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A hand up for unexpected mothers-to-be
Pregnant women who choose to give birth find help working through life issues at Lifehouse Maternity Home
By Katya Cengel
Editor's note: The women interviewed agreed to speak only if their full names weren't used.
She isn't a teenager. She isn't even in her 20s; she's 32.
When she discovered she was pregnant last fall, she already had two older children. She said she made at least 10 appointments to get an abortion -- and canceled them all.
She was pretty sure she wanted to keep the baby, but she felt that the pregnancy was doomed.
She was a single mother struggling financially. She didn't have family in town. She said when she called a crisis pregnancy hot line, she was told about a homeless shelter and another place where she could stay, but she wouldn't be able to keep her job as a nurse.
She heard about Lifehouse Maternity Home, and when she was 6½ months pregnant, Marie S. moved into the two-story home off Brownsboro Road in Louisville.
She now shares one of the two upstairs apartments with her 3½-month-old daughter, the first "Lifehouse" child.
Having paid off her debts with the help of a financial counselor, she is now looking for a place of her own with the help of real-estate agents. Once she has a place to stay, Marie said, her attorneys believe she will be granted custody of her two older children, whom she said she lost because of her financial struggles and lack of foundation.
The counselors, real-estate agents and attorneys are all professionals who volunteer to serve the women at Lifehouse.
Marie is one of 13 women and girls who have entered Lifehouse since it opened its doors in March.
It is like the homes for unwed mothers of old -- except it is different. Most of the women aren't there to hide. They are there to explore motherhood and to decide if it is something they want now or whether they would rather let someone else raise their baby.
Abortion isn't an option at Lifehouse Maternity Home. Women and girls who go there already have made the choice to see their pregnancy through; they need help with the next step. That's where Lifehouse comes in, explained Joan Smith, director and founder of the program.
"A modern-day maternity home, that's all we are," she said.
Girls who 'went away'
They were where pregnant girls would go when they "went away."
Most major cities had them. At their peak in the 1950s and '60s, experts estimate there were about 200 of them in the nation -- homes for unwed mothers.
Except most who went to them left the way they arrived, as women and girls but not as mothers, Ann Fessler explained in her book, "The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade."
During the period she studied, Fessler said in a phone interview, about 80 percent of the women who "went away" surrendered their babies. They didn't have much choice, she said; society, their families and the homes themselves pressured the mothers into giving up their children for adoption.
But in the late '60s and early '70s, a variety of changes, including the women's movement, the availability of the birth control pill and the legalization of abortion, meant fewer women and girls were going to the homes -- and most either shut down or changed their direction, said Fessler.
She does not sugarcoat or hide her position. She opposes abortion.
But she is also realistic: "In order to protect this life, we have to offer services to the mother," she said, and when the homes closed, so did the biggest service providers.
Smith, who is in her mid-60s and remembers the maternity homes of old, said she wasn't a fan of them. She didn't like the fact that the women rarely ended up keeping their babies. Still, abortion bothered her more, and she founded St. Elizabeth Regional Maternity Center in New Albany, Ind., in 1989 as a branch of St. Elizabeth in Indianapolis.
It was a place where pregnant women and girls could stay and receive guidance, counseling and other services. Smith had worked as a labor and delivery room nurse. She had miscarried, struggled with infertility and almost adopted on two occasions.
She liked babies and knew she could find homes for them, but at St. Elizabeth, now St. Elizabeth-Catholic Charities, a Catholic Charities agency of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, she felt conflicted, she said, because the home was a licensed child placing agency, and the board would put money in the budget for adoptions.
"How could I be working with a girl and -- not meaning to, but maybe lean her in one direction toward adoption -- because here's the board on my case because we're not meeting our budget," she says.
Mark Casper, director of St. Elizabeth, said he could not speak as to what Smith felt, but that "the board is far removed from day-to-day operations."
Smith eventually left St. Elizabeth and started another organization devoted to parenting, Noah's Ark Children's Village in Jeffersonville, Ind., before making her way back to maternity homes with Lifehouse.
This time she made sure it was not a licensed child-placement agency and that no fee is charged for adoption, she said. The home's $350,000 annual budget comes from foundations, individuals and businesses, she said. The main expense is house mothers who are on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week to make sure residents have everything they need and adhere to the rules.
Residents must work or attend school, and attend church, counseling and all of the home's activities. They aren't permitted to smoke, drink, use drugs or date, must dress modestly and must ask permission before leaving the property. Ten percent of their earnings go toward the home, 10 percent to charity, 50 percent to their savings and the remaining 30 percent to debts if they have them or to their pocket if they don't.
"We have them for a very short period of time," said Smith. "If they come in when they're three or four months pregnant, we've got five to six months at most to work through all these issues, which are monumental."
Women who stayed
Women and girls call the home all the time.
Only about one in 10 agrees to live by the rules and enters, said Smith.
Of the 13 who have come, one has completed the program, one completed her own goal (but not the program), six didn't make it, and five are still at the home.
Melissa R. is one of those.
She is 22, forthright and four months pregnant. Melissa was leaning toward adoption because she felt it was what was best for her baby, but she wasn't sure it was what was best for her.
"The scariest thing about it was worrying my child would hate me for what I'd done," she said.
After meeting with an adoptive parent and a grown adoptee at Lifehouse, Melissa said she is feeling better about her decision. She is also feeling better about her life in general.
Back home, she said, she was working, going to college and raising her son, but she was never able to see beyond the present. Lifehouse, she said, has enabled her to think about more than just paying the bills.
"It's actually allowed me to be able to focus on what I wanted to do instead of what I have to do."
It is a rare gift, said Laura Slavich, director of the Market Street A Woman's Choice Resource Center, a pregnancy center that on its Web site counsels about the risks of abortion.
"We have needed a maternity home like Lifehouse for a long time, and we need more of them," said Slavich.
Lifehouse can house six women at a time, four single women downstairs and two women with children or babies upstairs. While no official organization seems to track maternity homes locally, there are St. Elizabeth in New Albany and several other organizations that provide housing for women in need but which, for the most part, are not solely maternity homes.
Melanie Phillips, with Kentucky Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which aims to ensure reproductive choices through education and advocacy, agreed that if the woman makes the choice to have the baby, and the organization is there for her, it can be beneficial.
While some crisis-pregnancy centers are one-sided and do not help women explore all their options, said Phillips, there are benefits to establishments like Lifehouse that are actually "providing them with a place to live, providing them with resources" and, she said, "supporting their choice to keep their babies."
Marie still attends weekly counseling sessions at Lifehouse with her baby's father.
It is just one of the ways the organization has helped her turn what she originally thought was a doomed pregnancy into what she now calls a celebration of life.
"I just felt like I have a foundation now, whereas before I was just really floating around," she says.
Reporter Katya Cengel can be reached at (502) 582-4224.