It is a beautiful thing to birth a baby and nurture a child through life. Motherhood, which is arguably the pinnacle of the experience of being a woman – whether through birth, adoption or spiritual motherhood – is highly underrated in the mainstream. We know that women are essential to life giving love, and with the example of Our Lady, women walk this journey in dignity and strength.
But women who come through adverse circumstances are almost a truer testimony to the strength of character and the resolve that it takes to be a mother. Add a global pandemic, and you’ve got a myriad more problems to work through.
Michelle Haywood is the program manager at Elizabeth House. Listening to her speak of what she has witnessed at one of Calgary’s a homes for pregnant women at risk, was balm for the soul as she told success stories of the women who resided there in the past 2 years.
“They are coming to us in crisis, and they’re leaving with sometimes a whole lot more confidence and resourcing than they came in with. They have to decide – its that choice that they made to do it and they’ve got to work hard to make this happen. I’m seeing dogged ethic and determination in every woman in her own way.”
I often imagine Our Lady in her own adverse circumstances, and am thankful for the relative ease with which I’ve raised my children by comparison. But Our Lady has special meaning for Michelle and Elizabeth House:
In its original location in an historic building in the heart of the city, Elizabeth House, founded by the Sisters of Charity of St. Louis, had a grotto with a statue of Our Lady. Unfortunately, the grotto did not make the move when Elizabeth House moved to a more suitable location. The statue, as Michelle put it, “followed us without a dedicated home.”
The Knights of Columbus at St. Peter’s parish who have been instrumental in creating a homey atmosphere in the front and backyards at the house with landscaping and upkeep, arranged to have a new grotto built for the original statue, which has also been repainted.
"We asked the St Peter's Knights of Columbus to rebuild the grotto and they came through as always. They even found the gentleman who was the original brick layer to build the new one!" Michelle said.
A dedication ceremony will take place with Bishop McGrattan at the beginning of June.
“I believe that all the women that come through are under her mantle and enfolded in Mary’s robes. I constantly think of that as being part of the leadership that we are all in her presence always, and it helps us get through some really difficult moments.”
Difficulty doesn’t even begin to describe what it must be like to be newly pregnant and unsupported by family, friends or community and without a place to go;
“Some of the research has shown that one of the most substantial reasons that women choose abortion is that they believe that they can not provide the optimal conditions for motherhood,” Michelle said, adding that housing is also a major contributor,
“If you have no idea where you’re going to sleep or you can’t guarantee in your mind that you can keep this baby safe from harm, that’s what might lead a woman to that decision. They want to feel like they can be the best mother possible.”
The proof that Elizabeth House moms can and do achieve the best motherhood possible is in their stories. Michelle emphasised the determination and hard work that many women have shown her over her 15 years there, especially the last two years in the midst of global pandemic,
The public health restrictions had a myriad of consequences for Elizabeth House. Some of the regularly accessed programming was closed, outside visitors were not allowed at times, and isolation for symptoms had to happen in the four walls of a small bedroom.
“We saw more acute mental health needs and crises,” Michelle said, adding that being in a staff position was very difficult, because inevitably acting on the public health measures made them feel they may be doing harm.
Despite the hardships faced, there were also silver linings.
“We had only one isolated case of COVID-19 in a place where people are coming and going, and that speaks to how well we cared for one another,” Michelle said.
Strength and resilience of the community showed through as well when amidst the fear and the struggle, victories were won.
“We were seeing women just circling the house – nowhere to go. Schools were closed. We have from time to time women who are in post-secondary education. Now they were online with a baby, and guess what? They did it. They absolutely did it.
“We had one woman finish her post-secondary degree at home with a brand new baby during COVID. This is what can happen. This is what I’m speaking to, just the resilience, the strength, the courage, the sheer determination of the women here. This isn’t about the program; this is about them. We are simply giving them the space to shine.”
Another woman was able to purchase her first home during the pandemic, which is a first for the program.
“We’ve never had a woman move into that situation before, but she worked so hard to get everything in place for her next steps.”
Michelle and the staff at Elizabeth House have been grateful for the financial and physical support that continued despite the pandemic.
“It slowed down understandably but it never ended. We were overwhelmed both Christmases with donations and still getting people who want to volunteer as soon as restrictions are lifted. In those incredibly dark moments, the support and care never ended and that really mattered.”
After only a few minutes of talking to Michelle, I noticed and admired how she spoke about the women Elizabeth House serves. She spoke with admiration and respect, and emphasised the dignity of each woman, saying that it is their hard work that makes the difference for them, and that Elizabeth House, just like a midwife to a birthing mother, holds up a mirror to them saying “You’re doing it. You’ve got this.”
“They’re powerful – they just don’t know it yet – and we are helping them to see that and to practice it so that they can move forward.”
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers