Should We Shelter? (updated)

After I first read Rebecca Frech’s crisis pregnancy post, I shared it on Facebook with some reflections that eventually became my own contribution to the conversation.  One of my friends agreed with the main point of the post, but said she didn’t think it was a good idea to speak to unmarried or newly pregnant women about the potential trials of pregnancy.  She said she liked to “just focus on the positive” and “shield young ([especially] non mothers or unmarried) girls from too much talk of how hard it could be.”

I understand where she’s coming from.  After all, plenty of women are already afraid of pregnancy and parenthood, without us adding to it.  But if women are surrounded by messages that pregnancy is supposed to make you feel natural and empowered and joyful and radiant, what’s going to happen when they get pregnant unexpectedly?  In addition to the surprise, (and the heartburn, and the nausea, and the sciatica, and the weight gain, and the carpal tunnel, and the varicose veins, and the insomnia…) they are going to feel horribly guilty about their mixed emotions.  They will feel alone, because everyone else seems to be handling pregnancy just fine.  And this fear and guilt and loneliness will push them a little closer towards abortion.

I am not recommending that we just focus on the negative; I’m talking about giving women the whole picture.  We need to be giving women a three-part message: (1) pregnancy can be horrible, and that’s normal; (2) you are not alone, and we will support you; and (3) pregnancy is worth it.  Shielding them is not going to help them deal with the inevitable trials of pregnancy; but because we’re also letting them know that the baby is worth the suffering, we’re giving them the tools they need to get through it.

My friend explained that the other reason she believed in “focusing on the positive” was that “attitude is huge in determining whether [pregnant women] will have a good time or a hard time of it.”  Now, as far as I understand, this has some psychological truth behind it; being positive really does help us with deal with rough times.  But when it comes to the experience of pregnancy, which is so emotional and life-changing, and varies so much from woman to woman, I think this is an extremely dangerous idea.  If someone had told me that I should try to have a more positive attitude during my last pregnancy, I would have been very angry, because it sounds unsympathetic: “if you weren’t so negative, you would feel better!”  And I would have felt guilty.  Inside me, a little voice would repeat that advice over and over again, whispering, “this is all your fault.  If you weren’t such a wimp, and if you were more open to life, you wouldn’t be complaining.”  Now let me tell you: this pregnancy was so bad that at one point this thought entered my mind: “if this was torture, I would have given in long ago and done everything they wanted me to.”  No amount of good attitude is going to help with that.  Now imagine a woman who has it much worse than me: maybe she has hyperemesis gravidarum, maybe she’s homeless, maybe she’s being abused by her boyfriend; do you think we did her a favor by telling her that pregnancy would be fine if she had a good attitude?

There’s more to say, but I think I’m in enough trouble for today.  Tomorrow or the day after I’d like to talk a little bit about the effects of sheltering people when it comes to sex education and preparing for childbirth.

EDITED TO ADD:

I don’t mean to criticize my friend who suggested focusing on the positive. I know she has our best interests in mind, and would never come out and say “if you’re having a hard time, it’s your fault.”  However, the insidious voice inside my head hears it that way.  Even when we mean well, we need to be very careful what we say to pregnant women–guilt and shame are always waiting in the wings.

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Do Catholics Have Crisis Pregnancies?

Let me tell you about a woman I know.  She is a cradle Catholic and firm pro-lifer, happily married to a supportive and loving husband.  She lives in a modern apartment in a safe, friendly neighborhood, and her family’s income is enough to provide for their necessities and a few luxuries too.  She has a wonderful support group of like-minded family and friends.  But last year, she became unexpectedly pregnant and it was one of the biggest crises she ever faced.

She was thrown into panic–she had two children under 4, and already felt overwhelmed; she was on anti-depressants; they already had four people squished into a 3-room apartment, and couldn’t afford to move; they had enormous student debt; and her husband was scheduled to be in the middle of an unpaid internship the month the baby was due.  She worked a physically demanding part-time job, and the pregnancy brought with it panic attacks, severe insomnia and nightmares, back pain so bad it made her limp for a few months, and depression that occasionally reached the point of suicidal thoughts.  She was angry at God, afraid of the future, and resentful of the baby.  She felt horribly guilty that she couldn’t view the baby in her womb as anything but a burden, and she felt ashamed to be so overwhelmed when she had such a fortunate life.  She was so scared of another pregnancy after this one that she was flooded with temptations to take birth control or get sterilized.  And once, at the darkest point, the thought of abortion came into her mind.

This woman is me.  I couldn’t believe it.  I didn’t think it was possible for someone as fortunate as me to have a crisis pregnancy.  Thanks to God, and to my marvelous group of friends and family, the temptation never returned.  But it opened my eyes to the fact that anyone can have a crisis pregnancy…and this means that anyone can be tempted by abortion.  I already knew that many women get pushed into abortions, and suffer terrible guilt afterwards; but now I felt like I understood what they have gone through.  I gained a much deeper compassion for women planning or recovering from abortions, a compassion which I hope will continue to guard me against ever stereotyping or vilifying them.

I also learned something about the pro-life movement (or at least, that part of it that I’ve experienced): we are so concerned with welcoming new life and affirming the blessing of parenthood that we pretend we’re always happy about it.  When a woman like me finds herself in a crisis pregnancy, she may be scared to admit it.  After all, doesn’t she realize how many infertile people would kill to be in her position?  And doesn’t she understand what a blessing fertility is?  And shouldn’t she make sure everyone sees her joy, so she can witness to the Gospel?  When a pro-life woman with several kids gets the usual “are you done yet?” or “how on earth can you manage?” comment in the supermarket, she feels compelled to reply with something enthusiastic, like “we’re happy to have as many children as God gives us!” or “oh, we love having a house full of little ones!”  I used to always have a cheerful reply like this waiting, so I could be a good witness for the secular world.  But during this pregnancy, things were so bad that I couldn’t muster up a pro-life rallying cry.  I couldn’t even joke about the trials of pregnancy.  It was deadly serious.  So instead, I started admitting to people–first my husband, then my friends, then even my coworkers–that I was not expecting this, and I was having a hard time.  And suddenly, I didn’t feel alone anymore.  No one responded with “oh look, she was pro-life until she got pregnant!” or “I’m glad I’m not Catholic, I wouldn’t want to be drowning in diapers like her!”  Instead, I received the support and sympathy I needed.

Looking back, I think this may actually be a good form of witness, too.  Certainly, it’s good for secular people and pro-choicers to see examples of joyful parenthood; but it’s also good for them to see that, even when parenthood is a crisis, it’s worth it.  As a priest once said to me, you can’t be sure that you’re faithful until temptation comes along and you resist it.  You won’t really know that you’re pro-life until you are tempted with abortion and choose life; and nobody else will know it, either.  By all means, let’s show the world how happy a life open to God can be.  But let’s also be someone they can relate to–for their sake and for ours.

Many thanks to the strong and amazing Rebecca Frech, at the blog, Shoved to Them, whose post about crisis pregnancy inspired me.  These thoughts have been on my heart for a long time, but her post crystallized them in my mind and inspired me to write.  Her follow-up post gets a little more specific about temptation to abortion and solidarity with post-abortive women.  And by the way, here is the happy ending:

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I love this baby more than I have ever loved anyone else in my entire life.  I can’t help thinking that some of that is due to the hell I went through to bring her into the world.  I paid for her with my blood, sweat, and tears and she was worth it!