The Three Midwives in the River: A Story of Diverse Solutions to the Same Problem... and the Problems with That

Photo by  Jernej Graj  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jernej Graj on Unsplash

“There’s a river. In the river, babies are drowning, and three midwives passing by each see. The first midwife, devastated by the sight, jumps into the river and starts pulling babies out and putting them on the shore. The second midwife, devastated by the sight, jumps into the river and begins teaching the babies how to swim themselves to shore. The third midwife, devastated by the sight, runs up into the town to find out how the babies are getting into the river, and how to stop it.”

At a symposium this weekend, this story was shared. “Our community — our birth world community supports and invests in one of these midwives more than the others,” the storyteller said (in different words). “In this room, we have all of these midwives, and some of them are drowning in the river, too.”

As I reflect on my time at this symposium this weekend, rather than delve into the nitty-gritty of what happened on day one, day two, day three, etc., I’d like to delve more deeply into these three midwives, these three approaches – not just to infant and maternal mortality, but to many of our community issues. Why do our communities – namely Black/POC communities compared to White communities – engage in the same missions in such different ways?

The Hands-On Midwife in the River
When all you have is your hands and your heart

Why does the midwife who jumps into the river to pull out babies do that? Because all they have is their hands? That might be the case. There are many ways to act in a situation, and the way we choose to act often depends upon what we have in our toolbox... though not always.

Consider that Black and POC communities and individuals have less wealth – generationally and individually – today than White folks. Consider that we tend to have less “assets” in terms of economic, political, and social capital. Consider also that — what is the emotional impact of seeing someone in a helpless/voiceless situation when you have had your own personal experiences with feeling helpless/voiceless?

What do you know you have to offer, and what feels right? I speak for myself, but maybe it will resonate with others when I say that, when you look at someone struggling and you think, “That could have been me,” or “That was me,” your reflex – your gut reaction – your immediate solution – will draw you closer into their space. It will urgently pull you to pull them into the safe space you know they can experience, if only you fill the gap.

The Midwife Teaching in the River
When you trained for a moment such as this

Why does the midwife who wades into the river to teach babies to swim do that? Because they know how to swim. And why do they know how to swim? Because they saw someone drown before, and they said to themselves, “Not again. Not if I can help it. I will learn how to swim and I will use that knowledge when I get the chance.” Because they knew they’d get the chance.

Consider that Black women are amongst the most highly educated groups in the U.S. Consider that generations of families of color have taken tremendous risks and worked incredibly hard and sustained deep levels of racism and mistreatment in order for themselves or their children or grandchildren to achieve higher levels of education. Consider that many folks have left their communities for the sole purpose of being able to come back to serve it someday (even if they don’t always actually do that).

This is all over our communities. Many POC lawyers, doctors, athletes – we see them thread community service into their careers. Is that always the case? Is it always authentic? No, unfortunately not. But it is a commonly held shared value. Success is often perceived as communal in communities that have experienced a great deal of marginalization. Success for an individual is often seen as the result of communal investment (“I accomplished X because my auntie did Y, or my teachers said Z, or my school gave me A) and likewise success for the individual is an opportunity for many others to benefit from the fruit of their labors, in the hopes that this pattern would restore whole communities.

The Midwife Who Leaves the River to Help
When one answer is at the top, and you have a ladder, or know where one is

Why does the midwife who leaves the river, leave the river? They're going after the root to this problem and believe the root issue can be solved. Many of the problems in our society are systemic, some intentionally and maliciously. Many of the issues that Black folks and other people of color face are the result of plans and events set in motion generations and generations back, that still have consequences for present day lives.

But these consequences don’t touch all lives as directly. So when someone sees them who hasn’t experienced them, or didn't even know those consequences existed, they will naturally have a slightly different reaction. They may be shocked, they may be horrified, they may feel

emotions that someone who’s seen the consequences for a long time won’t feel – not because it’s less horrifying to them but because they don’t really have the freedom to respond to the situation that way. This is why one person might cry and another person might say, “Why are you crying? Crying won’t do anything.”

Consider that white folks (not all, but a higher percentage than Black and POC folks) have more generational wealth, more individual wealth, more assets like land and property ownership, and more political and social connections – are more likely to have family members or family friends who are in high political or social places or have a greater understanding of how those systems work and how to work well in them – as well as are more likely to be welcomed or trusted or championed within those circles.

So what makes sense to do when you see a horrible thing and you know someone who must know how to change it? Go find that person and work to get that change. This requires that you leave the scene of the problem. This requires that you invest time and materials in things outside of the problem area.

The Problem and the Questions

There are no inherent problems with any of the three above approaches. But there is a problem in that these three midwives can’t save all the drowning babies alone. They each need help.

Do they need equal amounts of help? Who is going to run out of energy first? Whose role allows them to have someone else swap in for them? Whose mission requires the most physical, mental, or emotional energy? Whose lived experiences, whose privileges and powers best equip them for their roles? Whose community is best able to invest in the work they’re doing? How are each of the midwives able to assist the other two? How are their communities able to? Whose work is most often and most regularly invested in? Who gets investors, who gets fundraisers, who gets grants, who gets change dropped in the bucket? Who goes into debt to do their work? Who profits from it? Who looks down and sees their own baby in the river some days? Or their sister’s baby? Or their child’s baby? Who can reasonably become a midwife in the first place — and who can stay one?

The Answers

There are resources out there. There is enough out there to sustain the midwife pulling babies from the river so they can eat and sleep and shower – swapping out with someone else until their next shift. There is enough out there to invest in the education of the second midwife, and to sustain them so they can also eat and sleep and shower until their next shift. There is enough out there to invest in the third midwife, so they can strategize, and lobby and serve some of the babies who may not be in the river at all, because those babies are still out there too, and of course they and their parents still need and deserve care also.

What I know is that all the midwives need to know each other. They all need to talk together, and eat together, and discuss how to act in complementary ways. They all need to be honored, respected and cared for – and right now in this day, particularly the ones in the water, who are treading water themselves and left out of the story. Whose work is sometimes even capitalized upon for the profit and notoriety of others.

We often see attempts at this in the form of one-off fundraising campaigns or documentaries or articles. But we need systems. We live in a country full of industries that have sustained themselves for decades — even to the detriment of others. We need a system that will sustain our life-giving work. It is more than possible.