Ever wondered what crisis pregnancy centres do? How do they actually help women?  I did, so I interviewed Eve Tushnet, whose writing has appeared in a number of publications, including the Atlantic, and (online) the Washington Post, the New York Times, and now this blog. She is the author of Amends: A Novel,  Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith (winner of the 2015 Catholic Press Award for books on Gender Issues), and the editor of Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds: Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church. She has also been volunteering in Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center since 2002 (and her views are, of course, her own and not the official position of the centre).

CHPC is located in Washington DC so the obstacles facing pregnant and parenting women there might be different to the ones women face here, in Ireland. But I also used the interview as an opportunity to ask questions about problems that women coming to the centre face, and to ask more general questions about how the friends of women who are pregnant or parenting can support them.  I also asked about volunteering for an explicitly Christian pregnancy center, and how this works.

Here’s the interview!

What do you see your role as being in a crisis pregnancy centre? What do you do? How often do you think the pregnancy centre can successfully help women? Why did you decide to volunteer there?

I volunteer for a couple hours a week as a client advocate, basically meaning I meet and talk with people who come in for a pregnancy test, material items for moms and children (e.g. maternity clothes, baby clothes, diapers, formula), or just to talk. Most clients I see are coming in for help with basic material needs. DC is a very expensive town for babies! So we not only give people free items but also try to connect them with other services that can help them find work, child care, medical care etc. But even in those situations, the counseling aspect usually matters a lot. People need a sympathetic ear, and when they know we’re listening they will confide everything from their hopes for their children, to their experience of domestic violence. If clients are Christian we’ll often pray together, but regardless of their beliefs, I try to provide a safe place that’s a refuge from the judgment and callousness people in poverty often face.

When people are coming in for material things we can typically meet a decent amount of their needs. Not everything–we have to warn clients that we can’t even meet their entire monthly need for diapers, though we try to connect them with other diaper banks and services–but we can make a difference. With more complex family issues, like escaping violence or moving toward marriage, I think we can do a surprising amount, though obviously all of those questions are ultimately in the client’s hands.

Since I mostly see clients for what we call “material resources” (basic stuff for moms and families), I don’t see a lot of abortion-minded clients. But when people do call in or come to us considering abortion, we do our best to provide accurate information on the development of the unborn child (in my experience this makes a big difference), the process of abortion, and possibilities if a woman decides against abortion. More than that, again, I think a big thing that makes a difference is just having someone listen, understand how painful your situation is, and help you imagine another way out so you don’t feel so trapped. I’m not sure exactly how often clients shift from “definitely abortion” to “definitely no abortion,” though I’ve seen it happen with some frequency; and lots of women are openly ambivalent about abortion and when you invite them to talk more about the realities of it and their own beliefs they basically talk themselves out of it. I tried to come up with some guess at the percentage of women I’ve seen change their minds but it’s very hard to say, especially since if a woman does get an abortion we’re less likely to be able to follow up with her. “More often than you might think” is the best I can do.

Women considering abortion often feel powerless. The abortion feels like their only choice. So if someone leaves the counseling room feeling empowered, I have probably done well–I know “empowered” sounds like therapy-speak but I think here it’s a synonym for “hopeful.”

I started at the center because when I came back to DC (my hometown) after college, I knew I wanted to be of service to women in some way. I considered a few other paths but the pregnancy center fit with my Christian convictions and, if I can be blunt, had a nice long training period, which was reassuring since I’d never done counseling of any kind before.

Could you give were some examples of  situations (or types of situation) where a woman’s relationships with friends and family were a source of support (or became a source of support) for her?

Housing costs are a huge problem here so being able to live with a parent or other relative often helps a LOT. And of course if a mom is supportive of her daughter’s childbearing then that makes it easier to envision having the baby (unless the mom is actually pushy or insistent, in which case an abortion might seem even more necessary as a way to get out from under mom’s control). I remember one client who wasn’t sure anyone in her family would support her, but once she had decided to have her baby she was able to reconnect with, if I recall correctly, her grandfather or uncle, who provided the support she needed. Best friends and especially “godsisters” (when you have the same godparent) can also play the same familial role.

What kind of problems can these relationships help women with? What kind of problems can’t they them help with?

Hm, on some level a supportive family or friendship can *help* with almost anything, even addiction or an abusive relationship. On the other hand they can’t influence your employer. They can’t affect whether you can stay employed while pregnant or take time off to care for your baby.

What are the most common obstacles facing women who come to the crisis pregnancy centre? Are there any ones that are common or particularly stand out?

Housing!!! People desperately want affordable housing and it’s VERY hard to get it here–the waiting lists are years long. We can sometimes refer people to maternity homes but honestly most people do want more control of their space than a maternity home provides.

Other big obstacles include not having a church where they feel at home (lots of our clients are Christian but especially for those who have immigrated fairly recently, they may not know anyone at a church), and feeling like they need to be economically stable before they can get married. Even people in very loving, trusting long-term relationships get a lot of advice and pressure not to marry before they can at least afford their own place–which in DC could be a very, very long time.

Do you have advice on how can people be supportive of friends with children whether it’s a crisis pregnancy situation or not? I’m especially thinking of non-crisis pregnancy situations where a friend has children, and you might want to help them if they are overworked, or isolated, or just to be able to continue a friendship and continue to be part of their life when they enter this new phase. Sometimes people worry about crossing boundaries of offering help if it’s not their place. Do you have any advice about this? Or any examples of people doing it well or badly? Are there any barriers to offering this kind of help, or any conditions that make offering this kind of help easier?

Everybody’s situation will vary so much, so the best thing you can do is ask! In my experience friends with kids really, really want someone to give them even a few hours’ break by babysitting. Bringing food is often good, babysitting is almost always good, but mostly the big thing is just to ask what would be most helpful, and maybe give a menu of things you’d personally like to do. (I don’t volunteer for babysitting unless it’s my best friend’s kids.) Come over and hang out at their place, since it’s probably complicated for them to come to you, and see if you can be useful while you’re there, doing the dishes while you chat or fixing an appliance before you go.

If they’re closer or more in need, consider sharing a home. A friend of mine is living with his godchild and her parents, and that’s a situation which can allow an unmarried person to share the joys of family life while also giving the parents some help with the burdens. How much closeness this requires will vary depending on what your living space looks like, and everybody’s gotta be aware of their boundaries (the godparent isn’t the parent… and isn’t simply free labor at the parents’ disposal), but you’ll never get as much support from someone who lives elsewhere as you will from someone who lives with you.

You volunteer for a Christian crisis pregnancy centre. In Ireland there are concerns about Christian groups promoting a faith agenda, ‘forcing religion and dogma’ on women, or at least being a second-best choice in comparison to a more neutral secular group. These groups are also often badly negatively by the media. How does your group manage being a crisis pregnancy centre that is explicitly Christian? Are there ever any complications that arise as a result?

I’ve definitely seen that we need to remember the position clients are in–they may feel like if they don’t display the right emotions or beliefs we won’t help them, or they may hesitate to be honest with us if they fear we’ll judge them. When I was a very inexperienced counselor I did make at least one client feel like I was pushing Christianity on her (she was Wiccan). For a long time I’d talk about faith only when the client said she’s a Christian, which comes up since religious background is something we usually ask as part of our initial interview.

Nowadays, counselors are encouraged to offer to pray for all our clients while they’re there. Asking if it’s all right if you pray for someone who’s facing real challenges is a way to *offer* them something, and even non-Christian clients often appreciate it. Obviously you want to offer without pressure, and without making them feel like you have expectations for how they’ll respond. But prayer is one of the things we can give people, if they’d like to receive it–and many people find it very moving. So I’m re-learning how to offer prayer in the way that we offer everything else: free if you want it, no pressure if you don’t.

Regardless of their beliefs, I try to provide a safe place that’s a refuge from the judgment and callousness people in poverty often face.  And clients who are Christian often really love being encouraged to talk about their faith, and love that we pray with them. I’ve had many clients say, toward the end of a session, how much they love that. It’s a human touch that takes us beyond the sometimes coldly-professional world of “service provision.”

Praying and talking about faith also establishes a degree of equality or community between the client and the counselor: She (or he) gets to talk about what’s most important in her life, and can take a position of moral authority. There are areas where non-Christian clients can have moral authority also (like when they’re talking about the care they give their children) but Christianity is a really easy and obvious opportunity for that.

The lives of Jesus and Mary also provide so many parallels to the situations our clients face–judgment as an unwed mother, poverty, having “nowhere to lay their head,” facing the criminal justice system, feeling helpless and needing strength from God. Showing that we see these situations through the eyes of faith, and not moral judgment, can offer a lot of respect and honor for clients’ hardest experiences.

Eve Tushnet has been a volunteer at the Capitol Hill Pregnancy Center since 2002.  Her answers reflect her own opinion, and not the official position of the center. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications including the Atlantic, the American Conservative, Christianity Today, Commonweal, First Things, and, online, in the Washington Post and the New York Times. She is the author of Amends: A Novel and of  Gay and Catholic: Accepting My Sexuality, Finding Community, Living My Faith (winner of the 2015 Catholic Press Award for books on Gender Issues). She is the editor of the anthology Christ’s Body, Christ’s Wounds: Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church.