Who's in the Gap?

by Melissa J. Ledbetter

A few years ago, I made a financial investment and took the step to become trained as a doula. My motivation was the women having their babies while incarcerated at Cook County Jail; my desired clientele were at-risk women.

I was given a 2-year window to complete my certification, and that seemed like plenty of time. Part of the requirement for certification was to attend 3 births. This seemed manageable, but as I connected with clients, one after another fell through. One had to be unexpectedly induced a month early, about 12 hours after our initial meeting. We moved a few times, making it difficult to establish connections or commit to a birth still several months out. Then we had a death in the family, and then we moved to a brand new city.

We landed in Charlotte, NC, and as the months passed during our first year, pieces finally seemed to start falling into place. Another mom at my kids’ school who was a midwife, a friend who offered to let me shadow her during one of her hospital shifts in Labor and Delivery, a doula organization offering services to women needing a lot of additional support and minimal financial cost, and the list goes on.

Through a county health nurse, I connected with a young woman who was pregnant, without family support, and working to make good choices for herself and her child moving forward. She is African American, and in our first meeting, I named the obvious: I’m white, and she is black, and, not knowing her history with other white people, my availability did not necessarily make me her right choice. [I have witnessed a woman’s labor stop in its tracks and go backwards about 30 minutes just due to the presence of an unwanted, uninvited person in the room. The comfortability factor matters tremendously.] After our conversation, she decided she wanted me to be her doula, and we began to meet weekly. I told her I wanted to line up a backup doula, just in case I was not able to be at the birth for any unforeseen reason. Since this would be a person she wouldn’t be getting to know well, I asked her if she was ok with it being another white woman, or if she preferred a doula who was African American. “OH, African American,” she confirmed without hesitation. I began connecting with other doulas through social media, and I was able to find another doula willing to step in. My client wanted me to go to a doctor’s appointment with her during a week I was travelling with my family, so I contacted the other doula, and she was able to go. I followed up with both of them after the appointment and made plans to meet with my client the following week.

The following Monday, my client texted me about that week’s doctor’s appointment. I asked if she wanted me to pick her up, and she responded that, actually, she’d asked the other doula to go with her, and she hoped that didn’t hurt my feelings. I clarified what she was telling me – that she and I were good, but she felt more affinity with the other doula and wanted her to be the one to continue with her throughout her pregnancy.

Are you wondering how I felt about this? MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. I felt so thankful that this beautiful woman who has handled many hard knocks in life felt empowered to tell me what she knew she needed in her current circumstance. I felt relieved that her best-case scenario was available to her. I’m excited for the networks of people and resources her doula may be able to connect her into, people I don’t know.

Of course, I felt some other things. I felt some sadness that a relationship I cared about was ending in its current capacity – the way we feel when any relationship shifts in a way we didn’t expect. And, it opened up in a big way the question I’d been asking God for awhile, the question of what I’m supposed to be doing, how I’m supposed to be doing it. I really thought it was doula work, but with my one and only certification extension already granted, this “closed door” pretty well sealed the fact that I’ve run out of time and opportunity to complete my certification. A few people have said things like, “It will come back to you when the time is right,” the kind of things we say to people when we want to fix or offer hope for things that are not working out like they’d hoped for us. But, honestly, I don’t need those assurances. They may or may not be true, and maybe my space is to listen and be aware and connect people to each other in spaces where I’m not the best one to be in the room. If that’s how this moves forward, I’m good with that.

Last weekend, President Trump tweeted:

"Lebron James was just interviewed by the dumbest man on television…

He made Lebron look smart, which isn’t easy to do…"

A couple things. First, I’m just going to jump past the inherent white embarrassment I feel here, because it’s not the point, beyond acknowledging it. Second, I’m not even a Lebron basketball fan. But, all weekend, I kept thinking about this statement in light of the school Lebron has made possible, and every time it came to mind, I choked up all the way to tears. I was so angry I couldn’t talk about it. And, it didn’t take me long to figure out why. It had little to do with Donald J. Trump; this tweet is just another in an unending list. It had little to do with Lebron; he can handle himself and all the comments.

My why had everything to do with all the people, the faces, the names who immediately came to mind, those who are standing in the gaps with everything they've got, and those who are slipping through the cracks. I thought of my friend who has invested over 30 years in her community’s school, into students, into parents, into families, and regularly meets with women in the nearby jail. I thought of a mom I know whose son had the talent to get to the NBA, but the street was run by a gang, and instead of going to basketball practice, he sits in prison. Beautiful dreams, high hopes, broken hearts. I think of the parents I know raising their kids in under-resourced neighborhoods, parents who have family and heritage around them they want to pass on to their kids, but who are also trying to keep their black sons alive in this culture – moms and dads who have to teach their sons some different basic life skills than I have to teach mine. I think of the beauty and freedom in access being brought to a community that’s had to fight for it, the reward in having it come from one of their own. Parents who want opportunities and education and examples of hard work and leadership for their children just like I want for mine. These are people I love, and the daily struggle, needlessly made harder, breaks my heart.

What if I had gotten offended when my client chose another doula? What if I’d badmouthed a person with skill and expertise and compassion and availability because she now occupies a place that never belonged to me to begin with? Irreparable damage.

When I read Donald Trump’s words about a successful black man who’s giving back into a community, I thought of a 7th grade conversation I facilitated this past year about the Bill of Rights, about the 13th Ammendment, and how tense the classroom became when one student tried to talk about race. Seventh grade students – black and white – found it too big a challenge to have a peaceful conversation about race, free of accusation toward each other. When did it start for them? Who told them they couldn’t?

Trump’s words? Irreparable damage.

We have to do better.

#justice #solidarity #listening


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