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My Mother Who Fathered Me

June 11, 2013

In her 1957 book My Mother who FatheredMe, Edith Clark sought to record the complex dynamics of marriage and family life in three different communities in Jamaica.  The provocative title of the book gives the impression that single mothers are able to effectively take over the role and duties of an absent or non-involved father. The contents, however, tell a very different story. In a areas of Jamaica where marriage was rare and many children were born out of wedlock, mothers and in some cases grandmothers moved into the vacuum left by the absence of a biological father becoming the primary providers and caregivers, but the book provides ample evidence that such situations were not equal to a family, founded on the marriage between a man and a woman and including their biological children. Although it may not have been her goal, Clark paints a very grim picture of what happens to children and women in a community where marriage between the biological parents of children is the exception rather than the rule.

 The Pattern 

The development of a pattern of low marriage rates/high out-of-wedlock births is easy to trace. It begins when a young girl becomes pregnant out of marriage “through innocence and ignorance about sex, in consequence of inadequate and misguided socialization and their exploitation by philandering males.”[1]Clark writes:

“A girl ‘seeks for a man’ who, in return for companionship and sexual favours, will giver her presents of money, clothes or trinkets. When the inevitable pregnancy occurs the girl had to leave her job, but it was rare for the union to be stabilized. The girl would return to her mother’s home for the birth of her child and, if she re-entered domestic service, leave the child with her mother. An overwhelming majority of women in domestic service throughout the Island are supporting or partially supporting, children left in care of a mother or other relative.[2]

During the pregnancy the girl lives with her mother — the baby’s grandmother, who herself probably never married and has had a number of children outside marriage. The grandmother has achieved a certain security and becomes a surrogate mother to the child. After the baby is born, the young mother leaves the baby to seek work. She ends up in another sexual relationship and becomes pregnant again. This time she may live with the father of the baby in concubinage, a position which grants her neither rights nor security:

“…’the bargaining position’ of this unmarried mother deteriorates ‘in the courtship market’ since no man want to marry such women and to bring up other men’s children. The woman is thus driven by economic need and by her expressed desires for marriage into a further series of extra–marital unions of visiting or co-residential types, in each of which she willingly risks further pregnancies in the hope of ‘cementing the current union and ‘earning’ its conversion into marriage.”[3]

The woman is in a sense there on approval. While she may hope that the relationship will be permanent and perhaps even lead to marriage there are no guarantees. The presence of a child by a previous relationship would not forward her goal of stability and therefore children by a previous partner remain with the grandmother or another relative. This cycle can be repeated several times.

The Children

According to a massive body of social science research, for children the failure of their biological parents to marry has measurable consequence:

“Unmarried motherhood, divorce, cohabitation, and step-parenting; were widely perceived to fall short in significant developmental domains (like education, behavior problems, and emotional well being) due in no small part to the comparative fragility and instability of such relationships.’[4]

If most of these studies were done in developing countries with significantly lower poverty rates, it could be assumed that the negative effects on children would be present in countries with more economic deprivation. When marriage is not the norm,  children don’t have a permanent place in a stable home:

“If we assume that the parental relationship can only develop satisfactorily where the child shares a home with his mother and father during infancy and childhood then there are a large number of children … for whom this relations has no opportunity to develop…[5]

Clark found that at the time of her study that among children only 58 percent:

“…live with both parents, the remainder lives with one parent and a step-parent and the step-relations is rarely a happy one.  Moreover, it cannot be assumed that those who were, at the time of our investigation, living with both parents had done so from infancy or would continue in this situation throughout their formative years.” [6]

The form of serial monogamy found in this community Clark studied had serious consequences for the children:

“… when the union breaks up the children are normally regarded as her responsibility. If she is immediately left destitute, they may be sent to relatives or given away to friends or strangers. They, or some of them, may rejoining her when she is able to make a home for them but these denuded family homes seldom contained all the women’s children. If and when she entered into another conjugal union it was rare for her to be able to have them with her. Thus siblings and half siblings were separated and often distributed among a number of widely scattered households. [7]

When the relationship between the biological ‘baby father and ‘baby mother’ is severed, the mother assumes responsibility for the child. The father is supposed to provide some support, but since he has probably entered into another relationship and had another child with a different woman, he is often unwilling to do so. In such cases the mother may send their child to try to try collect the payment due. This hardly fosters a positive father/child relationship. The child is forced to visit the father’s new home, see his father’s new woman, and their new baby. The father doesn’t welcome the ambassador of his nagging former partner and transfers his feelings toward the mother onto the child. When child is sent away with nothing or a pittance, he will undoubtedly feel profound rejection.

“So far as children in lower-class working homes are concerned, therefore, the majority live, during their most formative years, in danger of the disruption at any moment of the closet kinship ties. Although it is a general pattern and not a unique individual experience, the effect of this instability in the relationship between his parents has a profound effect on the development of parent-child roles, and particularly that between father and child. The child who sees his mother turned out of the home for another woman may give expression to his hostility against the father by openly taking his mother’s side.” [8]

It is to be expected that he would cling to his mother.

“One reason for this was to be found in the intimacy and stability of the relationship and the fact that it was often the only stable relationship in the child’s life. But principally because the authority of the mother is never questioned any more than the child’s duty of obedience to her.”[9]

Such boys may become what might be described as a “husband substitute.”[10] When he grows up, he will feel a responsibility to provide for her, particularly if she has no husband. As one man put it:

“If I don’t send five or seven shillings a month to my mother I feel shame because she is getting old and she works hard.” [11]

On the other hand,

“… the boy receives no education as to his duty as a father. He accepts from his elders the dictum that children are woman’s concern and that there need be no avoidance of procreation until such a time as he is in a position to fulfill the natural obligations of husband and father. Nothing in his own experience has enabled him to learn the meaning of the paternal relationship nor has the society helped by example or precept.” [12]

If he follows the same pattern as his father, he will sire a string of children, marrying none of their mothers. While he may have a legal duty to pay support for these children, he will not see it as a moral responsibility, but an unfair imposition. Providing for himself, his current partner, their children and his mother depletes the resources available for his other children – children of a woman he slept with years before, whose role in his life has been reduced to continually nagging him for money.

This is not to say that every baby father neglects his responsibility

“It has, however, to be said that examples of paternal devotion and kindness were far outweighed by the cases where he was either no more than the man, ‘who had only fathered the idea of me and left me the sole liability of my mother who really Fathered me’ or someone remembered for neglect or harsh discipline. Where the mother was indulgent, hasty in her anger, but quick to be kind again, the father was remembered for his strictness.”[13]

Even when the father does live with the children or step children there are reports of abusive behavior:

“We heard many stories of children running away to an indulgent grandmother or other members of the family because of these beatings. [14]

Culture and Marriage

Forty years later the situation had if anything gotten worse. Suzanne LaFont and Deborah Pruitt in a piece entitled “The Colonial Legacy: Gendered Laws in Jamaica” reported that in 1986 85% of births in Jamaica are out-of-wedlock.[15] Laws have been changed to remove any legal stigma from illegitimacy and to equalize the relationship between baby father and baby mother after the relationship has been severed. Unfortunately, this has had an unforeseen consequences. Since baby fathers have an equal right to custody, they threaten to sue for custody of the child if the mother goes to court to push for support. Rather than helping women, this kind of equality which ignores sex difference actually disadvantages women.

LaFont found that men’s feelings of duty to their children was tied to their sexual relationship with the child’s mother:

“…100 percent of LaFont’s respondents agreed that once the sexual relationship ends child support is discontinued.”[16]

LaFont and Pruitt blame the ‘ethnocentric nineteenth century model of the patriarchal nuclear family:

“If the low-income population internalizes an ideology which advocates marriage and monogamy as a necessity for happy family life, then the majority of Jamaicans will feel shortchanged.”[17]

Is the desire for marriage and monogamy merely an illusion, or are these feelings justified? Part of the problem according to LaFont and Pruitt’s is that the Western image of a nuclear family doesn’t fit the Jamaican society:

“… low income Jamaicans, who make up approximately 90 percent of the population, did not and do not have the economic and social conditions necessary for the development of this idealized, Western-style nuclear family. Racism and inequality have meant that African-Caribbean men, for the most part have never earned a family income sufficient to enable women to stay at home and exclusively end to child care and domestic responsibilities, Even if men were offering to provide such financially support, it is not clear that Jamaican women would relinquish their independence and autonomy for the dependence that characterizes the nuclear family.”[18]

According to Clark, the Jamaican society’s idea what is necessary for a couple to marry creates an economic burden that discourages marriage:

“It is not considered correct for a man to propose marriage unless he owns a house and, preferably, a bit of land. ‘A man should not marry and live in a rented; house.’  The cost of the wedding itself, with the extravagant expenditure on clothes, finery and food for the wedding feast often exhausts all the man’s savings. But what is more significant is that he is expected to support his wife in a higher status than that which is accepted for a concubine. Concubinage is recognized as a partnership in which there is equal responsibility between the partners in practical affairs. It is considered right and proper to do any form of work to assist in the maintenance of the home. Marriage, however, is expected to bring about ‘a change of life’, to release the woman from the anxiety and drudgery of earning her living and transform her ‘from a common woman to a lady.’”[19]

This problem is not unique to Jamaica. There are a number of cultural practices in various societies in which cost of marriage is so high that it is out of reach for the poor and even some of the middle class couples. In some cultures the family of the bride may be expected to provide a significant dowry or marriage settlement. In a number of cultures weddings require expensive receptions. Such customs have a negative effect on marriage rates, lead to high rates of illegitimacy, and exacerbate poverty. In the face of this governments have legislated against high dowry demands. Other countries have instituted group weddings to spread the cost of the reception among a number of couples.[20] In the Philippines for example the whole community expected to be invited to the wedding. To lower the cost, group weddings were instituted by the government.

The idea that the wife should not be engaged in productive work was a Victorian ideal, but never the norm for working class families. In the 18th century in England, a person was considered a gentleman or a lady if they did not engage in productive work. During the 19th century with the advent of industrial revolution, the men involved in industry and commerce became rich, but still weren’t considered ‘gentlemen’ because they were engaged in commerce. Nevertheless, they wanted their wives to be ‘ladies’ – this meant that the wives could not engage in productive work outside the home, thereby distinguished them from the working class. This ideal of a non-productive wife did not apply to working class families; however, a family in which both partners contribute productive labor is just as ‘nuclear’ as one that depends on the husband’s income. We see this in family farms and small business where women and children work beside their husband and in two income families. Marriage leads to the co-mingling of assets and by combining income and lowering living cost. In this way the married couples accumulate savings or property and move out of poverty.

Why Marriage Matters

A report by a team of family scholars called Why Marriage Matters: 26 conclusions from the Social Science lists how marriage provides benefits on a number of levels:


1. Marriage increases the likelihood that fathers and mothers have good relationships with their children.

2. Cohabitation is not the same as marriage. Cohabiting couples on average are less committed, less faithful, and more likely to break up than married couples.

3. Growing up outside an intact marriage increases the likelihood that children will themselves divorce or become unwed parents.

4. In almost every known human society, marriage exists as a way of regulating the reproduction of children, families, and society.

5. Marriage typically fosters better romantic and parental relationships compared to other family forms, such as cohabitation. Individuals who have a firm commitment to marriage as an ideal are more likely to invest themselves in their marriage and to enjoy happier marriages.

6. Marriage has important biological consequences for adults and children. For instance, marriage appears to reduce men’s testosterone levels, and girls who grow up in an intact, married family appear to have a relatively later onset of puberty.

7. Divorce and unmarried childbearing increase poverty for both children and mothers.

8. Married couples seem to build more wealth on average than singles or cohabiting couples.

9. Marriage reduces poverty and material hardship (for example, missing a meal or failing to pay rent) for disadvantaged women and their children.

10. African Americans and Latinos benefit economically from marriage.

11. Married men earn more money than do single men with similar education and job histories.

12. Parental divorce (or failure to marry) appears to increase children’s risk of dropping out of high school.

13. Parental divorce reduces the likelihood that children will graduate from college and achieve high-status jobs.

14. Children who live with their own two married parents enjoy better physical health than do children in other family forms.

15. Parental marriage is associated with a sharply lower risk of infant mortality.

16. Marriage is associated with reduced rates of drug and alcohol use for both adults and teens.

17. Married people, especially married men, have longer life expectancies than do otherwise similar singles.

18. Marriage is associated with better health and lower rates of injury, illness, and disability for both men and women.

19. Marriage seems to be associated with better health among minorities and the poor.

20. Children whose parents divorce have higher rates of psychological problems like depression and other mental illnesses.

21. Divorce is linked to higher suicide rates.

22. Married mothers have lower rates of depression than do single or cohabiting mothers.

23. Boys raised in single-parent families are more likely to engage in delinquent and criminal behavior.

24. Married men and women are significantly less likely to be the perpetrators or victims of crime.

25. Married women appear to have a lower risk of experiencing domestic violence than do cohabiting or dating women.

26. A child who is not living with his or her own two married parents is at significantly greater risk for child abuse.[21]

Points 8-11 reinforce the claim that marriage is the best prescription for alleviating poverty

There are those who would blame a history of slavery, racism or systemic poverty for the economic problems found in low marriage societies; however, a new book by Charles Murray entitle Coming Apart looks at what happens when a significant portion of white US citizens engage in unmarried relationships and have children out-of-wedlock. These are people who have not suffered from racism or a history of slavery, who live in a country were economic opportunity is available to any one who is willing to work, yet all of the negative consequences of non-marriage are found in this population. Without marriage people were less likely to move out of poverty, children were less likely to spend their childhoods with both married biological parents. This led to instability which affected the children’s achievement. Murray found:

“Having two unmarried biological parents was associated with worse outcomes than having two married biological parents and the outcomes were rarely better than those for children living with a single parent or in a ‘cohabiting stepparent ‘family.” [22]

One of the problems found in low marriage communities is the lack of social capital. Social capital measures the availability of men and women for community involvement. It is high where a significant portion of the adult population are involved in volunteer activities benefiting the community or organizations which provide free services;

“Married fathers are a good source of labor for these tasks. Unmarried fathers are not… single mothers who want to foster the right environment for their children are usually doing double duty already trying to be breadwinner and an attentive parent at he same time. Few single mothers have much time or energy to spare for community activities.”[23]

The result is that a community in which the percentage of married parents in low will see a sharp decline in social capital. The government is looked to for solutions, and the cost of government rises.


             There is very little that government can do to reverse the low marriage/high out-of-wedlock birth trend in its communities once it has been established. The habits are passed on from parents to children. The government can enact and enforce statutory rape laws. It can force men to pay child support. It can privilege married couples, but this will have minimal affect so long as the underlying behaviors are socially acceptable.  So long as men see nothing wrong in seducing young girls, impregnating them, leaving them, moving on to repeat this behavior with another woman and failing to support children from previous relationships, indeed when men see such behavior as a sign of their masculinity, they will find a way around the laws.

What is needed is a moral revolution. When the public – or at least a significant portion of the population – sees the underlying behaviors as immoral, things can change. The failure to marry the mother of your child and support the child should be regarded as a form of child abuse. When girls learn that they can say no and expect to have their decision respected, things can change. When parents and society protects girls and children, things can change. When men are made to feel ashamed of their behavior, instead of feeling proud of their virility, things can change.

Such change would require nothing less than a national conversion.

[1] Edith Clark, My Mother who Fathered en: A study of the family in three selected communities in Jamaica, (George Allen & Unwin: London, 1957) p. xxxii

[2]Clark, p. 151.

[3]Clark, p. xxxii

[4] Mark Regnerus, “ How different are the adult children of parents who have same-relationships,”  Social Science Research, (July 2012) 14 (4): pp752-770

[5]Clark, p. 141

[6]Clark, p.141

[7]Clark, p. 107-108

[8]Clark, p. 107

[9]Clark, p. 159

[10]Clark, p.158

[11]Clark, p.163

[12]Clark, p. 163

[13]Clark, p. 161

[14]Clark, p.161

[15] Suzanne la Font, Deborah Pruitt, “The Colonial Legacy: Gendered Laws in Jamaica” (In Daughters of Caliban, Indian UP: Bloomington IN, 1997) pp. 215-228

[16] LaFont, p. 224

[17] LaFont, p .244

[18] LaFont, p .220

[19]Clark, p..78

[20] “Group weddings spread cost of marriage,”

[22] Charles Murray,  Coming Apart: The state of white America, 1960-2010 ( Crown Forum: NY, 2012) p. 164-5

[23]Murray, p 245-6

One Comment leave one →
  1. John Laws permalink
    June 13, 2013 2:46 am

    Reblogged this on Jonah in the Heart of Nineveh.

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