From Tragedy to Hope: Helping Unwed Parents


“I’d heard about mental and spiritual torment before, but I never knew what it was like until this,” said Lisa (not her real name). “When I found out I was pregnant, it ripped me apart inside. I never thought it could happen to me.”

Lisa’s problems had surfaced years earlier in the form of rebelliousness. Eventually, she had rejected her parents’ values and moved away from home just before her high school graduation. Now, at eighteen, she is pregnant.

Sexual immorality is attractively packaged in movies, books, and magazines today. Improper physical relationships between unmarried couples are pictured as commonplace, normal, even desirable. And the media’s message is so convincing that even some Latter-day Saint young people may be swayed from the truths they have been taught.

Pregnancy among the unwed is just one of the serious consequences of sexual immorality. But it is a consequence that is hard to ignore. In the reality of the pregnancy, a couple may be forced for the first time to confront the meaning and consequence of their actions.

The teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ are clear. Physical intimacy between unmarried couples is a sin, a sin with damaging and heartbreaking results. For those LDS young men and women who break the commandment, the reality is very clear. The couple are filled with an overwhelming and sometimes devastating feeling of guilt. But just as the gospel of Jesus Christ teaches the seriousness of sexual sins, it also shows the way to repentance and complete forgiveness.

“All I could do was pray and pray,” Lisa remembers. “At first, the more I prayed, the worse I felt, because I was beginning to realize more and more what I had done.”

Without this conviction of guilt, the repentance process never begins. But without faith in a loving Heavenly Father and hope in the power of the Atonement, the process will not be completed. Here, parents and leaders can provide crucial help—if they can avoid the temptation to threaten and accuse. When a Church Court is part of the repentance process, parents and leaders will want to offer loving support. Fortunately, Lisa’s parents responded lovingly—and helped her find the courage to trust the bishop and the Lord.

“When I found out I was pregnant, I had to face up to what I had done,” Lisa said. “I knew I didn’t want to live that way any more, so I decided to tell my parents and my bishop. I was afraid they would hate me, afraid they would kick me out of my home and out of the Church. When I found the courage to tell them, I found just the opposite. I found their support and their love. Even so, it has not been easy.”

Counseling with parents and ecclesiastical leaders is the first step. A second step may involve LDS Social Services. LDS Social Services provides individual and group counseling both for the young people involved and members of the family. “Pregnancy out of wedlock is a family crisis,” observes LDS Social Services counselor Beverly Edwards. “At first people usually overreact.”

“I had a feeling something like this would happen,” said Lisa’s father, “if things kept going the way they were. It was like reality coming out in the open. Still, it has been difficult.”

“I cried a lot,” Lisa’s mother said. “I knew that my daughter was responsible for her own choices, but I kept thinking it must have been something I’d done wrong, that it was all my fault. I didn’t know how to react. I found I had to recognize that I’d done my best. I knew, though, I needed to try to show love. Attending the temple regularly has sustained me and helped me over the rough spots.”

For the parent, as for the child, embarrassment can be as disabling as excessive guilt.

“There were some Sundays when I just wanted to stay home from church,” recalled Lisa’s mother. “It’s hard to go. But you just have to find the courage and strength to get yourself there. It’s not easy to take your daughter to church in maternity clothes—and it’s not easy for her to show up in them, either.”

The reaction of other ward or branch members and neighbors and friends can be either a help or a hardship for families in this difficult situation, and sometimes rejection is perceived even when it is not intended.

“People on the whole have been very supportive,” Lisa said. “At first I felt I didn’t have a right to go to church. But who has more right to be in church than a sinner who is trying to come back?”

“I felt as though I would be an outcast,” Lisa’s mother said. “I thought everybody was blaming me for what my daughter had done. I found that wasn’t so.”

Confessing to the bishop is a necessary part of repenting. Although it may seem painful, it is mercifully cleansing. And it opens the door to a supportive, counseling relationship.

“My bishop has really helped as I’ve counseled with him,” said Lisa. “He sees how I’m progressing, and he gives me guidelines such as reading the scriptures, praying, and attending church meetings. The closer I’ve come to the Lord, the more he has helped me.”

A good understanding of the process of repentance is important, not only for the young woman but also for the young man. Unfortunately, the young man involved often avoids even the preliminary step of repentance. After Lisa told her boyfriend she was pregnant, she never saw him again.

Commonly, unwed couples go through a stage of denial during the first few months of the pregnancy. Because her body is changing, the girl can’t ignore the situation indefinitely. But the young man, who is not forced to face the issue in the same way, may continue to deny the pregnancy. As the girl suffers the embarrassment, expense, and adjustment, the boy often disowns responsibility.

“Parents frequently excuse the son on one pretext or another, and leave the girl to suffer for the sins of them both,” noted Elder Spencer W. Kimball. “To buy the girl off or abandon her to her lifelong problem is not courageous, nor fair, nor right. The time will come when every individual will pay full price, and perhaps with interest, every obligation incurred, even though it was hidden or covered at the time.” (The Miracle of Forgiveness, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969, p. 197.)

Indeed, the boy involved has equal responsibilities with the girl. He, too, must find his way to total repentance—and that way leads through accepting responsibility, not avoiding it.

The young man needs help from his parents and leaders to find out how to face his responsibilities—financially, emotionally, and spiritually. It can be very frightening for the young father to realize what he’s done and to accept the consequences that follow. Like the young mother, he needs support, acceptance, and guidance if he is to grow through the experience.

“After the initial shock,” said Sister Edwards, “parents and couples need to resolve that crisis feeling and get down to making the decisions they have to make. And the decisions to be made are great and life-altering. Couples need help and support in weighing the consequences, making the decisions, and then feeling good about them.”

The first decision couples must make is whether or not they will marry. When marriage is possible, it is often the decision recommended by Church leaders.

However, the couple needs to know that marriage under these circumstances is difficult, especially when the partners are very young. Forced marriages frequently end in divorce. (Coomb’s Study, 1970, indicated that 41 percent of such marriages ended in divorce or separation within five years. Another study, Van Dyke, 1980, reports 60 percent were divorced within five years.)

The couple needs to look carefully and realistically at their situation. Marriage often interrupts education, which in turn lowers earning ability. Often, there has been inadequate prenatal health care. And young people often know little about child development and have few parenting skills. These and other problems can lead to family stress, poverty, and divorce. Parents and leaders can help the couple assess their readiness to marry and help them prepare if they do marry.

If the decision is not to marry, other important choices remain. “Abortion wasn’t an option for me,” said Lisa. “I’d made it bad enough for myself. I didn’t want to make it worse.”

Those who lack gospel understanding see abortion as an acceptable escape from an undesirable situation. Thousands of abortions are performed every year all over the world with the number increasing every year. The General Handbook of Instructions 1983 cites the Church’s position:

“The Church opposes abortion as one of the most revolting and sinful practices of this day. Members must not submit to, be a party to, or perform an abortion. The only exceptions are the rare cases where, in the opinion of competent medical counsel, the life or health of the woman is in jeopardy or the pregnancy resulted from incest or rape. Even then, the woman should consider an abortion only after counseling with her husband and bishop or branch president, and receiving divine confirmation through prayer.

“Church members who encourage, perform, or submit to an abortion are to be disciplined by Church councils, as necessary. Priesthood leaders dealing with this serious matter should remember the word of the Lord, ‘Thou shalt not steal; neither commit adultery, nor kill, nor anything like unto it.’ (D&C 59:6.)

“As far as has been revealed, a person may repent and be forgiven for the sin of abortion.” (pp. 77–78.)

Elder Russell M. Nelson gave a powerful address regarding abortion in the April 1985 general conference. (See Ensign, May 1985, p. 11.)

“Because abortion was not an acceptable option,” said Lisa, “I had to decide whether I was going to keep the baby or place him for adoption.”

“As I decided whether or not to keep the baby,” Lisa continued, “I had to consider what being a single parent might mean—quitting school to support myself and the baby—and how my child will feel in years to come. I also knew it would be difficult to give my child to someone else and never see him grow up.”

How can parents and leaders help young couples making such momentous decisions? They can help best by aiding the couple in examining their options and considering consequences realistically. They can offer support through counsel, fasting, and prayer. But parents and leaders must not make the decision themselves or exert undue pressure. Ultimately, the couple will be accountable for their own decision.

Young women who choose not to marry, but keep their babies, should make that decision based on a full recognition of the realities they will face. Many find that with no husband to share child care or child rearing responsibilities, no reliable source of income, few marketable skills, and an inadequate education, life with their baby is not what they expected. Babies need care; they are not capable of meeting their mothers’ emotional needs, which are often great. Many young women find it hard to be both mother and father when they themselves still feel like children.

For these and other reasons, adoption—though painful—is often the best option.

“When marriage is not possible,” counseled President Spencer W. Kimball, “adoption through LDS Social Services is preferred so that the infant can be sealed to loving eager parents in an eternal family. A baby needs a family—a father and a mother. The Lord intends for babies to have a family and for families to be eternal.” (“Problem-Pregnancy—Prevention and Alternatives,” filmstrip, VVOF305A, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981.)

LDS Social Services or another private, licensed agency can make sure the child is placed with parents who are anxious to receive and are qualified to care for the child. These agencies preserve anonymity, comply with the law, and offer social services for both the natural parents and the adopting parents.

If the mother does decide to place her baby for adoption, she will need help, guidance, love, and understanding as she grieves the loss of her child. Almost certainly she will mourn what might have been and feel deeply for that small person she has been carrying for nine months. Of course, the grandparents may also choose to adopt the child—an idea often encouraged by the grandparents themselves, who do not wish to lose a grandchild. Although this plan initially looks positive, family counselors can cite many situations where it has failed or been extremely difficult for all involved, including the child.

Because of increased numbers of abortions, and because many more young mothers are keeping their babies, the supply of babies available for adoption has diminished. This is the major reason for the recent growth of black market “adoptions,” where either the mother or the person making the placement is given money in exchange for the child. Although this is illegal, girls may be tempted to make a profit from their misfortune. Girls in the Church should be taught the serious implications of doing this.

Prevention, of course, is always better than cure. And with blatant immorality on every hand in today’s world, parents cannot afford to be complacent. “No matter what the atmosphere in the home,” said Lisa’s father, “no matter how deep and important the family’s religion, things like this can happen.”

But sound and realistic teaching can help counter the destructive messages children receive and prepare them—emotionally and spiritually—to resist temptation. Here are some areas of preparation to consider:

1. Sound values. Teach children to be responsible for their own actions. Help them understand the Lord’s view of sexuality and how it is different from the world’s. Teach them that the Lord expects us to wait in patience for some things so that we can receive the joy he desires for us.

2. Factual knowledge. Our sons and daughters need specific information from their parents on how to avoid steps that can lead to premarital sex and pregnancy. They also need to know the Lord’s expectations of complete chastity before marriage and complete fidelity after. They need to know the consequences both spiritual and temporal—of breaking the law. Discuss with children when they are young and again during adolescence the life-altering decisions that must be made and the soul-rending effect of estranging themselves from their Father in Heaven.

Open discussions about the emotions, feelings, and desires youth will experience as they go through adolescence will also help. Youth need to understand that these feelings are sweet and sacred within marriage, but that they can easily turn to lust and self-gratification if entertained outside of marriage.

3. True feelings of worth. Some youth—especially young women—derive much of their feelings of worth from the approval of others. Too often this desire for approval leads them to abandon their values out of fear of losing their boyfriends or girlfriends. From a young age, children can learn that true feelings of worth come from obeying the commandments. They can find happiness in feeling close to Heavenly Father, in developing God-given talents, in enjoying the love of family members, and in serving others.

Young people can also learn to value others. People who would abuse each other see the other as an object devoid of feelings, dreams, and goals. Parents can watch for signs of those attitudes and counteract them as their children grow.

4. Clear and consistent, but fair, rules. These may include: Don’t date until sixteen, keep mutually agreed upon curfews, double date, and don’t be alone with a person of the other sex for long periods of time. Love, trust, and allowance for a gradual increase of independence are necessary if the rules are to be effective.

Armed with values, knowledge, self-esteem, and rules, young men and women will be more able to counteract the pressures and temptations that beset them as they grow in the joy of living with “clean hands and pure hearts.” (Ps. 24:4.)

[illustrations] Illustrated by G. Allen Garns