A message for the mother of baby Maria: You are not alone
The mother whose baby was found in a plastic bag in west Dublin last Friday has caught the sympathy of the nation, but she's certainly not the only mother or mum-to-be needing help
Maria is her name, at least for now. That's what the nurses in the Coombe hospital are calling the baby found in a plastic bag in Rathcoole, west Dublin, last Friday. We know little about her, except she was wrapped in a fleece blanket inside a plastic bag, with an M&S paper bag on the outside. Gardai believe she was 24-36 hours old when discovered by a couple on Steelstown Road and, according to hospital reports, she's doing well. And if that's what we know about 'Maria,' we know less about her mother.
Now the focus on everybody's mind is the welfare of this woman. Where is she? What kind of pain must she be feeling right now? Is she afraid, hurting, lonely? And how many more women like her are running the gamut of emotions that are part and parcel of a crisis pregnancy? Gardai have appealed for the mother to come forward, a call echoed by Tusla, the Child and Family Agency.
"While Tusla does not comment on individual cases, in the current situation, we would urge the baby's mum to come forward so that she can receive the help she needs and so that she can be consulted on her baby's future," says a spokesperson. We don't yet know the circumstances that led to baby Maria being discovered by a couple who happened to pull into the side of a road and heard her crying, but the fact she was found and no baby had been reported missing suggests that she had been left there by her mother, who is likely to be in an extremely distressed state - and sadly, she's not the only one.
With 14 centres and six outreach centres throughout the country, and a helpline operating six days a week, the voluntary organisation CURA provides free counselling support to anyone who needs help dealing with an unplanned or crisis pregnancy, whether mothers-to-be, fathers, parents or families. Most recent figures show that in 2013, it dealt with 1,269 calls relating to crisis pregnancy. The same year, the Central Statistics Office recorded 1,381 births to mothers aged 15 to 19, and 27 to children under 15.
"But remember, behind every statistic there is a person," says Charlotte Keery, communications officer with CURA. "Our counsellors see the person, not the number.
"Sometimes it's not a crisis at the beginning, but as the months go on, perhaps a relationship breaks down and the mother becomes distressed," says Charlotte. "There are many reasons for people to seek our help, and their feelings range from mild anxiety to panic and utter desperation. The important thing is to begin to talk, put words on those feelings, and the problem becomes manageable. We allow women time and space, and support them while they make the decision that's right for them. Nobody tells them what to do."
Calls to CURA reached a high of about 5,000 a year in the early '80s, a time when many women, like Ann Lovett who died along with her baby in Granard in 1984, felt they had nowhere to turn for help. The drop in recent times surely denotes a positive change in the right direction. "Yes, there is more acceptance in families and communities now than there was 30 years ago. Society has changed, which is a great thing, but the feelings that spur women to call are the same.
"The mother of the baby found in Rathcoole clearly sees her pregnancy as a crisis, and I would say not just to her but to any other woman who, for whatever reason, feel afraid or anxious about their pregnancy, let somebody hear what you have to say. We're accessible, our counsellors are specially trained to help, and they are ordinary people who care. "Remember, nobody will judge you. You need to speak to someone and we're here for you. Please call us. You don't have to be alone."
It is that very sense of being alone that makes crisis pregnancy just as painful, difficult and lonely an experience for a woman today as it ever was. Decisions are often made in silence, particularly when the mother is young and inexperienced. You have to ask how free she is to make choices, what her capacity is to make those choices and whether she has the finances to support the decision she would like to make. And as long as there are women who feel unable to reach out in these difficult circumstances, the issue remains shrouded in secrecy.
Cliona Saidlear, Acting Executive Director of Rape Crisis Network Ireland will not comment on the Rathcoole case in particular, but she sees the trauma that women experience from having to deal with crisis pregnancy, and it's not helped by the looming deadline that forces them to make life-changing decisions."Crisis pregnancy is always a complex issue and when sexual violence comes into the mix, it adds to the complexity," she says. "Women have a massive number of decisions to make and timeline in which they have to do that is dictated by the pregnancy. It's really important that they get the support they need.
"The culture surrounding the issue doesn't help. Women and girls in the situation ask themselves, what will people think? Will I be condemned, or criminalised?"
And while we have come a long way since the bad old days of the 1970s and '80s, we still have a way to go, Cliona says, before women get the treatment and support they deserve.
She points to the case of the young woman who was denied an abortion here last year, having become pregnant as a result of rape, even though she said she was suicidal, and was forced to give birth by Caesarean section.
"Family norms have shifted in the last 30 years," she says.
"Being a lone parent does not carry the same level of fear or anxiety, but in some communities it is still stigmatised. However, the choice of termination is s till one of going abroad, and I believe our lack of access to safe and legal abortion in this country limits the choices available to women and girls and adds layers of anxiety and concern."
There is no doubt that this latest case of a woman who, it would appear, felt she had no choice but to abandon her baby by the side of a road will spark further debate about issues with which Ireland has a long and difficult relationship.
Crisis pregnancy has not gone away, so let's talk.
For further information CURA helpline: 1850 622 626 or visit Rape Crisis Network: www.rcni.ie