Ricky grew up in a rural town more than an hour from Columbus, Ohio. He flips burgers at a fast-food restaurant for $10.50/hour, but that’s not what is upsetting him. Actually, he’s grateful to the manager who hired him and is giving him a second chance. His problem is women.
“Because see, with my relationships I’ve had, I haven’t cheated on any of my girlfriends except for my baby’s mom,” he explains. “That was the only girl I’ve ever cheated on. And ever since then, like every relationship I’ve had, the woman I’ve been with has cheated on me.”
Ricky isn’t alone. Among the 38 working-class men I interviewed for the Love and Marriage in Middle America Project, more than half reported either stories of partners who cheated on them, or complaints that women generally can’t be trusted.
But to hear Naomi Cahn and June Carbone tell it, in an essay at Slate entitled “Just Say No: For white working-class women, it makes sense to stay single mothers,” working-class women just need to break free from hard-luck working-class men who are just weighing them and their children down.
As KJ Dell’Antonia noted at the New York Times, “statistics are not advice, and [Cahn and Carbone’s] presentation as a directive amounts to an ugly write-off of a generation of men.”
Also, the stories of working-class men tell a more complicated story.
For Ricky, it started when he was 16. One night, his girlfriend went out late, got drunk with her ex-boyfriend, crashed the car, and was paralyzed from the waist down. But Ricky didn’t leave her side; he proposed.
The next girl, he got pregnant when he was 19. When their son was about a year old, they found out that he had a severe mental handicap. But Ricky didn’t leave his family; he proposed. Ricky’s fiancée turned to pills, and he turned to alcohol—the same stuff his father died from after his parents’ divorce.
Then Ricky did something terrible. At the pizza shop where he worked, he met a woman, three months pregnant. They had sex in the bathroom stall. That was the one time he cheated, and he broke off his engagement.
Terrible as that was, Ricky didn’t want to just hook up with the pregnant woman. He moved into her trailer, and he was by her side at the hospital when she delivered her baby girl. The baby girl’s dad was a crack dealer, so Ricky treated her like his own. He fed her, played with her, loved her.
Ricky knows what it feels like to be neglected as a child; he never wants other children to feel that.
“I usually think about kids before anything,” says Ricky. If he’s with a couple that’s arguing, he’ll take the kids outside and play with them. “Because I mean growing up, I saw my dad hit my mom and stuff like that… I don’t think kids should have to go through that.”
He proposed to that woman, too. But when she kept going out at night, leaving her daughter with Ricky, he got suspicious. Turns out, she was cheating on him. She was also abusing Vicodin.
The next woman he met, he proposed to her, too. She had a toddler daughter, and he loved that girl as much as he loved his ex’s girl. She called him daddy, and he wanted to get married, to be a family—though he didn’t have a job at the time, and he and his fiancée were abusing heroin. But then his fiancée cheated on him with her ex.
I asked how he felt when he found out.
“Pretty shitty, actually,” he said. “Granted, I wasn’t really trying to get anywhere, do anything, get better or anything like that. But I mean, she wasn’t either, you know?”
The last time I spoke with Ricky, he had given up on love and marriage—not because he was the cheerful pioneer of a cool new family structure, but because he learned the hard way that he couldn’t trust women.
When it comes to cheating, he said, “I kinda expect it even though it’s shitty to expect it. Even if the girl isn’t that type of person, I do expect it. I mean, I don’t think she’s going to. But in the back of my mind, I kind of say, ‘hey, she could.’”
“I’m not looking to fall in love,” he added, “I feel like it’s for suckers. I mean, what I’ve been fuckin’ dealing with—shit, I mean, I don’t know. I feel like love is just an excuse to put up with somebody’s shit for the most part.”
And as I say, Ricky is not alone.
One young man, cheated on by a girlfriend, told me, “it’s gonna take a lot more time for me to ever trust somebody again like that. I let her in quick, and now it’s never gonna happen again.” He added, “I despised women for a long time.”
One young man who found out his wife cheated on him put it this way: “A lot of people in my life have lied to me and betrayed me. And [with] my marriage, I thought, well, she’s the only person in the world who never has. And then it turns out she was the worst one of them all.”
Of course, one could reply, maybe the working-class women are cheating because the men are jobless, abusing drugs, and wasting hours on video games. In some cases, that definitely appears to be part of the story.
Which brings me to another thing that Cahn and Carbone miss. In their focus on the role that the changing economy has played in remaking the family, they don’t acknowledge—in the Slate piece, at least—the deep pain that men bear from their own families of origin.
I don’t know the root cause of inequality and the class-based marriage gap, though I’m confident it’s more complex than “one thing.” And what I do know is what many young men say: their parents’ divorce, their dad’s absence, their parents’ conflict—it affected them deeply. When young men and women break down in tears and bare their souls, they don’t talk about losing a job or not getting a pay raise—they talk about parents fighting, divorcing, not being there.
For instance, after Ricky’s mom divorced his dad, she moved to another state and married another man. After she divorced that man, she moved to yet another state. Ricky felt abandoned, though he insisted to me at first that it didn’t bother him. “It doesn’t bother me to be alone,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me not to be near any family.”
But later, he shared with me a poem that he wrote, simply titled “Mother.”
Why did you leave me was I not good enough?
I thought you’d always be there when things got rough
But when it got bad you bailed on me
With this empty feeling how could I be happy
You taught me many things I thought that’s what you wanted
I did what I saw now you’re disappointed
For the stuff I’ve done I take responsibility
When you see me do you feel humility?
Yes I love you because you’re my mother
Yes I love you because you gave me my brother
Knowing my pain does that make a difference?
Will it change how you perceive me in my existence?
But when it comes down to it now it doesn’t matter
Because since I’m getting better I’m taking the latter
All you will get from me is notice my life is good
I’m going to look at that empty spot beside me and smile
Where you should have stood.
Another poem he wrote, summarizing his experience with women, goes like this:
I trusted you with my heart
Your a good actress laying on a mattress
Now my life’s a mess
I’m scarred and scared and I’ll never be the same.
Growing up, working-class men like Ricky swear to themselves that they will stand where their mom or dad did not stand, that they will be the devoted fathers they did not have. But they have been badly hurt, in their families of origin and in the new families they are trying—without role models or support—to form. They are searching for answers.
So we should stop acting as if the working-class man, a hapless victim of forces beyond his control, is merely a thorn in the working-class woman’s side. That reductive and one-sided story is tired and lazy and we should retire it. Probe further and you’ll find a story much more complicated.