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In these many-layered and masterfully written portraits, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot reaches deep into human experiencefrom the drama of birth to the solemn vigil before deathto find the essence of respect. In her moving vision, relayed through powerfully told stories, respect is not the passive deference offered a superior but an active force that creates symmetry even in unequal relationships.The reader becomes an eyewitness to the remarkable empowering nature of respect, both given and receivedbe it between doctor and patient, teacher and student, photographer and subject, and midwife and laboring mother. They will feel it in the reverent attention paid by a minister to the last moments of life, and in the Harvard Law School professor's lively curiosity about his student's extracurricular lives.Through the power of her narrative, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot ultimately makes the reader an intimate partner in her observations of respect linking these varied and intense relationships. A book to be savored and shared, Respect has the power to transform lives.
About the Author
Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot is Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and MacArthur genius award winner. (A named chair was created this spring in her honor.) She is the author of The Good High School (Basic), Balm in Gilead (AWL and Penguin), and I've Known Rivers (AWL and Penguin). Each of these books, as well as Respect, uses a vivid technique of portraiture, for which she has become known both to scholars and devoted readers.
Read an Excerpt
You who have stood at the bedposts
And seen a mother on her high harvest day
The day of the most golden of harvest moons for her.
You know being born is important.
You have seen this love's pay day
Of wild toiling and sweet agonizing
You who have seen the new wet child
Dried behind the ears, swaddled in fresh garments
You know that nothing else was so important to you.
"Being Born Is Important"
To be a witness to birth is not only to celebrate the labor and the harvest, the woman and the child. In that moment, we also feel and understandwith sudden forcethe importance of our own arrival in the world.
* * *
Jennifer Dohrn, a nurse-midwife, witnesses many "high harvest days" in her work at the Childbearing Center that she founded and directs in the South Bronx. She knows that poverty haunts the lives of most of the women she serves, and she hears the sound of their desperate voices pleading for a better life for themselves, their children, and their babies not yet born. Yet she is more aware of the strength in the young mothers who come through the doors of the Center; their raw resolve, their unyielding dreams; their determination to make that better life for themselves and their families.
Jennifer works to capture their hope and their strength in preparation for one of the "most powerful moments of their lives": the birth of their babies. She wants them toexperience in full the moment of birth, "when time stands still and nothing else matters." As an experienced midwife, Jennifer provides an oasis of respect and safety that allows women to be in touch with their bodies, take control of their care, and realize their own power to give birth and build a family. Jennifer works to create a safe place and example of care that will help young mothers feel both respected and empowered. She also hopes to create a synergy, a "circle of women" whose strength will be amplified by their collective quest.
A Queen's Place
The Childbearing Center is a gray faceless building sitting at the corner of Burnside and University Avenues, a busy cross-section in the South Bronx. It is surrounded by an array of small shopsmost with English and Spanish signagecrowded next to each other: convenience stores, beauty parlors, luncheonettes, liquor stores, bridal shops, fast food joints, record stores, shoe repair shops. As I arrive by taxi, I am astounded by how much is squeezed into this bustling intersection. It is a bright spring day and the streets are filled with people, the teenagers pushing the season in shorts, halters, and sandals, the elderly folks still huddled in winter coats and hats. There is a simple sign over the front door of the Childbearing Center, in both Spanish and English, and a few posters in the window of mothers and babies, but from the outside the building seems dull, not particularly welcoming.
I ring the bell of the first of two locked doors and walk through at the sound of the buzzer. By the time I reach the second door, Jennifer Dohrn is standing there smiling broadly and opening her arms for a big hug. Behind the locked doors, there is a large reception area that is sunny and welcoming, more like a living room than a waiting area. A plump, burgundy velvet couch and love seat dominate the sitting area, in front of a batik hanging that fills the wall. Jennifer explains to me later that there is only "one rule" at the Center that everyone takes very seriously: children may not climb or sit on the couches. As a result, these welcoming, friendly couches barely show the wear and tear of the thirty-five families who pass through there daily. A big rocker sits out in the center of the room with extra seating provided by simple metal chairs that line the walls and look more like a typical hospital waiting room.
When Jennifer decided to spend three thousand dollars on this furniture and art, people thought she was "crazy," that it would be quickly damaged by careless families from the community who would not appreciate it anyway. Instead, the warm, peaceful decor seems to be the first sign of caring and respect to families that enter the space. The very pregnant mothers fall into the cozy corners of the couch as they wait for their appointments with the midwives. Their children gather in an adjoining playroom filled with toys and books, where they happily occupy themselves out of view but within hearing distance of their parents. There is a long reception area at one end of the room where families sign in, pick up their medical charts, make appointments, or receive referrals. A receptionist, who answers the phone with a friendly voice that does not seem to grow dull from routine, switches rapidly back and forth from English to Spanish.
Jennifer gives me a quick tour, which includes four examining rooms used interchangeably by the seven midwives who work there; a large meeting room, also with couches and chairs, where parents gather for educational sessions or to share information in support groups; a small kitchen for the staff; and a "family room" with a table, chairs, and yet another couch, where I first spotted the posterof a handsome brown couple holding their newborn childwith the Carl Sandburg verse written below it. The two birthing rooms are somehow both cozy and high-tech, a cross between a large bedroom and a doctor's office. A queen-sized bed with a colorful quilt dominates the center of the room. There is a rug on the floor, prints on the walls, as well as comfortable chairs. The medical equipment is spare and pushed to the edges of the space. There is a full bathroom, which has a Jacuzzi bathtub that mothers often use during birthing. The gushing water is soothing and relaxing, easing the pain and tension of contractions.
In the second birthing room we greet a brand-new baby boy and his family. The mother, a pretty, lean Puerto Rican woman, is sitting in the bed propped up against a pillow with her hour-old son sleeping peacefully in her arms. The baby is rosy and perfect. A white knit hat covers his head, and a nightgown and light blanket swaddle his tiny body. The mother and child are surrounded by women: the baby's grandmother and three of her sisters, and five of the mother's sisters. They have all been present at the delivery, and they continue to hover around, watching, murmuring, and admiring the miracle in their midst. Although she must be exhausted, the mother's face shows only joy and pride. She smiles shyly as she says that she has decided to breast-feed this child, her second born. Her first son, now seven years old, was born in a hospital and was bottle fed. This time she is feeling more self-confident and wants to try breast-feeding because she believes that it will be "safer for my baby." Jennifer congratulates her on her decision as the women nod their heads in approval.
The midwife who worked through most of the night assisting the birth is dressed in a simple blouse, a loose-fitting skirt, and flat shoes. She moves quietly on the periphery, offering praise for the successful delivery and the beautiful baby, and blending into the group of women. Her pale white skin and her graceful skirt contrast with the light brown tones of the women and the tight slacks and bright sweaters that hug their bodies. I am awed by the sight of the tiny infant in his mother's arms and by the calm, life-giving spirit that seems to have settled around us. It feels both ordinary and amazing. By early afternoon the baby, his mother, and her entourage are heading home, four hours after the birth.
Jennifer and I leave the birthing room and head for her office, a small rose-colored oasis that she has recently painted and decorated. This is her asylum, a place to rest and think and gather herself at brief moments during her very strenuous and long workdays. There are plants and carefully chosen art, family photos, and favorite books. A Middle Eastern rug picks up the tones of the walls. An antique lampshade casts soft shadows on Jennifer's face.
Now that we are not moving, I take in the unusual beauty of this woman. Her eyes, both sad and smiling, look directly at me. Loose, irreverent brown curls frame her long, lean face. Huge exotic copper-and-bead earrings dangle down to her shoulders and make music when she turns her head. Her body is reed thin, strong and erect. Her hands move as she speaks, and the African bracelets that go halfway up to her elbow also make jangling noises. During a delivery, Jennifer always wears these earrings and puts on fresh makeup so that "when the baby arrives, his or her first view of life outside of the womb will be lovely."
Several women and children are sitting in the waiting room as Jennifer begins the morning clinic. On her way to the examining rooms, she greets the women individually, with a remark or a touch, and their faces brighten. Most of the families who come to the clinic are poor; some have had earlier experiences delivering their babies in hospitals; others have used the birthing clinic for all their children. Whether they are old-timers or newcomers, they all speak about the differences between the Childbearing Center and hospitals. "This is a place," says one, "where everyone cares; where they are always nice to you; where you feel safe." Another refers to the "kindness" and "respect" that she feels from the midwives and the way that the Center is a place where "the whole family is welcome." A third straightens up to her full height, pats her large belly, and exclaims proudly, "They do everything to give us knowledge so we can take care of ourselves." By contrast, these women speak about their experiences in hospitals as cold and disrespectful. "They do everything in their power to make you feel small and stupid."
When Jennifer started the Center ten years ago, she had just graduated from Columbia University with a degree in nurse-midwifery, and was determined to find a way to serve "the poor and people of color." The movement to create freestanding birthing centers apart from hospitals, with more options as to how birth was to be handled, had focused on middle-class and upper-middle-class communities. Poor communities were not seen as fertile ground for midwifery, and poor families were not perceived to be interested in, or trusting of, alternative practices. "But I believed," says Jennifer, "that centers should not be restricted to one segment of the population." The timing was fortuitous. Through a series of professional contacts, Jennifer collaborated on a large grant proposal to the Kellogg Foundation that allowed her to open a Childbearing Center in an inner-city community.
The South Bronx was chosen as the site because families there were being poorly served by traditional medicine, and because there was a health care center in place with which the Childbearing Center could affiliate. "Before the Center," says Jennifer, shaking her head, "one out of every three women in this community had no prenatal care. They had no access to the hospital clinic." The Childbearing Center would not only provide access to prenatal care for these women, it would alsothrough its affiliation with the health centerpermit access to the whole health network. "A woman coming in pregnant could be directed to an ophthalmologist if her older child needed glasses; to the dentist if someone had a cavity ... or to an obstetrician if there was a complication in the pregnancy."
For the first two years after the Center opened, Jennifer was the only midwife. There are now seven on staff, with an equal number of community workers who have been trained at the Center, who assist the midwives and serve as liaisons to the community. Jennifer explains, "The great majority of trained midwives in this country are white women from middle-class backgrounds. Although the midwives do not live around here, all of the community workers come from the communities we serve." Forty-five percent of the patients who come to the Center are Latino, largely from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Forty-five percent are African-American or of African descent, including from many African countries and the Caribbean, and 10 percent are Vietnamese refugees, most of whom have spent time in refugee camps in the Philippines, "suffering the worst kind of dislocation." Occasionally, one or two white women, who are part of a missionary group in the neighborhood, will walk through the door. This diverse population of patients has in common poverty and a wish to find a place where they will be received respectfully and where they will be able to get good care.
Over the years, the population has grown from a tiny, reluctant group of women who knew nothing about midwifery and were skeptical of its practices, to a large, vibrant group of families, many of whom have become staunch advocates of the cause. They have clearly come to trust the health care that they receive at the Center and to see the benefits of the natural birthing process that allows them to be in the midst of their families and take charge of their babies' births. They are drawn to the Center because they feel it is a place that "treats them with dignity." "The word on the street is that we are nice people," says Jennifer simply. "People feel, 'They are glad to see me. They care about me. They treat me with kindness.'" As one woman put it, elegantly poised on the big burgundy couch, "They treat me like a queen." Remembering that woman, Jennifer describes how "triumphant" she looked, how "regal" she appeared sitting there in her sweat suit and sneakers. "Here she was feeling strong and beautiful, fully in charge, rather than feeling she was an animal in the hospital being disrespected."
This Is About You
The first woman that Jennifer sees during the morning clinic is a thirty-eight-year-old black woman, who looks much younger than her years even though she is suffering from a terrible cold and "exhausted" by being eight and a half months pregnant. This is Sharon's third baby (the first two are girls) and she reports that this has been her most difficult pregnancy. She is feeling miserable, sneezing, wheezing, and coughing, as she makes her way into the examining room. Jennifer sits at a small desk and Sharon drops heavily into the chair directly facing her. She gives Jennifer her medical chart, on which she has already recorded her weight and temperature. Jennifer says later that one of the primary goals of their work at the Center is to help women learn to be "in charge" of their care. In an effort to "eliminate the passivity" that is typical of patients within the hierarchies of traditional medicine, she encourages the women to "get involved." They not only participate and make choices about their own care, they are also urged to read their own medical charts. "If there are any secrets in the chart," says Jennifer adamantly, "then you're not giving the right care. Everything I know they should know. This is about them not me."
This focus on empowerment is central to Jennifer's practice and shapes the rituals and policies at the Center. "A woman must feel ... this is about you. Your body. Your baby. You are at the center. You are problem-solving, learning, asking questions. You can decide. I want to give knowledgethrough classes, groups, teaching, mentoring, readingso that they can make good and informed choices."
When Jennifer is settled at the desk, she looks directly at Sharon, strokes her arm gently, and exclaims, "Now, I'm yours. You have my full attention. How are you?" "Terrible!" says Sharon, barely able to stop coughing long enough to respond. She digs out the Tylenol and Sudafed from her pocket and drops them on the desk. "This stuff is not working. I have all this mucus coming out of my nose ... my eyes are dripping all the time." Jennifer is purring sympathetically. She opens Sharon's chart to check her weight gain (during the pregnancy she has gained 38 pounds; her weight is now up to 170), and thenusing a circular moving chartshe calculates the length of pregnancy (thirty-eight weeks and six days). "Is the baby moving okay?" Jennifer asks. "Contractions?" Holding her belly, Sharon nods. "Everything is fine. I just feel awful." Jennifer switches gears. "How are things at home? Do the girls have a place to go when you go into labor?" "My mom's at home," says Sharon. "Besides," she adds dead seriously, "I'm going to have it on a weekend. That's my plan." Jennifer bursts out laughing, but Sharon holds firm. "My other two babies arrived on the weekend ... so that's what's going to happen this time."
A pause in the conversation is followed by a question that seems to be part of an ongoing dialogue between them. Jennifer's voice is gentle and beseeching. "So you're thinking about the breast?" Sharon is still but her voice seems to squirm a bit. "Yeah, thinking about it." "I said thinking," teases Jennifer. Then I hear a familiar mantra. "It's your decision ... your baby." Sharon clasps her breasts and offers a line of mild resistance. "Well I don't even have enough up here. I'm not big enough." Now Jennifer sounds both reassuring and didactic. "Everyone makes enough milk for their baby. Even if you just do it for a few weeks, the baby will be immunized. Our kids need to be protected." Jennifer's voice fades; she has said enough. This is Sharon's baby.
After taking her blood pressure (which is "perfect" at 90 over 50), Jennifer asks Sharon to climb up on the examining table. The expectant mother moves with difficulty, first grunting as she pulls down her sweatpants, then hauling herself up on the high table. Her belly is perfectly round; the dark brown skin is stretched smooth. Her cornrows fan out in a circle behind her head. She looks worried as Jennifer uses a tape to measure her stomach. "I have two knots," she warns when Jennifer begins to feel for the baby. "It is not two heads, I assure you," says Jennifer with a big smile. Then moving her hand over Sharon's belly, she reports, "Well, the back is here, the butt is here. This is the elbow ... the shoulder. I'm still feeling the baby as near seven pounds." Then, turning on the fetal monitor, Jennifer says, "Let's hear this person." When she locates the baby's heart, a loud, insistent beat fills the small office. Sharon smiles through her coughing as Jennifer says admiringly, "A nice thriving child. Do you have a feel for who this child is?" She asks, "Do you have dreams?" Sharon is feeling too lousy herself to attend to Jennifer's soulful questions about her baby. "I'm so hot," she complains. "I'm burning up." "Those are hormones," explains Jennifer sympathetically. "They are like hot flashes ... kind of like what you experience during the first three months of pregnancy. You'll also feel nauseous."
Jennifer puts on rubber gloves, covers them with cream, and does a vaginal exam. "Sorry I'm poking you so much. This is the head where I'm touching," she reports. "You know what?" she says with surprise. "I think you are a lot more ready to labor than I thought!" This sounds encouraging to Sharon. "Oh good, Friday is my birthday. I wish my baby would come on my birthday! Will you induce it?" she asks, already knowing the answer. "No," says Jennifer firmly. "No way." "A very nice exam," says Jennifer in conclusion. "I think you're doing great."
I watch three more examinations of women in their latter stages of pregnancy. The rituals with each are the samepreliminary questions about how the mother is feeling, how the pregnancy is going, how the family is coping, how the plans are proceeding for the labor and delivery; followed by taking their blood pressures, measuring and feeling their bellies, and listening to the babies' heartbeatsbut each encounter feels very different. Despite the routines, each mother uses the time differently and Jennifer responds with full attention, following the mother's lead and giving as much time as she seems to need. With each mother, Jennifer makes immediate contact by facing them directly (her desk behind her), looking into their eyes, and stroking their arms as they talk.
Mariba Oshanti is a large dark-brown-skinned woman dressed in jeans, a sweatshirt, sneakers, and a bright green baseball hat worn backwards. Jennifer looks at her chart, discovers that she is moving, and asks her several questions about her new place, an apartment that she applied for more than four years ago with more space for her new husband, her seven-year-old son, and the baby on the way. Mariba's older child was born in a hospital, so this is her first experience at the Childbearing Center. When she mentions that she nursed her boy for two years, Jennifer exclaims enthusiastically, "Good for you. You get the prize." After checking her chart for weight, calculating the duration of the pregnancy, and taking her blood pressure, Jennifer listens intently as Mariba complains about "short stabs" she has been feeling in her belly that make her double over when she walks. "Do you know what that is? Has anyone ever told you?" asks Jennifer. "The sharp pains are actually caused by spasms that occur when the ligaments and muscles stretch. They are not of any danger to you or your baby. They just feel lousy. But you must keep walking." Mariba seems to be comforted by the explanation, though she finds it "harder and harder" to exercise her body that has grown from 200 to 225 pounds during the pregnancy.
A big smile spreads over her face as she digs in her pocket and proudly displays a fuzzy picture from a recent sonogram of her baby. "I've never seen anything like it. She is sucking her thumb." The mother knows the baby is a girl because she has had an amniocentesis, a procedure recommended to her because of sickle cell that "runs in my family" and a genetic illness carried by her husband. Mariba stumbles through an explanation of the threats to the fetus, the procedures she has endured, the worries it has caused them, and the good prognosis. "She didn't get any of it. What a relief. We decided to name her Aneesa, which means 'joy bring,' because we were so happy after all of our worry!" Jennifer congratulates her on her knowledge ("See what you've learned!") and on the good news and the beautiful name.
Jennifer seems to feel confident that this mother is "taking charge" of her pregnancy, but she expresses some concern about Mariba's needing to get involved with anticipating the baby's arrival and homecoming. When Mariba admits that she has not been going to any of the classes offered at the Center, Jennifer urges her to attend. "This is your first baby with this partner and it has been a bunch of years since the last one. It will give you a space to have this baby ... The classes are kind of nice and fun. They will help you feel ready to have this baby." Mariba nods in response to Jennifer's gentle prodding as she climbs onto the examining table. Jennifer is admiring as she measures and feels her belly. "Your skin is so beautiful. Look how nicely it has stretched!" "Well, I use lots of baby oil," says Mariba proudly. "Actually," explains Jennifer, "it is hereditary ... so you'll pass this along to your daughter." After all the anxiety caused by the possibility of her baby's having genetic defects, Mariba beams at the news of the wonderful inheritance awaiting her daughter. One day Aneesa will have her mother's smooth skin.
Brenda, a small and energetic redhead dressed in crisp light blue shorts and top, is the only white mother I see in the clinic all day. In her arms she is carrying a blond, blue-eyed two-year-old who is clinging to her mom for dear life. A four-year-old, dressed in an outfit identical to her sister's, trails a few paces behind. Before Brenda sits down, she begins her story. "We just spent a week in camp," she says dramatically. Then the punch line: "At Montefiore Hospital." Still standing and holding the child, she recounts a harrowing tale about the sudden illness that consumed her younger child and caused terror in her heart. But most of her story focuses not on the nature of the illness, or the threats to her child's safety, but instead on the unkind and crude medical treatment they received. Her voice rises when she tells about the ways they "tried to separate" her from her baby and did not want her to "know what was going on." "When they told me I couldn't breastfeed, I said that we might as well pack up and go home. The pediatrician was an arrogant jerk who couldn't even look at me when he talked to me. He didn't know what he was doing either. He changed her medication three times ... And, of course, they don't want you to see what's going on or ask them a lot of questions. When they saw me in the oxygen tent with her, they went crazy!" Jennifer listens to Brenda's outrage and frustration, occasionally asking a question or admiring her assertiveness. When Brenda complains that her husbanda fireman used to handling emergencies and putting out fires"refused to accept responsibility" and did everything to avoid a confrontation with the doctors ("When he came to the hospital, he always wanted to go down to the cafeteria and eat."), Jennifer explains sympathetically that denial may be her husband's way of coping. "You are the kind of person who wants to talk about it, deal with it directly, and get as much information as possible ... His way may be to grow very silent and turn inward."
Having tried to offer a view sympathetic to both Brenda and her husband, Jennifer turns all of her attention to Brenda. "You're the one growing the next baby," she says firmly. "Did you make more milk in the hospital? Have you been able to sleep?" Brenda points to her two-year-old, who is now whimpering softly and still clinging. "She has been my priority. I hardly even remember that I am pregnant." Jennifer nods her head in understanding and empathy, but presses her point about self-preservation. "When you are in a crisis, everything goes to replenish the crisis. But then you need to replenish yourself."
The four-year-old fights for a place on Brenda's already occupied lap, causing her younger sister to kick and scream. In an effort to pacify them Jennifer offers both girls band-aids, and the four-year-old marches out of the room tearing open the wrapper and leaving a trail of paper in her wake. The two-year-old ignores Jennifer's offering and nuzzles back into her mother's chest, almost as if she is struggling to displace the baby growing inside. Soon it is time for the examination and Brenda runs out into the hall in search of her older daughter. "Hurry, hurry ... or you'll miss it!" she calls excitedly. Soon the four-year-old is at the door, and has climbed up on a chair next to the examining table. Brenda has taken her shorts off and is lying on the table with her arm cradling the two-year-old, who is stretched out next to her. Both of the girls' eyes grow very big as they await the ritual that they have come to expect and enjoy. They pat their mother's belly gently as Jennifer measures and feels Brenda's stomach. "Let's hear this baby," says Jennifer to all three of them. With the amplified sound of the baby's heartbeat, the four-year-old covers her ears and her sister crows with delight. Jennifer asks the girls, "Is he saying 'hi' to you?" Then to the mother she says, "This baby's going to have a lot of stories to tell!" When the trio is about to leave, Jennifer offers her support and admiration. "You are such a great spirit," she says to Brenda, who is now managing to balance two children on her lap. "You're a very special mom." Then Jennifer returns to the story that Brenda entered with. "I'm so sorry you have to go through this. It is so very frightening when it comes to our kids getting sick."
Gina, a Puerto Rican woman, is twenty-two years old and very pregnant with her sixth child. Her first five childrenall boysare romping in the playroom. The younger ones look eager and curious; the older ones are already precociously independent and sullen. They poke their faces into the examining room from time to time and are shooed out by their mom, who needs every bit of Jennifer's attention for herself. Gina is wearing a bright magenta sweater with rhinestones glittering in a heart shape across her breast. Her light brown skin has a gray cast; she looks weary and despondent. She has missed almost all of her prenatal appointments and will, therefore, not be able to deliver her baby at the Center. "How are you?" says Jennifer. "I've been worried about you." The rest of their conversation is in Spanish. Gina points to her belly and warns, "After this one I want an operation." Her eyes are red and swollen; from time to time they fill with tears. Jennifer tells me later that her partner is a much older man who is either absent or abusive, and that it is very hard to know how to help or when to intervene. She offers empathy and support, but it feels almost useless. "This is a very heroic woman here," Jennifer says to me in English that Gina fully understands. "But there are too many weights on her ... too much for one girl." I do not know whether Jennifer has referred to her as "girl" on purpose, but sitting there exhausted and hanging her head, Gina seems like a child overwhelmed with responsibility, unable to rescue herself or protect herself from abuse. She pulls herself out of the chair with great difficulty and goes out in the hall to check on the boys, who are scrambling with each other trying to be first at the water bubbler. Her voice is menacing as she tells them to behave and issues a warning. They fall silent and into line. Returning to the room, Gina climbs onto the examining room table to listen to the heart of her sixth child.
In helping a woman anticipate birthing, Jennifer urges her to design her own rituals. When the woman is about thirty weeks pregnant, Jennifer begins to ask her about her "birth plan." Usually the woman stares blankly back at her, wondering what she means. Jennifer begins to lay out some of the choices, the ways in which the mother might create a setting and an event that bears her imprint. She tells her, for instance, that she can bring whomever she wants to the birth. "We welcome the woman's family however she defines it," says Jennifer. "Everyone has a role in welcoming the baby." She also suggests that she might want to bring along pictures of family members who might not be able to be present; special music that she might want to play; a favorite nightgown, a comfortable pillow; or special herbal baths. And she urges the woman to talk to family elders about cultural practices or rituals that might help the mother and baby feel embraced by the history and roots of their community. Again, Jennifer rehearses the familiar words to the mother. "This is your experience. It should be connected to you and your family's culture. There is a lot of family building in the birth."
When Jennifer helps families anticipate the birthing, she is always concerned about "finding a role for the men." Her stance toward men is steadfastly empathic and inclusive. As a matter of fact, throughout the woman's pregnancy, she makes every effort to include the father in the process and make him feel comfortable enough to ask questions and express his concerns. "We see a lot of men," says Jennifer. "After talking to the woman, I always take the time to talk directly to the man. I let him know, for instance, that he can talk about sex here, or any other troubling things that he is struggling with. And he often returns with questions, concerns, complaints. 'I can't lie on top of her ... She doesn't like sex any more.' Sometimes he comes in alone to talk about these things. I try to give him information without judgment."
During the birth, Jennifer finds ways of including the father. He may be the one to cut the cord or the first one to bathe the baby. She realizes that even when men become a part of the "family building" at birth, they inevitably do not feel that they are at the center of the process. "There is always this interweaving of men, in and out," muses Jennifer. "But at the heart is the woman. Men are essential but they are not the heart of it." She tells the story of a birth that took place the day before, when Rodney, a man from Jamaica, was witnessing the birth of his first son. Rodney's mother, a tiny, domineering woman, stood on the edges of the birthing circle offering counsel and support, and watching her baby become a father. "Rodney is a very big, strong man, and he was very much a presence during the birth," Jennifer recalls. "This was his wife, Casey's, first baby, and it was a very long and difficult labor." During the twenty-four hours in which Casey labored, Rodney tried to find a way to help and give solace, and he worked to discover a posture and a voice that was not his mother's. Throughout the long night of labor, Jennifer listened as Rodney talked about his apprehensions, his confusions, and his excitement; first reticently, then with fervor and passion; his voice rising in a duet with his wife's moans and wails. Time and again Jennifer and Rodney found themselves returning to a discussion about "the role of the man," and she found herself telling him that "it's a crime against men that they have been excluded from births, and it has hurt their parenting." Jennifer looks off into the distance and seems to be speaking to no one in particular: "Men still have an unexplored path."
Fighting for Change
Jennifer's own husband, Haywood Burns, was killed in an automobile accident in 1996. Dean of the Law School at the City University of New York, and a well-known and highly regarded political activist, he had traveled to Cape Town to attend an international convention of progressive lawyers, one of several trips he had made to South Africa in support of the liberation struggle. On his way to a restaurant for dinner with a couple of colleagues, the car was hit broadside by a speeding truck, and Haywood died several hours later in the hospital. Jennifer and Haywood had been married for ten years and they shared five children between them (three from Jennifer's former union and two from Haywood's two previous marriages). Since his death, Jennifer has been trying to heal and knit her life back together. He is everywhere: in her dreams, in her memories, in her conversations, in her stories, and in the pictures and mementos that decorate her office.
As part of her effort to recover, Jennifer surrounded herself with friends and family to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Haywood's death in a ritual of prayer, chanting, and remembrance. She transformed Haywood's study into a meditation room that served as the quiet oasis for the Buddhist ceremony. Such carefully planned rituals have given her some measure of solace and helped her move forward. Her work is part of this effort. As she helps mothers give birth to their babies, she absorbs the hope, strength, and promise of a new life, and is able to release some of the grief of her loss.
When Jennifer decided to become a nurse-midwifeworking to empower women in the South Bronxshe drew on her own family legacy of passionate engagement in political activism, a fierce work ethic, and commitment to service. When she speaks about helping young mothers discover "the fullness of their power," Jennifer is expressing themes that have run through her life; themes that are both personal and political, inspired by both her emotions and her intellect. Jennifer's emphasis on roots and rituals in her work with families is built on her recognition of the ways these have shaped her own life.
Jennifer is the child of strong, involved parents. Her mother, despite a harsh childhood, including the loss of her own mother when she was five, "was able to become a nurturer herself ... a wonderful, whole, devoted mother." Her father, Bernard, was the third of eight children in a hard-pressed family of Russian and Hungarian parents. As a young man, Bernard left home, trying to escape the poverty and his father's cruelty, and worked his way through college and most of law school. Jennifer is unsure of why he never actually completed law school, but she is certain that it left him with an emptiness that could be filled only if one of his daughters chose to be a lawyer. His ambition was realized with the graduation of his firstbornand namesakeBernardine, from the University of Chicago Law School twenty-five years later. In his work as a credit manager, Bernard, according to Jennifer, "was very well respected by his clients, and he worked incredibly hard, passing on to my sister and me a passion and fanaticism about working." His first wife, who was Swedish, died in childbirth along with her baby, a piece of family lore that remained secret from Jennifer until she somehow discovered it when she was about twelve. She is still puzzled by the silence and the missing pieces of the story, which haunt her as she works to create safe settings for birthing and rituals that would be open and celebratory. Jennifer's own mother, Dorothy, "had very hard births," says Jennifer heavily, in a way that seems to express her wish that her mother might have had births that were as empowering and as exhilarating as the ones that she witnesses. After the births of her two daughters, "My father decided that she should not endure any more pain, that there would be no more children."
The roles within Jennifer's family were traditionally defined; her father was the breadwinner, her mother the homemaker. "My father believed in two things," says Jennifer. "First, he believed in hard workhonest, principled, industrious. Second, he loved learning and loved reading. My favorite memory of my father was being read to by him while I sat in his lap. This was the only time he would let me get physically close. I remember the feel of his flannel shirt against my cheek, the smell of his pipe. This was a big thing to him that we should love reading."
Like so many couples of that generation, where the gender roles appeared to be traditionally assigned, the "real power" did not rest with Bernard. "Actually, my mom ran the house and made all of the decisions even though she let my father believe that he was the boss." From Jennifer's child's-eye view, Dorothy seemed to relish both her underground power in the family and her overt role as enthusiastic and skilled homemaker. "My mother loved being a mother. She loved cooking, baking, sewing the family clothes, creating rituals, and celebrating events." Her sphere of nurturance and intimacy extended beyond her own family. She had a devoted circle of women friends whom she saw almost every day, and whose friendships were deeply sustaining. The women were at the center of the families' social circle. The men to whom they were related were not particularly close to one another, but they managed to get along.
In her work with young mothers, Jennifer seems to want to honor the maternal generosity and underground power that she saw in her mother and the collective strength of the "circle of women" who surrounded her. As a midwife, however, she wants to make the woman's power open and explicit, and she wants the babies' fathers to escape the stereotypic male role and feel included and "essential"; able to feel, and express, the passion of parenting.
"For me," says Jennifer, savoring the memory, "the best thing in the world was to spend a day with my mother." "From these early experiences," she explains, "I lived by the measure of how much I could help someone else. Some of this impulse survives today in my choice of vocation and in the way I often overdo it."
At the same time, Jennifer felt her father's dreams for her. "Having only daughters, my father believed that we could do anything. He was very ambitious for both of us, and status was very important to him. I was determined to win my father's love, so I went on a path to be smart and I became very successful at school. I was always the top person in my class," she says without an ounce of pridefulness in her voice. If anything, I hear a bit of sadness for having felt such a desperate need to please, such a deep yearning to measure up to her father's expectations in order to win his affection. "There was no institution that I attended," she says flatly, "where I didn't become the valedictorian, and that includes White Fish Bay High School, the University of Chicago, and Columbia."
As Jennifer moved through these high school successes, she was also experiencing an increasing sense of alienation from the conservative and narrow suburban scene. "By the end of high school, I felt so estranged from it all," she muses. "What do you mean 'estranged'?" I ask, wondering how someone who had experienced such success, reward, and achievement might begin to feel like a stranger. "I was wanting to be found," she replies. "I would carry Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto around the halls of the school because everyone hated it. One of my best friendswho was also the co-valedictorian of my class and went on to Yaleand I joined an integrated book club in downtown Milwaukee. We would go into the city together each week."
All this changed when Jennifer followed her older sister, Bernardine, to the University of Chicago. Suddenly she was caught up "in a time when change seemed limitless; where freedom and dignity for all seemed possible and worth fighting for. It was a time of great drama, learning, experimentation, and politics ... lots of excesses, as well ... lots of drugs that held no appeal to me ... and lots of experimentation around sexuality ... lots of people didn't make it ... The second night I was at the University of Chicago, I joined a picket line protesting the return of football to the U. of C. and I never looked back." The seductive pull of politics and radical protest swallowed up both Dohrn sisters and created a chasm between them and their family. Jennifer had not visited home for twenty-five years when she returned with her black husband to a high school reunion, and to her classmates' "silent worries" that Haywood might not be welcome at the country club where the reunion was being held.
By the time Jennifer graduated from college, she was deeply involved in the movement, in demonstrating and organizing, in living the life of political struggle, much of it "underground." Jennifer sketches these years quickly, giving me a sense of her passion and her commitment, but leaving out places, people, and events. She is still fiercely loyal and protective of the memories and of her partners in the struggle.
Table of Contents
|Introduction: Creating Symmetry||1|
|A Queen's Place||18|
|This Is About You||23|
|Fighting for Change||32|
|The Babies Kept Me Going||36|
|A Vulnerable Time||39|
|Acts of Care||58|
|Legacy of Action||68|
|Respect in Practice||84|
|Legacy of Trust||100|
|Risk and Faith||114|
|The Color of Curiosity||121|
|Curiosity and Intimacy||125|
|Curiosity and Consent||129|
|Bathed in Full Attention||137|
|The Value of Their Lives||143|
|"One Thing No One Knows About You"||161|
|A Comfortable Atmosphere||165|
|Burden of Achievement||174|
|"Smoke and Mirrors"||181|
|"Giving Us Back to Ourselves"||189|
|Absence and Presence||198|
|Learning to Do Nothing||206|
|This Is What We Can Do||213|
|Teachers of Presence||216|
|Some Roots of Respect||231|
|About the Author||244|
What People are Saying About This
A lovely, moving book.
Author of Home Town
Here are stories carrying great lessons which could be the very foundation for restructuring the soul of our society.
Author of Fires in the Mirror