Tuesday, January 3, 2012

When Mary Visited Elizabeth

The Sisters of Life have a cadre of laypeople, known as the Visitation Coworkers for Life, who assist them in carrying out their charism of helping women in crisis pregnancies.  The title of this program is, of course, a reference to the Visitation, when Mary, newly pregnant herself, traveled into the hill country of Judea to wait upon and serve her cousin Elizabeth, who was in the sixth month of a miraculous (and perhaps, because of her advanced age, dangerous-seeming) pregnancy. I am not officially a Visitation Coworker for Life, the program having started just around the time we were moving out of New York, and I'm not sure I would make a very good one. Nonetheless, I fell into that role unexpectedly last weekend, when A. and her two toddlers washed up on the shore of our decaying Rust Belt town and lacked for a place to stay. They had been supposed to come here at an earlier date, it seems, and the shelter in which A. had arranged to stay had given her spot away when she didn't show up. She found a temporary spot in an emergency shelter, but the little family ended up staying with us for two nights (and seemed ready to stay indefinitely) while we tried to figure out what had gone wrong at the emergency shelter and to work it out.  From the first hour, there was misunderstanding piled upon miscommunication between A. and the shelter staff, not to mention a clash of cultures: it cannot be denied that the social service workers in my new home town are shockingly generous and eager to help their charges, which is the complete opposite of the ethos among their counterparts in New York, and A. started off on the wrong foot by being surly and defensive with the emergency shelter director, who had elbowed another woman aside to take in A. and her children in. Things escalated from there to the point that the shelter director yelled at me and hung up the phone when I called.

A. was comfortable here in our warm house; her children loved my husband, and cried when he left the room. My son loved having the little ones to boss around, and cried, himself, while falling asleep because, as he said, "I don't have children yet." I bought supplies for A., and made her and her children special foods. We gave her the covers off our own bed, and put her family in what will be Jude's room.  She wanted my husband to bring her belongings here from the shelter, which would have been impossible even if we had wanted to; the Coworker for Life who drove A. here from New York had had a hard time fitting all of her stuff in a minivan, and we have a Honda Civic.  But I told A. that she had to play by the rules and work things out at the shelter, because her permanent placement and her chance at getting a Section 8 housing voucher -- the reason she came here -- would be jeopardized by her having another place to stay. She denied this, but I know otherwise.

The surprise in all of this was that A. is just weeks away from giving birth to her third child, a circumstance that no one, including the Sisters of Life, knew about (in fact, Sister M. was exasperated when I told her the news over the phone, because if she had known about A.'s pregnancy, she could have gotten A. into another shelter in New York, sparing her the myriad difficulties of moving to a strange city). A. mentioned vaguely that the father of the three children plans to move here eventually after getting his high-school equivalency diploma, but I'm doubtful this will happen. Her near-total passivity in the face of crisis bewildered me, as did her comfort in relying upon the kindness of complete strangers and her apparent trust that these strangers, and the social-service system, would take care of her and her children. I'm pretty sure her pregnancy is high-risk -- she said she had a uterine fibroid tumor -- and she doesn't have a crib or a stitch of clothing for the baby. But these are the kinds of things that kind strangers and the social-service system provide.

A few months ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Helen Alvaré, legal scholar, sociologist, advisor to Pope Benedict's Pontifical Council to the Laity, and all-around cool chick from New Jersey. Because I told her about my ongoing concern about single motherhood in my community, she sent me some of her articles on this subject. I have been reading one, "Beyond the Sex-Ed Wars: Addressing Disadvantaged Single Mothers' Search for Community," with great interest. (Unfortunately, I couldn't find a free link to the article, but I'm guessing it can be obtained using Lexis-Nexis at a library.) Alvaré cuts to the heart of the rising rates of unwed motherhood, especially among disadvantaged women: poor young women, she says, not only seek status in their communities by taking on the role of single mother, but also find opportunities to serve, as Mary served Elizabeth -- to be, in Alvaré's, term, "a gift" to their children. The casual attitudes toward sex and relationship among these populations (Alvaré describes sex as a phenomenon that "just happens," and a child as the expected outcome of a steady dating relationship) are balanced by the great seriousness with which motherhood is viewed.  She writes:

I propose that this phenomenon is a function not only of a declining cultural antipathy for nonmarital sex, and not only of the trend to think of the sexual choices of single women from "public health" and "privacy" perspectives. It is also very likely a function of the tremendous value many single women attach not only to their baby, but also to the sense of accomplishment, even courage, that they derive from making the decision to give birth to their baby, in admittedly difficult situations, and from taking care of the baby, largely by their own strenuous efforts.  This decision can garner a certain amount of praise in their community: they have accepted the consequences of their choices, and have put the baby before material things. . . . the morality of nonmarital sexual intimacy is completely overshadowed by the narrative of freely accepted sacrifices made on behalf of the child.

Although it caused us stress and annoyance, there was no question in my mind or my husband's that we should take in A. and her family this weekend, and serve them in whatever way was required.  It's untangling the knot of seeming requirements that gives me pause. While it's impossible for me to lionize A. -- to me she seems shockingly passive, frustratingly unambitious, and almost frighteningly naïve for a girl from the New York ghetto -- and while I can only shake my head at her and her babyfather's eagerness to allow strangers and the state to care for their children -- I believe that I may need to shift my thinking about A.'s decision-making capability. For, while it would appear to me that she has made some really bad choices, to her and to her presumed community she has made powerfully positive ones, having been willing to sacrifice essentially everything she had to give life to her children.


maria horvath said...

Something puzzles about these mothers. Is their seeming passivity a form of despair, or even depression, or is it part of a legacy transmitted from one generation to the next, that is, is this how they were raised themselves?

It all makes me sad, especially for the children.


Pentimento said...

I think depression is part of it. Also I know that A. -- along, I'm sure, with many, many others -- was a victim of domestic violence in her childhood home.

ex-new yorker said...

So I guess giving life to them within a family founded on marriage just seems unrealistic, out of reach? (Or has it been that way so long that it just doesn't even occur to some of these girls/women as even the ideal?)

Pentimento said...

Yes to the first question, Ex-New Yorker. I wrote about a book, Promises I Can Keep, in the post linked to in this one, which concludes that marriage before childbearing is viewed as impractical by disadvantaged women for a variety of reasons. The book is quite interesting; you might like it.

ex-new yorker said...

Oh, yes, I've heard of that book and probably read the linked post before. Since I'm working this year on routines and having increased productive time balanced with some truly enjoyed down time -- well, I don't know if "enjoying" is the right word for this kind of reading, but perhaps I will be able actually to do some concentrated reading on subjects of continued interest and potential practical application through future work or charitable endeavors.

ex-new yorker said...

In some small way, also, I might be able to understand the thinking, because I know the value I place on giving life to kids in the first place is much higher than what seems to go along with the more common modern American view of appropriate circumstances and motivation for childbearing. The view of sexual morality as well as the non-negotiables to be in place for the potential child and for already-existing siblings before being open to conceiving another obviously differs a lot, though.