Family support service deals with crisis pregnancy, homelessness and even abortion counselling for men

From crisis pregnancy to homelessness, to men seeking abortion counselling — family support service Anew has evolved to serve a much more diverse client profile than it did when its doors first opened 30 years ago, writes Catherine Shanahan

Abortion counselling isn’t something we automatically associate with men, but such is the changing face of crisis pregnancy services.

In fact, it’s not just the clients who have diversified: the services have too in the case of Anew, formally known as Life Pregnancy Care, where homelessness can be as problematic as the pregnancy itself for many women.

Deirdre Shanahan, a psychotherapist with Anew since 2008, says the client profile has changed substantially in the 30 years since they first opened their doors, when most of the women crossing the threshold were single, ashamed, and fearful of societal condemnation and family rejection.

“The first type of user would probably have been a single woman who was or wasn’t in a relationship, who just couldn’t go home and tell anyone she was pregnant,” says Deirdre. “There was the shame but also the fear that they wouldn’t be accepted, that there wouldn’t be an acceptance in the family that this had happened.

“What would often happen is the girl would go on to get married. If she was single she would go into a marriage that she possibly didn’t want to go into, but it made the pregnancy acceptable because there wasn’t a baby born out of wedlock.”

Things have moved on, Deirdre says, from changing moral beliefs to the reduced impact of church on society to the changed status of women.

“I think the key thing is that women have gained more of a voice in society, they know they can make choices around their own life and are free to make those choices and they make them every single day,” she says.

WHAT WILL MY MOTHER SAY?

Lynn Casey, 21, from Greenmount, Cork City, made the choice to keep the baby she conceived at age 15. Anew was instrumental in helping her cope with the shock of discovering she was pregnant.

“I was 15, nearly 16. I came into Anew with my boyfriend and we did a pregnancy test. It was positive. I was gobsmacked, I couldn’t talk. My boyfriend nearly fainted.

“Deirdre [Shanahan] was really calming, very understanding, completely neutral. She talked me through all my options and how to tell my parents.

I was actually so terrified I couldn’t get the words out. But Anew had given me a sheet of paper with the pregnancy test result and advice about who to contact so I literally threw that at my mother and ran. It was probably not the best way to break the news.”

Anew had advised Lynn to pay a return visit and when she did she told them how upset her mother was. They suggested she come in too.

“We were able to go in together and they were able to talk to her as well about what she felt which was really helpful because obviously everyone was asking about me,” says Lynn. “But it’s something that affects the whole family, and they realised that and they reached out to my family too.”

Lynn continued to avail of counselling sessions and also attended prenatal classes. Anew contracts a midwife who covers exactly the same modules as given at Cork University Maternity Hospital (CUMH).

In fact, the prenatal classes ares open to anyone and Anew get a lot of referrals from CUMH.

Cynthia Roche, project worker with Anew, is passionate about the birth preparation course, which grows in popularity every year.

“Last year we offered the programme to about 305 women. They came from all over,” says Cynthia. “We identified a couple of years ago that there was a huge hub around Carrigtwohill and Cobh and we went out to Carrigtwohill and did outreach there from the local family resource centre because we knew there was a community of people who needed the programme.”

Cynthia runs a parenting group in Carrigtwohill.

“If you’re experiencing a crisis because you are pregnant, it doesn’t automatically leave when you have the baby, so the parenting programme is a nice progression,” she says.

Lynn was delighted to avail of the prenatal classes. The upshot of her pregnancy, supported throughout by her then boyfriend, was a bouncing baby boy, Alex, now aged five. Although Lynn and Alex’s father did not stay together, they remain firm friends and he is actively involved in his son’s life.

Lynn, who had Alex in 5th year, returned to school in 6th year to do her Leaving Certificate, achieving a commendable 440 points. She started out doing earth science in UCC but is switching this year to social science because she wants to do “something more meaningful”.

Lynn has a message for other young girls who today find themselves in the situation she was in five years ago: “Go use the support services that are available. There is no reason you have to do it alone.

“My head was a mess but they help you get through it, to make sensible choices instead of absolutely getting caught up in your thoughts.”

MANAGING EMOTIONS

Chloe Ryan Donnellan, 15, is the same age Lynn was when she first made contact with Anew.

From Silvermines, Co Tipperary, she was just 14 when she discovered she was pregnant in February 2015.

“I came back to school after my Christmas holidays and I passed out just before going into class,” she says. “My teacher found me on the floor and brought me in but I passed again. She asked me loads of questions including could I be pregnant, but I had taken a pregnancy test the week before and it came back negative.”

Chloe’s teacher rang her mother, who collected her from school and brought her to the doctor. A second pregnancy test was negative. A couple of weeks later, her mother brought her to the GP to start Chloe on the pill to address irregular periods Her mother asked for another pregnancy test and this time the result was positive.

“So I just put my head down and starting bawling crying and I just started saying ‘Sorry, sorry mammy’,” says Chloe. “I didn’t know what to do. It turns out I was nine weeks and three days pregnant.”

While Chloe did not enjoy an easy pregnancy with several health scares along the way, she says she had fantastic emotional support from her counsellor in Anew.

Chloe and her mother had previously met Maureen Ryan as participants in a Strengthening Families interagency programme for which Maureen acted as facilitator.

“My mum rang Maureen, stressing out, we didn’t know what to do,” says Chloe. “And she was there for us from that moment.”

In fact, if it wasn’t for Maureen, Chloe says she wouldn’t have got through the pregnancy.

“I wouldn’t be here today, that’s for sure,” she says. “I wouldn’t have been able to get through it by myself. I did have great support from family and friends, don’t get me wrong, but it was hard for them, they didn’t know what to say to me. Maureen somehow knew the right thing to say the whole time.”

At one stage, Maureen, who is based at Anew’s premises in Thurles but operates an outreach service in Nenagh and Roscrea, arranged for Chloe’s mum and dad to meet with her too.

“There was a very open discussion,” Maureen says. “It was really to help people manage emotions, to try and keep everybody calm. At the end of the day Chloe was the one that needed their love and support. It’s a time when unconditional love is especially needed.”

Chloe, who is not with the father of her child, says she and eight-month-old Logan are doing very well now and that he has slotted nicely into the family.

“Mam and me have a fantastic relationship,” says Chloe. “Dad is in awe of Logan, he loves him to bits, but he’s still scared that because I am such a young mam that I won’t be able to do anything with my life. But my parents are a great support.”

Maureen says Chloe is the youngest crisis pregnancy she has encountered, that the group most represented is aged 18-24. Her function is to help them cope, offering support, but at the same time encouraging them to be independent, acting as “a scaffolding on which they build their own lives”.

Deirdre says their younger clients tend to be the most traumatised.

“A lot of the time they come in here and we do a pregnancy test and it shows up positive and you can just see the look of horror,” she says. “They say to me: ‘My mum will say “how could you be so stupid?”.’ They assume the reaction their parents are going to have and they could be so wrong. But at that point that’s all they can see.”

TURNING TRADITION ON ITS HEAD

Eimear Donohue, 27, was one of the more straightforward cases to arrive at the doors of Anew. Her pregnancy was “not a crisis” but “very unexpected”, she says.

She and boyfriend Kris Ertz had planned to marry at some point but the pregnancy flipped the more traditional path to a wedding on its head.

“Instead of engagement, marriage, children, we had the child first,” she says. She was one day short of 16 weeks when she found out she was pregnant and accessing a timely prenatal class at CUMH was difficult. She availed of Anew’s free service instead.

Eimear Donohoe’s pregnancy certainly wasn’t a ‘crisis’ but it was unexpected, and Eimear no longer has her own mum to offer support and

advice. Eimear found Anew’s prenatal classes invaluable, and the result is her delightful one-year-old, Eloise. Picture: Eddie O’Hare

“I live in Wilton but my family is in Longford and my mum died a couple of years ago so I really didn’t know what I was doing,” she says.

“Bindu, the midwife who runs the prenatal classes for Anew was amazing. She gave me the confidence to speak up in the labour ward when I had questions to ask.”

The upshot of Eimear’s pregnancy was the delightful Eloise, now one year old. Eimear and Kris plan to marry next September.

THE NEW HOMELESS

My conversations with clients of Anew give a good insight into just how much the work of the agency has evolved beyond its traditional image of crisis pregnancy and post abortion counselling.

Marcia Morais, 25, is an example of the increasing number of homeless women coming in contact with Anew’s family support services.

Living in Carrigtwohill, Co Cork, the mother of two came into contact with Cynthia while using the local family resource centre.

Marcia and her family are facing homelessness because the house she is renting is up for sale and, with rent allowance, she is finding it impossible to get alternative accommodation.

The stress Marcia is under is evident. She tells me her partner suffers from depression and she suffered from undiagnosed post-natal depression after her first baby, subsequently diagnosed following the birth of her second child. Her eldest, 4, needs ongoing speech and language therapy. Recently his behaviour has regressed.

Cynthia Roche, project worker at Anew, with Marcia Morais, who is facing evection from her home in

Carrigtwohill, Co Cork. Picture: Dan Linehan

Marcia is on antidepressants. Through tears, she tells me she has contemplated taking her own life. She has been on a social housing list for at least five years. She was never in arrears in her current accommodation but the most she can afford to pay in rent is €725 a month and no-one is interested in rent allowance. Cynthia has put her in contact with housing agency Threshold and they are trying to help.

Couch-surfing and sharing floorspace is the 2016 version of homelessness, according to Anew. Deirdre says they have clients who may be in a hostel or living with kids in a B&B or sleeping in friends’ houses.

Anew CEO Mary McCarthy says they have provided accommodation for homeless pregnant women in Dublin from the get-go — they have a house on Pearse St — but that they would like to expand that service by adding 10 to 15 beds, as well as providing accommodation to homeless pregnant women in Cork.

They are in talks with Dublin City Council, and are hoping to open talks with the relevant bodies in Cork, including housing minister Simon Coveney.

“A lot of the women we deal with don’t show up in the homeless statistics because they are couch-surfing and they are not counted as such,” Mary says.

The biggest problem, she says, is trying to secure new units, but there are a lot of processes to go through.

MEN SEEK ABORTION COUNSELLING

People going for abortion counselling also have processes to go through. When Deirdre mentions that men have started to come, it really is a sign of the times. She says some experience a sense of helplessness, particularly where termination is chosen and the woman is badly affected afterwards.

“And sometimes he thinks: ‘God, we were pregnant, there could been a child eventually out of this.’ And he may become overwhelmed and experience all the same emotions that a woman does. So you can have a guy who is tearful, who is not sleeping well, who’s not quite himself.

“And they do come for support and sometimes they come in and they think: ‘Oh maybe I shouldn’t be here. Maybe this is just for women,’ because there is that perception that it is a woman’s issue. And of course it is, without a doubt.

“But there is still a man in the background, the shadow side to it, and some men are affected by it.”

Sean (not his real name) is one such man. He contacted Anew a couple of months after travelling with his then girlfriend to the UK for a termination.

“I had been going out with her for the best part of a year when she got pregnant,” he says. “We were both quite young [in their twenties] and the decision to have a determination was made very quickly. The decision was mutual and we travelled to the UK together. Afterwards, we both felt fine.”

However the relationship broke down shortly afterwards.

“I took the termination a bit better than her but the thing that affected me was seeing how badly it affected her,” he says.

Sean found himself struggling. For a while, he isolated himself from family and friends.

“My parents knew something was up,” he says. “After a couple of months I broke down and told them.”

Anxious to help, Sean’s mum did a bit of research and he eventually found himself at Anew.

“Anew was definitely the best fit for me,” he says. “Deirdre was the one person I could open up to. She was very open and caring and would do anything to help.”

His advice to other men who find themselves in a similar situation is not to be ashamed to seek help.

“Bite the bullet. There is no point in leaving it off, it’s only going to get worse.”

WHAT MAKES PREGNANCY A CRISIS

Deidre is one of 13 staff at Anew. All its counsellors and psychotherapists are accredited. They see people from all social backgrounds across the reproductive years.

“So a woman in her 40s could have a crisis pregnancy just as well as a 17-year-old, a woman who thought her family was reared but who finds herself now with unexpected pregnancy,” says Deirdre.

“And lots of things can feed into that. It’s not necessarily the pregnancy itself that’s the crisis. With the recession, people have lost their homes, their jobs.

“People who traditionally had two incomes now have none, other than welfare. And to incorporate another child into the family is now beyond them.”

Deirdre Shanahan, counsellor and physiotherapist, with Mary McCarthy, CEO of Anew. Picture: Dan Linehan

Or the woman’s partner can turn the pregnancy into a crisis.

“He doesn’t take the news well, he doesn’t want any more children. So while on one hand for her it was good news — until she shared it, and it was no longer good news.

“For others it could be the timing — women who had planned their life path for the next 10 years and never factored being a parent into that.”

Anew counselling is non-directive. “We don’t actually advise them to do anything,” Deirdre says.

“What we allow for is the autonomy of the client, for the client to make their own decision. So it’s in the listening, it’s in the processing and over the weeks the woman will come to the decision that she feels is the best decision for her for the rest of her life and that decision will be as individual as the woman herself.”

For more information on Anew, visit www.anew.ie, or call 1800-281281 free.

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