This December 9th is the due date of a woman I will probably never meet. She lives (“lives”!? — “exists”) in a tarpaulin-tent in some woods behind a convenience store, in a Maryland town a few miles north of where I sit right now. Few of our clients are expectant women, but it’s not unheard of.
Our homelessness-outreach team has been working with this woman for months, trying to get her to seek safety for herself, for her baby. When I heard about her last August, I — Suburban Mother of Carefully Tended Children — rather blithely assumed that she would find some place to land, to have her baby. I don’t celebrate Christmas but I kind of believe in the Christmas Story, you know? No room in the inn, okay, but surely there is a warm manger nearby?
A recent conversation with Sue, Bethesda Cares’ Executive Director, brought me up short.
Sue was walking up and down the halls of our offices, making sure no staffer had information more current than hers. “Best places for someone with no money having a baby? Anyone? Anything new I don’t know about?” She was waiting to text any stone discovered unturned to our outreach team, who was out in the field, literally, in contact with the woman.
“Can’t she go to a shelter?” I asked, still the rookie. I hit my keyboard, typing frantically, searching for answers, emailing friends for ideas. I barely looked up as I kicked into high gear, ready to find a safe path for this mother-to-be. “Why isn’t she in a shelter? Shouldn’t she be in a shelter?”
Sue said, “Nope. She went to women’s shelter a while ago, hated it; too crowded, too desperate. She didn’t feel safe. Won’t go back. I’m looking for a bed for her at X House,” she said, naming a more home-like emergency shelter, “but I have to convince them that imminent child birth constitutes an emergency.”
In my job, I interact with a lot of people in unreasonable amounts of pain and despair every single workday, and let me tell you, I bear that pain because what I bear in listening is not even in the galaxy of bearing what they are experiencing. But this particular conversation brought out the mama bear in me, so as our work day moved on, I kept pestering Sue with approaches, ideas and what I hoped were innovative suggestions for this woman, until Sue finally sat me down for a chat.
“Amy,” Sue said. “We will do whatever we can to keep her and that baby safe, we are doing all that we can,” she said, and then paused. “Look. You have to realize something, and I know that this is hard to hear,” she hesitated, searching for words, maybe in response to my frozen expression, maybe in anticipation of what she was about to say: “But the fact is that pregnancy is not always a warm, fuzzy experience, with a soft yellow blanket at the end of it. This woman we’re trying to help today. This pregnant woman, she drinks, she smokes, she does who-knows-what. She just does not think about having a ‘baby.’ For her, pregnancy is basically a temporary medical condition to endure, and to somehow deal with. Birth, baby, done. The way she is living, she does not think in terms of the future. She just can’t. She struggles to get through each day. And each day, right now, includes a swelling belly. That’s really all she can face.”
“But what about the baby? What happens to the baby?” I asked, my voice rising. “Is she going to raise the baby in the woods? She can’t raise a baby living under a tarp. Do you know what the temperature is today? Can’t, like, the police do something?”
“Like, arrest her for being homeless and pregnant?” Sue gave me a very small smile and let a silence settle between us before she spoke again. “We’re doing everything we can to bring her into a safe space. She said she’s planning to give the child up for adoption. We’re trying to steer her there.”
Sue waited as I sat there, stricken, processing.
As I type this post, three days later, I’m still working on it.