Book Review: Promises I Can Keep

Book cover of "Promises I Can Keep." Depicts the title and authors' names, and a photograph of a white woman with two children.I’m the kind of person who hoards books, and finds difficulty getting the the time to read them all within what most people would consider to be an even remotely reasonable timeframe. While that’s something I’m working on getting under control, the consequence is that I’m also the kind of person, who, if she ever actually writes a book review, writes it long after the book has been released.

Such is the case with Promises I Can Keep: Why Poor Women Put Motherhood Before Marriage, by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas, released in 2005. As the title would suggest, this book is about low-income mothers who have had children outside of marriage, and why this often demonized (or pitied) demographic has grown.

The shortened conclusion is that low-income single mothers are overwhelmingly purposely choosing to carry pregnancies to term and desperately desire to have their children. Under the classist, and for women of color (the interview subjects were split evenly among women who are white, African American, and of Puerto Rican descent), racist, circumstances in which these women live, college and middle-class financial stability are not seen as attainable goals — or at least, not as attainable goals that having children will significantly hinder — and so choosing to wait until after these supposed milestones to have children frequently makes little to no sense.

Low-income single mothers being presented as rational decision makers, women who are making the choices best suited to their circumstances (rather than accident prone leeches on the system), is a rare thing indeed, and that’s why I was drawn to the book. To that end alone, I certainly thought that it was a worthwhile read, and would recommend it to others. But, at the same time, I also found that it had a few significant faults.

For one, the book was seemingly written not only for a middle-class audience, but for an audience which accepts that low-income women having children outside of marriage are irrational and the cause of social problems. Certainly, this is the group most worthy of reaching, so I can understanding writing to them. The problem, however, arises when the assumptions of this group are used as the book’s framing. Indeed, rather than rejecting in the end that persuading poor women to put marriage before children is a particularly worthwhile end goal, the authors strategized, using their data, on how to do it more effectively. As someone who didn’t share this view, I was at several points extremely uncomfortable. I was further made uneasy by the framing, as at times — as I believe all writing and observation about a marginalized group of which the writer is not a member risks, including this blog post here — it felt classist and extremely objectifying, as though these women are exotic zoo animals for middle-class folks to gaze at with curiosity. While perhaps difficult to entirely avoid, this is a problem that is also patently unacceptable.

The other major fault I found with the book was its failure to discuss sexual violence. I see no reason to insert the subject if it’s not relevant, but the fact is that acts of sexual violence were mentioned several times, and never discussed as such. The first kind of sexual violence referenced was reproductive coercion. When the women profiled in the book discussed how they became pregnant, more than a few mentioned that their sexual partners had employed tactics that certainly, from their own descriptions, fell under that title. How such violence on behalf of men affects these women and their childbearing decisions was not addressed. Another subject that was brushed aside was statutory rape. It seemed that a majority of the particularly young mothers (aged 15 or younger at the time of their first pregnancy) became pregnant by men who were significantly older. But the violence of a sexual “relationship” between a 13-year-old girl and 18-year-old man was also not discussed.

I can understand that discussing pregnancies as resulting from sexual violence can, in this context, severely risk undermining the women’s own agency, and be used to invalidate their claims about the positive light in which they see their own motherhood. But the fact that a young mother’s children were the result of statutory rape does not mean that when she says she loves them, that they are her world, and that they turned her life around, she is not telling the truth. A woman became pregnant as a result of reproductive coercion no less actively made the decision to carry her pregnancy to term. And I do not feel that in order to acknowledge women’s agency, we must deny and erase the ways in which they do not have agency.

I do not disbelieve these women when they say that they are happy they had children, that they would do it again, and that their children are the best aspect of their lives. In fact, I believe and respect their assertions fully. I merely argue that these women’s positive experiences of motherhood being true does not mean that they deserve sexual violence.

In the end, the best thing about this book was the way in which it focused on the stories of women whose stories are usually erroneously told for them, and allowed them to speak for themselves. The women’s own words were used prominently and strongly, and I found that to be valuable. For other readers who are interested in reading low-income single mothers tell about their own lives, as well as those who have never previously been introduced to the idea that so many low-income single mothers exist for reasons beyond “poor decision-making,” and lack of access to birth control and abortion, this is a book I’d consider a worthwhile read, in spite of the problematic elements detailed above.

Have you read Promises I Can Keep? What were your impressions?

0 thoughts on “Book Review: Promises I Can Keep

  1. Lauren

    I liked this book when I read it, but I overlooked so many of the faults you mentioned because I was so grateful that there was some book out there that presented single/teen/poor mothers (like I was) as rational actors.

    I should read it again.


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