pregnancy as a bad idea (as Myron himself would later believe); perhaps they intuited or knew from friends’ experiences that such marriages face long odds. Instead of marrying the mother, they expressed their devotion through being there for their child. This is what James did.
Just as working-class women see motherhood as central to their purpose in life, many men described becoming a father as an intensely meaning-making act. As Toby, 21, said of his son, “I’ve always wanted something that was mine, something I made. And I got that.” (His fiancée also cheated on him.)
Ricky, 27, said, “It seemed like it brought more of a point, I mean, more of a reason to my life, you know, to take care of a kid.”
Elliot describes how his girlfriend’s miscarriage of their child devastated him. “It really hurt. I mean I was scared, but I was looking forward to [having a child]. It was something I really wanted. It took a long time to really get over it, and it took a long time to talk about it. It was just not one of those things I liked to talk about. People would ask me about it and it was just, ‘Don’t go there.’ Took me a while to get over it.” He was only 18 at the time; his girlfriend was 16.
Many men described becoming a father as an intensely meaning-making act.
A few men, however, responded to a partner’s pregnancy with anger and distrust. “She tricked me,” is how one father angrily put it. He accused his girlfriend of lying to him, saying that she told him that she was unable to have children because of a medical problem. When she got pregnant, he accused her of making it up so that she could lure him into staying with her. (Despite his initial anger, he would go on to become a very involved father, describing his daughter as “number one in my life.”)
One young man described an ex-girlfriend who said she was pregnant, and had a doctor verify that she was, but to this day he remains skeptical. “I don’t know if she was really pregnant or not, because she wasn’t showing at the time,” he said. “So, I don’t know if it was true or not. My mom and I talked about it. She said maybe she wasn’t. Maybe she’s just saying that to trap you.” When his girlfriend, three months pregnant, went to the doctor complaining of stomach pain, the doctor told her that she had miscarried, and performed a procedure to remove the tissue from her uterus. But he remained suspicious. “I didn’t ask her anything about the doctor’s office,” he said. “I didn’t ask her anything about her appointment, or nothing. I didn’t wanna know. Didn’t wanna know that. She coulda been bullshittin’ me.”
The distrust and suspicion—and at least in one instance, disbelief, even after a doctor’s verification—that a few men voiced are deeply troubling. In this view of things, an unplanned pregnancy represents not the fulfillment of a couple’s love, not the chance for a new beginning, nor even a mere accident, but the revelation that a woman can’t be trusted. As one young man said, describing his reaction to the times two separate high school girlfriends informed him of a pregnancy, “I wasn’t necessarily going to do that [leave after having sex] but now you’re lying, I can’t trust you. I ain’t messing you around if this is how it’s gonna be.” Assuming that a woman who says she’s pregnant is lying to manipulate her boyfriend suggests a hardening of attitudes towards women and children.
But men like this one were in the minority. By and large, the white, unmarried working-class men that I interviewed retained a profound reverence about pregnancy and fatherhood. Even if they were not planning on having children yet, they responded to their girlfriends’ pregnancies with deep love and determination to turn their lives around. As one young father put it, “I wanted to quit partying and doing all the things that I did before. I just basically wanted to grow up. I felt like it was my time to grow up and to be a man and to do what was right.” And as Elliot said, “It’s just after you create something, you’re looking forward to having a kid. I was scared to death, but there was joy in it. It’s my little boy.”
For all the things to lament about the state of working-class men, here is something to admire and salute. Here there is heroism.