One cold November Tuesday evening, I was walking home from my favorite class of the semester and talking to my parents on the phone like I did every week. My period was late, and I was deciding whether to make a brief detour to CVS to pick up a pregnancy test. “I am probably just being paranoid,” I thought.
I bought the test, and when I got home, I took it straight into the bathroom. Five minutes later, I was staring at the word “pregnant” looking back at me.
There are many stories that start like this, but they all have different endings. Though this pregnancy was a surprise and was occurring in the middle of a pandemic, I had a loving spouse, financial security, and a due date that was two months after I was already scheduled to finish graduate school. Yet, even in my situation, the reality that there was a small human growing inside of me required some radical shifts in perspective and practice.
There were the necessary dietary changes: no alcohol, limited caffeine, no soft cheeses, no lunch meat. Then there were the bodily changes that I didn’t have much control over: exhaustion, daily morning sickness, rib pain, and a growing belly. My husband and I accelerated the date of our move out of Boston, and my post-graduation plans changed from starting a new job to learning how to care for an infant.
For many women facing unexpected pregnancies, the circumstances that surround them are much more difficult.
In a recent story I reported on for FemCatholic titled, “Are Catholic Colleges Designed for Women? FemCatholic Investigates,” my co-author Renée Roden and I — with the help of our team of reporters — spoke with nearly a dozen women who had become pregnant while undergraduate students on college campuses, as well as administrators from 29 Catholic colleges across the country. We were seeking to find out whether Catholic colleges are designed to be hospitable to pregnant and parenting students.
In our reporting, one school stood out for its design that was inclusive of mothers. The College of St. Mary, an all-women college in Nebraska, has a “Mothers Living and Learning” program that offers housing, parenting classes, community support, childcare, transportation to school, and access to legal aid and state benefits for mothers with children up to the age of 12. It began 20 years ago when a student approached the president of the school, Mercy Sister Maryanne Stevens, to tell her that she was going to have to drop out of school because she was pregnant and wouldn't be able to return to the residence hall the next year.
Sister Steven’s response, as remembered by Larissa Buster, the school’s current Director of Residence Life, was, “No, you’re not going to do that, we’re going to find space for you.”
Sister Stevens didn’t just “find” space; she made space — both for this student and for the many other women who would go on to be a part of this program (at present, about 10 students living in Madonna Hall on campus, and approximately 150 students living off campus).
This, I think, is the core of hospitality — making space for others.
Women do this in a distinct way during pregnancy. We literally make space for a new life inside of us, with our organs shifting and compressing to accommodate a new human. As we do so, our bodies become an outward sign of an inward reality — a disposition of hospitality that continues for the entirety of our parenting journey.
We make space in our sleep schedules for countless 2 a.m. feedings; we make space in our vacation plans for diaper changes and nap schedules; we make space in our cabinets for stuffed animals and wooden blocks; and we make space in our work days for the occasional call from school that tells us our children need to be picked up.
The experiences of each of the women we spoke to for our story varied. But all of the women encountered obstacles on their path to motherhood — isolation, shame, racism, financial difficulty, and familial conflict among them. And over and over again in our reporting, we saw how when these women sought help, the people they spoke with had two choices: make space for the woman and her baby, or shut their doors.
When one woman I spoke to told her family about her sexual assault and resulting pregnancy, they did not believe she had been assaulted and shamed her for being sexually active. Not feeling welcome in her own home, and not wanting to bring a baby to her off-campus college housing, she ended up staying with several family friends before settling with one person who set up a bedroom for her and a bedroom for her son. When she went to class, one professor encouraged her to bring her son with her, and many friends volunteered their time to babysit while she attended her other classes.
Another woman, Marcia Lane-McGee, disclosed her pregnancy during a meeting with the treasurer of her school, who was a Benedictine priest. She was met with a refusal to correct a $10,000 paperwork error or to work with her to settle the $6,000 debt she actually owed the school. As a result, she was kicked out of college housing and was homeless for two weeks until she moved in with a friend for the remainder of her pregnancy.
These stories raise important questions about what happens when we — as individuals, as a Church, and as a society — fail to make space for pregnant women. As with many things, it is the women who are already on the margins who suffer the most from our lack of hospitality: women of color, women stuck in abusive relationships, or women already working three jobs to get by.
The question we asked in our reporting was specific to Catholic colleges — how are they, as a part of a Church that believes in both the sacredness of life and the dignity of women, organizing themselves to make space for pregnant women?
But the need for reflection doesn’t stop at the college setting.
Are the organizations we are a part of truly making space for women’s bodies? (I remember the student parish in my college town lacked trash receptacles in the stalls of the women’s bathroom, which the women in my Bible study frequently cited as proof that it was built and managed by men).
Are there mothers in our lives — perhaps our own, or perhaps the new mom down the street — who we can make space for in our schedules by offering a meal or a night of babysitting?
What other role can we play in building a society that makes space for the women who make space within themselves for new life?