Also published at Catholic Lane.
“I told my doctor that I am having issues with anxiety. I’ve had three babies in the last four years and just found I’m pregnant again, and no matter how hard I try, I keep having panic attacks. I feel out of control. I’m ready to admit I need help. I have some past issues I need to face, but I don’t know what to do. My doctor said I could talk to you because you have experience helping pregnant women.” It all finally came out, stuttered, yet punctuated, a first plea for professional help.
“Why do you feel anxious?”
“I want to do everything perfectly, I want to do it right, I’ve made some bad decisions in my past, but I want to do better. Now I get so confused and overwhelmed. When I give up, I feel ashamed, sometimes I harm myself because the emotional pain is so great. I know I need help. I’m pregnant!”
The therapist replied with a knowing grin, “You don’t have to be perfect, you know. Don’t you see? You are beating yourself up trying to be perfect. Slow down. Right now you need to take care of yourself. You have living children and they need their mother. They need their mother to be healthy. Have you thought about abortion? You know, it’s alright to abort this pregnancy so you can take care of yourself right now.”
“What? I’m Catholic, that’s why I came to a Catholic hospital, well, I mean, I’m a recent convert and I’m learning about the teaching of the Church, and this…”
The confused mother stared past the licensed mental health professional out the window of her obstetrician’s office, where she was meeting with this therapist. In this hospital that bears the name of a saint and a crucifix in every room, the mother was more confused than ever. She tried not to let the vortex starting to swirl in her mind show. Abortion? She trusted these people under this roof, but abortion? Catholics are not supposed to have abortions. She could barely speak.
“…this isn’t right.”
“Well,” chuckled the mental health therapist sitting under a Catholic roof, “Catholics don’t really believe that today, that’s an old idea. Women are not expected to tear up their bodies giving birth to baby after baby, and besides, most Catholics have small families. If that’s what Catholics really believed there’d be many, many more large Catholic families, wouldn’t there? Look, I’ve travelled in Europe where there is a large Catholic population, and they all have one or two children. You don’t have to have lots of kids to be a good Catholic. Perhaps you’re just trying to have a lot of children to be a perfect Catholic.”
Later, they got around to the big question.
“Do you ever have thoughts of suicide?”
“Yes, when I feel out of control and I don’t know what else to do. I just want to give up, but I don’t want to give up either. That’s why I want help. I’m scared.”
The conversation continued past the scheduled hour, and the mother insisted she could not have an abortion. The counselor, growing weary, continued to try to engage the pregnant woman, and asked about her family.
“Got any pictures of your family?”
The mother pulled out a recent photograph, with a smile. She’d ordered matching sweaters for the entire family to wear for Christmas portraits, and even though in all the moments before and after the shot the room had been filled with chaos and bickering, she was proud of how united and happy everyone looked in the instant of the photo. It was proof there could be peace amid turmoil.
The counselor, however, didn’t see a mother trying to keep herself and her family together; she saw a mother obsessed with perfection. She saw children who didn’t have a healthy mother, and she uttered the words that invited in the demons.
“Look, if you do not abort this pregnancy, you may not survive, and then those beautiful children in that picture will have no mother at all. Is that what you want?”
The mother heard nothing else…
By the end of the session she was unable to hide the despair that had overcome her. It had taken more strength than she thought she had to admit she needed this kind of help, and now all strength had vanished because a professional had just confirmed her worst fear. She was a bad mother, incapable of taking care of her children. How could it be that she must choose between ending the life of one, or failing all the others?
The counselor took the now shaken and incoherent mother to the emergency room and had her admitted. She stayed by the mother’s side until an ambulance took the “pregnant woman at risk for suicide” off to a psychiatric facility.
That night the terrified pregnant woman lay flat on a hard bed in a room thinking about her unborn child while white-suited professionals marched outside in the hallway, and she talked to her Saviour, The Counselor, asking for answers. She was determined to find the truth because she had not given up hope.
You see, pregnancy can do that to a woman if she lets it. There’s a life inside her, and that life is a spark. She saw with the light of grace and clarity that even professionals — even professionals in Catholic hospitals — sometimes cannot be trusted. In spite of her failings, she knew she loved all her children, and love does not give up.
By the time her husband picked her up from the hospital the next day she had made a private commitment to find real help and to keep trying until she felt the satisfaction and peace she knew the Holy Spirit would affirm in her soul.
Through prayer, grace, patience, and sheer determination, she did find an independent counselor. She accepted medication and therapy, on her own terms. No one was going to label her again. She clung to the Sacraments and whispered the Rosary whenever the demons of doubt and insult threatened. The child was born prematurely but perfectly healthy, a six-pound baby girl to grow up with three older sisters. She named her Lucia — from the light.
It took some time to process all that happened in that therapist’s office, but the mother would finally heal and be able to talk about it with her husband. When she told him the full story, he held up his hand when he could hear no more, left the room, and found the curly-headed, brown-eyed toddler who looked just like him. He wept as he held her tight, thanking God for safeguarding this gift.
Then he became angry, and it was all he could do not to storm into that counselor’s office with his daughter in his arms to show this professional the beautiful child she had counseled a mother to kill. Instead, he contacted his bishop’s office and started a process of setting things right.
It outraged him — a father who would give his life to protect his children — all the more that this could have happened without anyone even consulting him. In a Catholic hospital a mother asking for help was urged to kill a child to save herself, a monumental lie, without even asking the father. How many times each day does this happen in the world, where confused and hurting patients seeking advice in Catholic hospitals and are told lies about Catholic ethics and pushed to do things that only tear people, families, and societies apart?
Women have to speak up if something happens in a doctor’s office that is against Catholic teaching. Priests don’t frequent gynecological offices, after all. If a doctor prescribes contraception, anything else could happen behind closed doors too. Speak up, if not for yourself, then for the woman sitting next to you in the waiting room because you don’t know what she is going through.
The mother? Well, she doesn’t think women should be lied to, and so she decided never to shut up preaching the truth about abortion and talking about the strength that mothers can find if they accept the graces that God offers. She decided she’d learn for herself what the Church teaches, and she’d defend it from the proverbial mountaintops. She decided that if her faith wasn’t everything, it was nothing. She decided that she would accept God’s purpose for her life and live it, accepting the abundance she knew He wanted to give her if she just trusted in the healing power of love.
(And eventually — she started a blog.)