Not Feeling the Baby

My mother interns once a week at a women’s health and birthing center in the South Bronx. She’s getting a doctorate in the psychology of pregnant women, new mothers and newborn babies and this is the practical component of her work. Like everyone I know who is in training to be a health care professional, she practices on poor people. Luckily, the people I know who are practicing to be health care professionals on poor people are caring, competent, gifted healers, and though they don’t bring much experience to their professions yet, they are bringing other qualities to their art–compassion, focus, respect for their patients. From what they tell me, these are qualities that their more experienced superiors do not always share. But still, it strikes me as odd and yet perfectly appropriate to the society we live in that poor people are the patients everyone learns on and that when you can pay more money you never have to be someone’s learning experience.

My mom sees lots of patients whle she’s at the center on Tuesdays. Her work is to counsel women through the experience of conception, pregnancy, chlildbirth, postpartum and the ways all of these experiences can become challenging or even devastating–unwanted pregnancy, infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, ambivalence about motherhood, depression, memories of childhood sexual abuse. I’m very proud of the work she does. When she describes to me the issues she helps women face, my mind boggles. I can’t imagine delving into someone’s life at a level deeper than his or her upcoming Regents exams. I can reassure my clients that none of this really means anything and mean it. All it takes is a little deprogramming and me and the kid are joyously railing against the System in no time. But to be with a woman grieving the loss of a pregnancy and accept that you have no solution to offer her except time, love and compassion? To find strength in situations in which we are inherently helpless? That is a calling, not a day job. It is one my mom is perfectly suited to. She is one of the most understanding people in the whole world. I think the women she sees come back because when they talk to her they feel, as I have always felt, understood.

My mom once articulated her mission in the work that she does now as to love all the humanity in all the women and children that she works with. I like that she says “love” and not “respect” or “serve” or “honor.” Healing is an act of love, not a commodity or a service. I think that understanding, not in the form of comprehension, not in the repugnant articluation of “tolerance,” but as love, as the understanding that however a human being suffers and whatever has happened to them and whatever they desire and fear and feel is not so farfetched from what you yourself suffer and experience and desire and feel–this understanding is how a person can help to heal another person. A person who sees another person as a problem to be solved or a broken body or malfunctioning machine will never be able to heal.

But while we may understand and love all people at a deep human level, there are still differences that appear to separate us. While my mom is very well prepared to understand her patients as people, she is not as well prepared to understand their vernacular. Some say that this means she can’t truly understand her patients, that they will not feel understood by someone with whom they do not share a lot of subcultural common ground, but I think that with a little understanding, that gap can be bridged. It just takes a few learning experiences. Observe:

The receptionist at the women’s health and birthing center came in to my mom’s office and asked if she would mind staying later to fit in an extra patient. “She’s just not feeling the baby,” said the receptionist.

“She’s not feeling the baby?” said my mother. “She needs to see the midwife or the doctor right away!”

“No, no,” said the receptionist. “She’s just not really feeling it. The baby.”

“I know,” said my mom. “But she doesn’t need to see a therapist. She needs to see if something is wrong with the baby.”

“Nothing is wrong with the baby,” said the receptionist, “she’s just not feeling it.”

When the receptionist realized my mother didn’t know that meaning of the expression “to feel” she told the entire office about it and everyone laughed.

“I felt so ignorant,” said my mother as she told the story over Rosh Hashanna dinner. “I didn’t know what to say, except I’m sorry, I’m really…”

“Old and white?” my uncle finished helpfully.

“I guess so,” said my mother sadly. “I guess that’s what I am.”

I understood.

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