Julie, six months pregnant, cross-stitches a blanket for her child-to-be, but cheerfully pops up for an impromptu tour of her dorm room at the Gladney Center for Adoption in Ft. Worth, Texas. "It's pretty clean," the blonde 26-year-old says with a note of warning. Behind her, the two-story dormitory rises around an open living area dotted with potted shrubs. Near a white baby grand piano, six young women-each in a different stage of pregnancy-watch Tom Hanks in The Green Mile. On a plaque near the door to the kitchen is Gladney's motto: "It's nice to know that when you're not ready to be a mom, someone else is."
About 400 maternity homes across the country help women deal with crisis pregnancies in practical ways-without choosing abortion. Maternity homes traditionally provided housing, medical and prenatal care, financial assistance, education, and career training to women who wanted to be away from embarrassed families and finger-wagging hometowns. Today, some of those still exist, but some women choose small facilities closer to home.
"The pro-life movement has been caricatured with picketing, arguing, and yelling," says Beth Burton, director of operations for the Elizabeth Home, a Grapevine, Texas, maternity home. "The [pro-abortion] side says, 'Fine, but what are you going to do when girls choose life?' Maternity homes are the pro-life answer."
Gladney was Julie's answer to a pregnancy she didn't want to abort and a family she didn't want to embarrass. She dated her boyfriend for a year before "it" happened. "I bought a real expensive pregnancy test and a real cheap one. They were both positive. My parents were like, 'What are you going to do?'" She swings back the door to the room where she's lived for three months, swiping up a few stray clothes from the floor. Tacked above a twin bed: sonogram pictures of her unborn baby. "My father is very active in the community. We all decided that I needed to come down here to keep it confidential." No one in her hometown knows Julie's pregnant.
"It's different living with 30 pregnant women with raging hormones," she laughs. "But we're all going through the same thing."
Today the average stay in a maternity home is four to six months, and the average age of residents is 16. Girls come from all backgrounds and ethnicity. Many flee abuse, drugs, and poverty. Others just want to save face. Maternity homes sprouted during the 1800s to shelter "wayward" women whose families wanted a hush-hush solution to a risqu* problem. Few mothers chose single-parenting in a society critical of questionable pregnancies. So girls disappeared into large, out-of-state homes where babies were quietly adopted. But in the wake of the sexual revolution and the Roe vs. Wade decision of 1973, abortion offered a quick answer. Single parenthood also became another well-accepted option.
The 113-year-old Gladney Center has assisted more than 36,000 women in crisis pregnancy with counseling and referral services. The nonprofit also has placed more than 26,000 children into adoptive homes. Women who move into Gladney are assigned a caseworker, and each receives free prenatal care and delivery, as well as counseling and education. Residents may arrive anytime during their pregnancies, and can stay up to six weeks after delivery, 12 if they have a caesarean delivery. But all these services aren't cheap. With an annual budget of $5.7 million, Gladney spends about $32,000 per resident. Adoption fees offset costs, but Gladney still loses about $10,000 on every resident, money the center replaces through foundation grants and private support.
Most smaller maternity homes spend about $100,000 annually, largely from private contributions. Few, especially if they are faith-based, accept government funding. Anne Pierson, director of Loving and Caring, a national evangelical organization that has launched more than 100 small maternity homes, said government funding "has been a problem in the past because of the evangelistic thrust" of many homes. A recent national survey, Maternity Homes for Adolescents, found that the federal government is the least common source of funds for homes. Such homes also swing outside of the welfare loop since residents usually stick around for less than a year.
Still, maternity homes manage; some even boast innovative extras, like Gladney's auditorium, cafeteria, education building, counseling center, and three dormitories. There's even a swimming pool where girls in bright bikinis can tan rounded bellies on hot Texas afternoons. Sunday dinners out, a fitness center, pool- and ping-pong tables, volleyball courts, a greenhouse, and a computer lab help girls keep their minds off swelling ankles and homesickness.
This fall, Gladney will move across town to a new 11-acre, $14 million campus-a far cry from its humble beginnings as the last stop for the "orphan trains" of the late 1800s. The trains hauled orphans and abandoned children across America, stopping in towns along the rails to "put up" the children for adoption. Midwest farmers and ranchers usually chose the strong, healthy children, those who seemed fit to plant, harvest, or tend livestock. When the trains pulled in for their final stop in Fort Worth, Gladney took in the "leftovers." Today the home is the largest, most comprehensive maternity complex in the United States.
Sixteen-year-old Nikki loves Gladney's on-site, self-paced school. "I sleep till 8:15 a.m., grab breakfast, and they tell me to go to bed if I feel bad. You wouldn't find that in a regular school." Seven months ago, the former varsity cheerleader was shocked when a pregnancy test she took popped positive. "I began throwing up, but I still went to cheerleading camp," she smiles, sitting cross-legged on a business chair in Gladney's plush conference room. "When I got home, I still didn't have a period ... after two more positive tests, I was like, 'Ahhhh!'"
When Nikki broke the news, her mother told her to stop joking. "It was horrible. I cried for a week." And so the daughter of a banker left home to save face for her prominent family. "My parents never said, 'Go!'" she says. "But people shouldn't have to look at me, and then at my parents, and ask 'Why?' I think [my parents] feel more comfortable with me here, though they would never say that."
Nikki first visited a smaller home. Such homes, mostly faith-based and housing four to six residents, make up over three-fourths of all maternity homes in the United States. Some large homes that were arms of social service organizations such as Catholic Social Services, the Baptist Church, or the Salvation Army, closed up years ago as abortion took hold. Others found that more unwed mothers want convenience, lots of options, and homes close to their communities.
With unwed pregnancy less stigmatized, "there is no longer an incentive for girls to go away to a home in another state to keep the pregnancy confidential and place the baby for adoption," notes Peggy Hartshorn, president of Heartbeat International. "Women can find local, small homes in their own communities." Loving and Caring's Anne Pierson said larger homes have withered because "women don't like an institutionalized setting, and prefer a smaller, home family setting."
That's why Krystal, 18, chose Mercy House, a modest, white house set among shady oaks off a one-way street in Arlington, Texas, for her second pregnancy. Krystal, a tall, beautiful brunette, is now the proud mother of 10-week-old Marcus. At 13, she ran away from home and wound up in Dallas, stripping at a club and working for pimps. She became pregnant at 15 and lived at Gladney, where she placed her daughter for adoption. Krystal didn't care for the large-home setting: "It was like a college dorm, except worse. There were over 30 girls in our dorm and no age limit." But Krystal's main objection to Gladney was that she felt pressure to place her daughter for adoption, rather than parent.
Gladney only houses adoption-minded residents, and if a girl decides during her stay to parent, Gladney helps her find another home. "We are set up to be an adoption agency," explains Gladney representative Paige McCoy Smith. "We are not interested in abandoning her if she chooses to parent. But our primary objective is to facilitate adoption for women, and we want to be able to keep our services available for women making this choice."
Still, at Gladney Krystal felt "institutionalized," a feeling she doesn't get from Bev and Jack Strang, the senior couple that runs Mercy House. "They don't treat you like an institution," Krystal says. "You're not a patient, but a regular person that needs help.... It's like living with my grandparents, except that you're all pregnant at the same time!"
Mrs. Strang, 63, floats across the carpeted living room, following a baby's wail. "Somebody's not haaap-py," she sings. Jack Strang, 65, reclines in a La-Z-Boy with white-socked feet hiked up on the footrest. "It's important [for the girls] to have a father and mother figure," he says, hands folded comfortably across his striped shirt. "We provide them with parental guidance, tell them to put things away when they're done, advise them, encourage them, and," he adds, grinning, "irritate them at times."
Mercy House can accommodate four women in crisis pregnancy, but right now three call the place home, along with another permanent resident-a dog named Annie. Annie's paws click across the kitchen floor to greet 15-year-old Belinda, who smiles shyly, lugging books from her alternative high school.
"I cried when I came because I missed my family," she said later. "I thought it would be a big house of nuns slapping us with rulers. But it's just like a home." Belinda's red T-shirt barely reveals her seven-month pregnancy. "[Mercy House is] OK sometimes, but I wish we wouldn't have chores," she grins. "We get in big trouble if we don't get them done, even when I'm tired from school." Belinda plans to get her master's in psychology and to become a high-school counselor. She is the only Mercy Home resident choosing adoption. "It's not that I want to give my child away," she argues earnestly. "I do want to have a kid, but I'm only 15. What am I going to do? I can't even drive yet." Where would Belinda be without Mercy House? "Probably with some guy dropping out of school, halfway on the streets," she shrugs.
Susan Hulet, a midwife who founded Mercy House nearly three years ago, believes in small maternity homes. "A home setting with house parents and a small [number] of girls gives a modeling of a normal home and family. Girls have close interpersonal relationships with house parents. They do chores, go to the grocery store, prepare meals, and conduct family devotions every evening."
Door of Hope Church donated the facility for Mercy House, and the home runs on $50,000 annually. Mercy House volunteers throw a baby shower for every mother, and local families "adopt" residents. The home's location is kept confidential, says Ms. Hulet, to guard residents from anyone "irate or abusive who wants to find a girl, usually the boyfriend."
In one of the Mercy House bedrooms, Angela, 22, cradles her 17-day-old son Jonathan while a tape player whispers soft music. "My life was going well, and then the next minute it was falling apart," she said, patting her son's back. After her boyfriend "left me standing," Angela obtained a list of homes from a hospital, but "everyone said, 'You can't come here unless you give your baby up.' I said, 'No, that's not an option.'" A white lacy bassinet sits a few feet from Angela's bed. "Its not like you're here only until you have your baby. They help you get your life back together." Had she considered a larger home? "Uh-uh!" she says emphatically, revealing that she herself grew up in a children's home: "It's like you're a number instead of an individual. I like the family setting."
Back in the Mercy House kitchen, Krystal explains how she wound up in crisis pregnancy twice. After her probation time at Gladney ran out, she says she returned to the only thing she knew: working for escort services and clubs. "I was underage, but they didn't ask any questions." Eventually, Krystal fled back to her parents' home. But at 17, a crisis pregnancy center told her she was going to have another child. "I went into denial for a month," she says. "I got really sick and I ate like a cow. I was showing, and still saying no." When Krystal's parents found out, she feared the worst: "I thought [my mom] would be mad and kill me. But she wanted to help, and didn't know why I didn't tell her. That's when my dad went researching through crisis pregnancy lines. He came home from work one day with Mercy House's number. And here I am."
Krystal smiles over the tile kitchen table where the girls take turns preparing meals. "When I first came here, everyone was together making lunch. Angela was putting dishes away in the dishwasher. I thought it was a show because I was coming. I thought they would change. But they didn't."
Krystal earned her GED at Mercy House and plans to attend the University of Texas in the spring. Like other 18-year-olds, she is considering a career. "Maybe a sonogram technician in a crisis pregnancy center," she muses. "I want to talk to girls who are abortion-minded."