For the past 10 years I’ve volunteered at the Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center, a pro-life Christian ministry in the troubled heart of Washington, D.C. Over this decade of listening to women in crisis, talking with them, helping them find the resources they need, praying with them, hugging them, sometimes inviting them into my home when they had no safe place to go, I’ve seen shifts in the culture of poor D.C. women. My own perspective has shifted as well. I wrote about my early experiences for The Weekly Standard in 2003, after a year at the center; here is how I see the work today.
One of the first surprises I had, as a new counselor, was how often our clients were not considering abortion. Although we have recently noticed an increase in clients who are considering abortion, many of the women we see are willing to accept a child if one comes, and some are eager. (Their own mothers are much more likely to push, or even try to coerce, them into abortions.) Many have had abortions in the past and are adamant that they don’t want to do that again.
At first I thought this meant we should focus our conversations on abstinence. And there are still many clients, for example the teenagers, for whom this is the best approach. But abstinence isn’t a life goal. It’s not a destination or a vocation. Motherhood is—it’s a way to give and receive love, and to gain a sense of meaning and purpose beyond oneself. Something always beats nothing; unwed motherhood now beats possible marriage in the unimaginable future. You can tell a girl, in the evangelical cliché, that she’s “worth waiting for,” but to many of our clients, waiting for marriage feels about as useful as waiting for Godot.
So now I try to concentrate on identifying people in our clients’ lives who can help them view marriage to a good man as an imaginable, even achievable, goal. I try to offer them small concrete steps they can take toward the goal of creating a loving, stable family based on marriage.
What this involves differs from client to client. Again, with teens it really is mostly about abstinence, focusing on their schoolwork rather than on drama with boys, strengthening their relationships with people they know whose lives they admire (often grandmothers), and cultivating a spirit of prayer.
Other women really love and trust the guy they’re with, but are fearful or negative about marriage for reasons even they often find hard to articulate. Poor women, just like rich women, believe that you shouldn’t get married until you’re “stable,” until you’re financially settled and emotionally “ready.” But in the chaos of life in poverty, stability and readiness are a long time coming—and even longer if you’ve begun having children out of wedlock. Delayed marriage becomes no marriage at all.
Women who are in good relationships I try to connect with premarital counseling. This is an area where the churches have stepped up, but there is definitely room for improvement: Almost all the women I speak with who attend church regularly say that they “think” there’s a marriage-preparation program at their church, but they’re not sure. When I suggest premarital counseling as a possible first step, even women who were initially resistant to marriage often find it extremely attractive. It’s a way of making marriage real, something for normal people, not something for fairy tales and celebrities.
One fear many of our clients have is that marriage means giving up too much control to a man. These are women who have needed to be self-reliant all their lives, and who have only rarely seen men keep their promises. Their strength has become defensiveness and instinctive mistrust. The decision to seek marriage counseling is a way for them to assert themselves, guide the relationship, and move toward marriage with self-determination rather than simply capitulating to the man’s wishes.
That’s assuming the man wants to marry, which he often does. Many times, the baby’s father wants the child and wants a wedding much more than the pregnant woman. Men, too, long for purpose and meaning in their lives; like women, they long to sacrifice and to love. But unlike women, they don’t control who gets to care for the babies. A poor, unwed father is almost entirely dependent on the woman if he wants to see his child. His power to break his promises, to walk away from his kids in a way women simply can’t and won’t, is matched by his powerlessness if he wants to keep those promises against the will of a mistrustful mother.