Chris Whitford on Personal Agency and Embracing Limits
Chris Whitford is a founder and the current CEO of Avail NYC, a nonprofit that advocates for women and men facing unexpected pregnancies. A Brown University grad, she lives in New York City-- where she’s raised two sons and a daughter, and has previously worked as an educator for the New York Historical Society.
I’ve known Mrs. Whitford since I met her daughter, Zoe, in middle school. The Whitfords have deep roots in the city, and as an eleven-year-old just two years into life in New York, I soaked up all their knowledge about taking the subway alone, where to find the best bagels, and Zoe’s specialty-- how to thrift shop.
I sat down with Mrs. Whitford in her office in Midtown to hear her heart for Avail’s ministry and work and was so moved and encouraged by her wisdom and perspective. This interview is a little longer than the others, because it was hard to find anything to cut, and I couldn't bring myself to summarize any of her words!
Okay, hopping right in... talk to me about Avail’s mission and why you love it so much.
Avail is for the flourishing of women and men facing unexpected pregnancies or unresolved feelings after an abortion experience. We want to walk alongside them in a practical and holistic way, affirming all dimensions of their personhood as they move into their future, and wanting to enable them to discover a source of confidence and hope.
I love what Avail does because I think that the manner in which we walk alongside women and advocate for them is something that affirms their dignity, the dignity that was given to them because they’re made in the image of God. Their agency, their capacity to make decisions, is not something for us to circumvent, but it’s an agency that we need to help them rediscover.
That’s a very different model from a lot of organizations that view walking alongside women facing unexpected pregnancy as a baby rescue. We affirm the dignity of the unborn child, but there are lives of two people intertwined and the mother’s interests and the child’s interests are actually interdependent-- they are not mutually exclusive. I think as Christians we have been very vocal about this issue as if there was really only one life that was at risk and that’s just not true. There are at least two lives and I would suggest far more-- there’s always a father, there are always two people who make a baby, not one, so you have a father who needs to also find his agency and his dignity in the midst of this, and then the extended family as well.
So this is why I love what we do, and no matter where you are on the political spectrum of the abortion issue, if you truly know what we do here, you will love what we do. I’m not saying that politics isn’t important and that there isn’t a place for that to be. It’s a kingly responsibility of the Church to be engaged in politics. But politics isn’t our only expression of our commitment to civic life, I don’t even think it’s our primary expression as a church, so because of that, Avail stays out of all political activity. You won’t see us marching. You won’t see us in public debates. You won’t see us doing things that a lot of other people in our space do, but we do that because our goal is to serve women and for them to know that we are not going to engage in manipulative tactics or emotional appeals. We are going to advocate.
We call it the third way. In a sense, we’re taking it outside of the cacophonous pro-choice, pro-life debate and saying, actually, we’re for all of life. We’re for the life of the woman and the life of a child. It’s a harder call to walk alongside them in such a way that they flourish and not just think that their choice is between abortion and struggling the rest of their lives, giving up all of their hopes and dreams, dropping out of school, going on welfare, and losing their job. When they’re first experiencing all of it-- the fear, the isolation, the feeling cornered-- we hear it said by clients again and again: “Somebody is dying. The baby is dying or I am.” They don’t think that there is a way for both of them to have a life, but there is, and it’s a privilege to help that happen.
After working with so many women through Avail, mentoring others through church, and raising a daughter-- what’s the number one message you think women need to hear right now?
You matter. You absolutely matter. Your longings matter, what you want matters, what you dream about matters, your relationships matter, you matter. You’re not to be an agenda. You’re not to be overlooked. Through Avail, I see women who know exactly what everybody else in their life wants them to do with an unexpected pregnancy, but they have no idea what they want because they don’t think they matter.
People look at them and say, What are you going to do about it? How could you be so stupid?”
And I’ll say, ‘what do you mean how could you be so stupid? People conceive when they have sex and there are all kinds of people out there having sex that aren’t conceiving. They’re not smarter than you-- this isn’t about that.’
I think women need to know that what they think and feel, what they hope and dream for, all of that matters, and this decision is not about diminishing, but it’s about actually seeing all of the truth. A woman’s life will never be the same after she faces an unexpected pregnancy. It is never going to be the same. So anybody who says, “Go have an abortion, it’ll be the same,” is not telling the truth-- abortion changes you. And then everyone who says, “You can’t have an abortion, you’re killing a life-- life can be what you want it to be, it can be the same,” they’re not telling you the truth either. Life will be different. But a woman facing an unexpected pregnancy, in those moments, those first few days and weeks, what she needs is actually more truth and more reality, not less.
You know, you don’t usually see clearly in those situations, I’m not saying that they’re not seeing their challenges clearly, but I think what they need is support in imagining and envisioning and discovering things that are true in their life that they might not be seeing in that moment that fear clouds.
So that would be my message. You matter and you matter not because of what you do, not because of what you achieve, not because of mistakes you avoid making, or good decisions you do make, you matter because you’re made in the image of God and you’re loved.
Shifting more into your daily life at home, I know so many people who are always talking about you and your heart for intentionally being present and there for your neighbors. What does this look like for you?
Well, my first thought about that is that you really need to embrace your limits. These popular statements like “you can do anything you want,” “be who you want to be,” etc., those aren’t true statements and they really bring an enormous amount of pressure on young women. They communicate that you need to be exceptional and somehow you need to have an external proof of your exceptionalism and I think that’s slavery… and it’s probably the root of a lot of anxiety.
There’s this idea in minds that goes something like… “I might just be a regular person. Somehow there’s something less valuable about me because of it, or my value is really transactional and all about output, and if I don’t have output.. then gosh, what’s inside must not be very important.”
In response to that, I think in order to have a genuine impact, you need to set limits. I think of the scripture from Psalm 16 where it says “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places.” Limits are liberating. It’s proven in child psychology that if you put kids in a backyard and fence it in that they will play within the entire space of the fenced backyard, but if you don’t fence it in, they’ll just huddle in the middle.
So boundaries are yes, limiting. You can’t go everywhere, that’s true. But they’re also liberating. We think freedom nowadays is the ability to do anything you want, but I taught American History for many years and our founding fathers defined freedom as the ability to do what you ought to do, not the ability to do whatever you want to do, so I think embracing limits explodes creativity.
Long story short, I basically just think… bloom where you’re planted.
And I think in terms of nowadays and engaging with the media, I’m not really a big fan of it. I think it’s because I feel that it tempts people to curate their lives and even sort of curate authenticity that’s very destructive to the self.
What we really need are neighbors that we can knock on the door and ask or brown sugar when we’re making cookies… or run over and say “Oh my goodness, my dog ran away, can you help me find him?” Or “I have to take my five-year-old to the ER, can you watch my newborn?”
I think this is the fabric of civic life and it also causes us to be friends with people whom we don’t agree with and then we realize that we actually like people that we don’t agree with. I’m not sure how healthy it is to never be around people we don’t agree with or just view our relationships as a sort of affinity group in cyberland. I’m not saying to stay off of social media completely, but it has its limits and it has its dangers and blessings. Just be wise.
And that would be my other message to young women-- seek wisdom.
Sure, seek knowledge, seek degrees, seek… but wisdom is about knowledge with boots on the ground. It’s about how you make good decisions, how you discern between two good things, how you discern between two bad things. Life is full of just choosing what’s less bad and having to move forward into that.
So wrapping up, just know you matter and seek a whole lot of wisdom.