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.
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.
When I started counseling I saw our work as serving the mother-child dyad. I wanted to help the woman and save her unborn baby. Over time I began to see more and more the frayed communal fabric in which these women and children are wrapped. I began to appreciate the connections they lacked—to their own fathers, to their children’s fathers, to happily married couples who could serve as models, to churches where they were nurtured and shown God’s love. Now I see my job primarily as helping women find people in their own communities who can give them support, advice, and most of all the hope that married love is possible.
Eve Tushnet is a writer in Washington, D.C. She blogs at www.patheos.com/blogs/evetushnet.