Recently, a woman told me about her adult daughter’s ordeal when she found herself unmarried and pregnant at the age of 21. The young woman wanted to keep the baby but the father had split; she was scared and she didn’t know where to turn. The mother was supportive, but in the end that wasn’t the factor that led to her daughter’s decision to keep and raise the child.
What made the biggest difference? This young woman had reconnected with an old boyfriend. He said the words her heart was longing to hear: “I will be there for you.” They moved in together (and later got married), and when the baby was born, he stepped in as the child’s father figure. Which was just as important for the heart of the mom as for the child.
For several years I’ve been looking at the research on how to help a very vulnerable community that is often overlooked and invisible: women who are unexpectedly pregnant, worried, and unsure about how on earth they could carry and care for a baby. And I want to raise one potential solution that is radically simple, extremely important, and very, very overlooked today: actively involving men.
An important way of helping vulnerable women
You may wonder why I’m spending time on this topic, as it could seem far afield from the usual marriage, family, parenting, thriving-in-life topics that I often tackle.
But it’s not really. From a big-picture, societal perspective, it is vital that we grapple with how to encourage men to step up rather than discouraging them, since male engagement is usually life-changing for any family. And from a more personal perspective . . . I can guarantee that you know more of these vulnerable women than you think you do. They are your friends at church. Or your friends’ daughters. They are your colleagues at the office. Your neighbors. Your family members.
The thing is many of them don’t look vulnerable. Many women facing unplanned pregnancies don’t share their situation except perhaps with the father of the baby and a few close allies—which means they are often navigating a scary life crisis and a big decision under time pressure, feeling somewhat alone. And many of these women do not want an abortion—they want to be able to keep the child or place the baby for adoption with a caring family. Many of these women are married. Yet the strong tide of worry or fear, our culture, financial pressures, and a lack of hope can pull them in a direction they do not want to go. They need a support structure that is super-practical—but also emotional. And strongly involving men accomplishes both.
From both a big-picture perspective and a very personal one, those of us who care about serving these women and these babies need to also be those who cast that vision.
A vision for serving the family
For the last few years, I have been on the Board of Directors of Care Net, a national organization with a network of nearly 1,200 affiliated pregnancy centers. These centers and thousands of others have long offered very practical and emotional support to pregnant women. But in the last decade, many of these pregnancy centers have come to see the importance of supporting not just the woman but the father and the family.
As I’ve looked at the research and spoken with those who work with these often-overlooked, in-need women, I’ve seen just how crucial it has become to bring this solution into the light and make it mainstream: When a woman is facing an unplanned pregnancy, work to involve the man in her life as one of the most important ways of supporting her. Make it standard.
That means, if you’re a friend or family member bringing emotional support or care, reach out and pull the man into the conversation regularly. (“Marissa, can we take you and Paul out to dinner and talk about how we can support you?”) If you’re a pregnancy center leader, actively, deliberately, do what is necessary to welcome and enlist the father of the child and/or the woman’s current romantic partner—as long as it appears that the man is a person of reasonable health and goodwill toward this woman and this baby. Ask him to come to the ultrasound appointment, enroll him as a client of the center, and give him support and encouragement, too!
The results can be powerful—because of both the practical and emotional support that arises from it. The leader who has for years been the Vice President of Center Services and Client Care at Care Net, Cindy Hopkins, put it very well in a recent conversation: “What we see is that both the mother and father need the help of someone who casts vision. Who shows them hope. A way forward. That’s who our centers are. They are vision-casters and hope builders.”
“More interested than we give them credit for”
Here’s the reason this is so crucial: Our culture has pushed men further and further out of the picture when there is an unplanned pregnancy, telling them not only that they can’t have a say, but that they shouldn’t have a say. And yet, Care Net surveys of women find that the single most influential person in her decision about the pregnancy (whether to terminate or not) is usually the father of the child. Which is often something he welcomes, as well. As Lisa Hogan, the Executive Director of one leading pregnancy center in Birmingham, AL, also told me recently, “Men are more interested than we give them credit for.”
It is not politically correct to say so today, but in our research over the years, it is clear that most men have an innate desire (and, I would say, a calling) to provide for and protect their woman and their child. But decades of pushing men away and telling them they have no rights and no say in this situation, has meant asking men to suppress and deny one of the most basic, most beautiful parts of their nature. Essentially, society has asked men to check out. And many men have, unfortunately, taken society up on it.
Now, I should note that the father isn’t always the right person to be the woman’s partner. But he may still have a role to play as a means of emotional and physical support. Not long ago I was talking about this with a man named Steve Longenecker, who has for years coordinated fatherhood programs at pregnancy centers. He pointed out, “When we actually meet with the man directly, either one-on-one or with the woman, we are saying, ‘He’s important in the life of this child. If he’s not important in your life, that’s one thing, but he’s important to the child.’ That says, ‘His voice matters.’ . . . Some men will say ‘I want to keep the child.’ We ask, have you told her? He’ll say, ‘No. It’s whatever she wants.’ Well, in our country it is legal for her to have an abortion, but I want to give you a voice to let her know how you feel about that. You can’t legally change it, but she may want to hear your voice.’ Especially since the Care Net research shows that he is the one she is mostly listening to.”
Giving men a voice is a crucial step in engaging those who might otherwise check out. Because although this will certainly not apply to everyone, I have personally seen that many women are longing for a man to check in. To step up. To be responsible. To be there. To be the one who says the words she is longing to hear: “I will be there for you.” That is what will give so many more women the hope and the vision for how she can get through this scary, confusing, beautiful season of carrying this baby and then either caring for the child or giving him or her up for adoption.
Don’t get me wrong: you as a friend or family member, or you as a pregnancy center staff member or volunteer, can be a huge, huge help. You can and will in many cases make all the difference. But there’s someone else who can make all the difference, too, and right now, he may have checked out or be wavering on the margins. It’s time to enlist men and show them that they are needed. They are wanted. And to please check back in.