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Sex and the City

Ten years of counseling at a crisis pregnancy ­center.

Aug 27, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 46 • By EVE TUSHNET
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Men were hit hard by the tanking economy, making them less attractive marriage prospects; the women we see are more likely to be working than their children’s fathers. Many men are locked up (as of 2008, one out of every nine black men between the ages of 20 and 34 was incarcerated) or have a prison record. They’re taken away from their kids and returned, years later, broken and unable to get legal work. In my opinion, one of the biggest pro-family policies we could institute in America would be to lock up fewer nonviolent offenders and switch to forms of punishment short of incarceration. For many lower-level drug offenses, the emphasis should be on treatment and rehabilitation, not on imprisonment. While some changes may be forced by budget crises, just dumping ex-cons on street corners isn’t a long-term solution either. Reintegration of ex-offenders is essential if we want to strengthen marriage in low-income communities. 

Often when I ask our clients to talk about married people whose lives they admire, they name grandparents—or pastors. The black church, though often led by women, is also a place where black men are found—Christ-centered, married men—in positions of leadership. But church attendance for lower-class white adults has been dropping. One recent study found that only 23 percent of the least-educated whites went to church at least once a month, while 46 percent of college-educated whites did. Though little is known about class-based trends for African Americans, I think I’ve noticed a parallel drift in our clients. Ten years ago we did see women who no longer went to church, but they usually had some reason for it—often a somewhat cagey reason (“Everyone there was a hypocrite,” for instance) or a very practical reason (long hours at work or a new baby). Now I see many young women who are unchurched and without apparent guilt or defensiveness about it. But trust and hope in God have not been replaced by trust or hope in anything else. These women are even more alone in the world than those who do believe that their lives, however rocky or misspent, are ultimately in God’s hands. 

There have been other shifts. The influx of African immigrants to the District brought us a client base with relatively straightforward needs: They’re mostly married, just really poor.  

There’s been a noticeable increase in openness about mental illness. Ten years ago I almost never heard a client say that she took medication for depression or ask me about mental-health resources. Now I speak with a client about mental illness once or twice a month. This is the result of continuing attempts to make mental-health services culturally sensitive and available to poor and minority sufferers; yet increased mental illness may also, as Andrew Solomon has speculated in The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, be another consequence of the contemporary crisis of meaning. 

In my own practice I’ve become more aware of the desire our clients have to give back. We encourage clients to bring in their own gently used baby clothes and equipment to donate to others. Some of the best counseling I’ve seen has been done in the waiting room, as clients reassured one another and shared tips on finding everything from housing to a good church.  

At least two clients have given back in the most dramatic way possible: Janet Durig, the center’s director, told me, “Twelve years ago a girl came for a pregnancy test and it was positive. After changing her mind about aborting her baby, she became a regular client of the CHPC for many years to follow.” This young woman eventually married a man who adopted her son—and returned to the center saying, “It is time to give back.” Today she counsels other women in similar situations. Another woman came in planning an abortion. She didn’t change her mind. But she remembered the center later, when she began to seek spiritual healing from the abortion. Today she is one of the facilitators of the center’s post-abortion program.

Janet has met several kids born to women who initially came to the center planning to abort if their tests were positive. Both of us have watched families progress and couples come together in marriage—sometimes with a lot of bumps along the road, and not always to the tune of “first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.” We’ve seen grandchildren reconnect with grandparents, pastors mentor struggling couples, and relatives and godsisters step in where parents were unwilling to help. 

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