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Stop Telling Poor Women Not To Have Kids

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PREGNANCY
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The fact that there's finally a rom-com about abortion is wonderful. "Obvious Child", starring comedian Jenny Slate, depicts a world where the procedure is more like a trip to the dentist than a life-ruiner. For many upper-middle class women such as myself, the undramatic portrayal is a welcome reality. We have options now that motherhood has morphed from a straitjacket into a spandex that accommodates 21st-century ambitions. But not all groups of women have benefited from more flexible notions of maternity.

The fact that there is less pressure to marry young and put buns in the oven means affluent women can focus on their careers and finding a soul mate. But when this group do get down to babymaking, its members still follow a familiar formula: 90 per cent of college grads marry before they get pregnant. For low-income women between 26 and 31-years-old, the picture is different. Seventy-four per cent of U.S. mothers without college degrees have babies out of wedlock, according to a recent study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Ditto in Canada. Women who give birth before vows are usually young and poor.

You might be wondering why there's a focus on old-fashioned nuptials in 2014. It's not that couples without rings make crappy parents -- there are many families that prove otherwise. But in North American culture, marriage is still the best predictor of familial stability. The women who have babies outside of committed relationships usually end up poorer and raise their children in unstable environments.

So why do they have kids? The answer to that question is horribly misunderstood by most affluent groups. A few well-off, educated friends -- friends with backgrounds in social work and legal aid -- recently told me that women who couldn't afford children shouldn't have them.

It's easy to view other people's experiences through the lens of our own circumstances. For women with the ability to reject unplanned parenthood, it seems unfathomable that others could not do the same. The message is seductively simple: if you can't afford tots, don't stick taxpayers with the bill. But that logic fails to account for the complex factors that lead a woman who can barely support herself to give birth.

The lead character in "Obvious Child" has an abortion because her life is too chaotic for motherhood. Maybe she'll re-visit the idea when her nights don't consist of getting drunk after comedy sets in dark bars. Smart move. But when many low-income women become pregnant, they often don't foresee a bright, stable future worth waiting for.

There's a misconception that these young mothers don't care about marriage. But Andrew Cherlin, the co-author of the Johns Hopkins study, found they would prefer to raise babies with a life-long partner. The problem is many don't expect to find a Prince Charming.

These women want to marry men with stable incomes, but since the decline in blue-collar jobs, eligible bachelors with high school diplomas or community college degrees are a rarity. Men with bachelor's degrees are generally out of the question -- they want partners of the same social status. So instead of fathers who can provide stability, many women see a marriage pool largely filled with men who are unemployed, drug dealers or have spent time in prison. If a woman becomes pregnant by a man who isn't father material, she might not foresee a better partner in her future. Better to have the baby now than risk a childless life.

Many young, affluent women see babies as speed bumps on the road to career success. But often low-income women don't have the privilege of pursuing work they love. Babies give them purpose. Without higher education, many are stuck in minimum-wage jobs. Changing diapers might be a welcome contrast to the ennui of commuting to a store where they scan items under fluorescent lights. Instead of feeling marginalized, they have babies who depend on them. These women might never be told by a manager they deserve a raise. But their toddler will say "Mommy, I love you."

Affluent women are usually strategic about their decision to have kids. They have multiple conversations with their partners. They write budgets and plan the best time for maternity leave. It's hard for this group to understand why a woman would decide to give birth without her rubber ducks in a row. But Cherlin says low-income mothers grow up in environments where it's normal to rely on welfare, part-time jobs and family to raise a baby. A child doesn't need to fit into their lives; their lives will bend to accommodate a new addition.

Even if they don't want a baby, many pregnant women feel their only option is to give birth. They may not have the education or funds to prioritize birth control. They may not have the money or support to have an abortion. The procedure might scare them. Part of what makes "Obvious Child" so refreshing is that all the characters support the protagonist's decision to abort. Other women in her life have gone through the experience. She is anything but alone. But not every woman has these advantages.

The movie celebrates a woman's right to choose, but it's important to remember that those choices don't feel real to every woman. Instead of criticizing women who rush into parenthood, we should try to understand why they don't put on the brakes.

*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen

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