We Humbly Offer (Part IV of IV)

Today, marchers continue to fill our nation’s streets to protest the murder of unarmed black citizens by police, and the Naval Academy responds to vitriolic racism unintentionally broadcast by an alumnus.   While the Sisterhood of Mother B primarily focuses on stories of women in uniform, we recognize the intersectionality of this moment, and feel the need to respond in our own words.  We are, after all, an organization that calls regularly on men to be allies, to not stand by as our sisters are mistreated.  How can we then stand idle in the face of centuries long discrimination our brothers and sisters of color endure, laid bare?

We will not pretend to have been blind to bigotry until this moment.  Nor will we pretend that we are blameless in our fellow citizens’ plight.  As one our founding Sisters pointed out, we are #sisterhoodsowhite, with no women of color among our core contributors and only one among  our founders.  As leaders, as friends, as wives, as sisters, we all look back on moments when we should have said more. Done more.  Refused to shrink from uncomfortable confirmation of our own biases.

Over the next week, we will be sharing our founding members’ responses to recent events.  From our different walks of life, and our common service, we humbly offer our grief, our anger, and our suggestions for change.  Our experiences are not steeped in the toxic brew of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial animus.  But we are all too familiar with being othered; of being pre-judged for who we are, rather than what we achieve, of being told to grow thicker-skin-it-was-just-a-joke.  Many of us know the gut-wrenching realization that our physical safety is not guaranteed, and our abusers act with impunity.   More than anything, our hope is to build on this solidarity, recognize our own shortcomings, and learn to be better allies, leaders, and friends.

Change requires individual and group action.  In this submission, Jeannette Gaudry Haynie (USNA’98) recommends concrete steps that Alumni, Midshipmen and Leaders to address situational and systemic racism.

from Jeannette Gaudry Haynie ’98

These are cruel and tragic times that we are living through, times to despair that the social experiment that is America will not survive this test intact. At the worst moments, I focus on the magnitude and complexity of the problems we face because they are everywhere, appearing intractable and destructive, and I cannot move with their weight. But these times also offer flashes of promise and resilience. Moments to rejoice in our shared humanity and to take inspiration from. When beauty breaks through and shows the best of what we have to offer, we can find motivation to push and act and believe. For me that humanity and its promise of resilience and change has emerged at unexpected times over the past three months. Here in New Orleans, at the height of our lockdown, two priests rode around the city in the back of a run-down trailer for hours, wearing baseball caps and blasting Gregorian chants from a massive sound system… just to reach people of any belief structure and bless them. High school friends who haven’t spoken in years are connecting and reaching out to old classmates to discuss the deep impacts of racism and how to lead change and are working to do more. We are having frequent, difficult conversations with our kids, our acquaintances, those we lead… some are incredibly humbling. But they at times end with new connections, increased empathy, and a more robust embrace of humanity.

Two weeks ago, in the wake of the revelation of CAPT Bethmann’s racist and sexist rant, the USNA Women’s SIG distribution list came alive. While the universe of women graduates of USNA is apparently diverse in perspective and – shockingly – type A, the immediate explosion of dialogue, activity, planning, and leadership that followed was a beautiful thing to experience. And conversations are being led by women across the classes, from all backgrounds. True change is rocky, painful, and humbling – and indeed this process is. But as someone who has agitated about “gender issues” for some time now, it energizes me to see the activity and the powerful, if at times clumsy, connections being made in the name of challenging racism and sexism. Simultaneously, a new Facebook group of Service Academy Women went from 0 to nearly 10,000 members in days – and the same conversations are happening on those pages. This is where and how change happens, with all of its raw and rough edges.

So where do we go now, and what do we do? My fellow Sisterhood members have shared concrete ideas for action, and other ideas are being discussed in the Women’s SIG and on the SAW pages. But change will take every one of us working in every way possible. What can we each do today, tomorrow, and or the rest of our lives no matter where we are and what position we hold? We can talk, listen, and learn every chance we get. We can listen to podcasts. Watch documentaries. Reach out to friends. Work through anti-racist reading lists. Educate ourselves. But as we do it, we must embrace the discomfort. We must be humble. But we must also be open and willing to make mistakes – as we will – and learn from them. Over the past two weeks, I’ve said and done the wrong thing over and over again as I have grappled with my own ignorance of how racism shapes our country. Growing up in New Orleans as I did, those roots run deep – and it will take my lifetime to untangle them. Learning how blind I have been and how my ignorance has affected others’ lives hurts. It sucks. It makes me feel insensitive and stupid. It makes me feel like a horrible person. But if we do not try, we cannot learn. And if we cannot learn, we cannot change and we cannot reshape America. No one will do it for us. It must be us. Every one of us. Every day.

A friend asked me this morning how I would measure success in addressing racism and sexism; how to judge when we’ve “arrived.” We will likely never arrive, since it will probably take America’s full lifetime to untangle racism from her institutions, her structures, and her people.

But in considering how to measure change, I can’t get past a story that I heard from one of our sister graduates from the 2000s about the Herndon climb. I’ll get the details wrong… but the gist is that as one of her male classmates neared the top of Herndon, someone threw him a female bucket cover to place on the top. He stared at the cover, looked down at himself and the crowd, and then threw it back down onto the ground. And the crowd cheered.

My heart stopped when I read that. The anger and shame rose to my face. I would have felt punched in the gut watching it happen. And I wondered – if that had happened when my class climbed Herndon, would the crowd have cheered? No doubt. Would my classmates have cheered, sat quietly, or actively stopped the cheering? I believe many would have cheered, out of ignorance or out of hatred, while my female classmates and I sat quietly in agony. And while this story demonstrates sexism in action, I wondered about the many similar gestures that my brothers and sisters of color have experienced over the decades. Did I cheer at those moments, anxious to fit in and survive? Did I sit silently, ignorant and negligent, afraid to speak up because I wasn’t the target? How many times did I injure or wrong someone because I hadn’t learned, hadn’t listened, had turned my back? How many times did my silence condone and reinforce racism?

And that’s the point. Until that cover isn’t thrown, until the crowd doesn’t cheer and instead actively stands against hatred and bias, until we all shoulder the burden of pushing for equity and inclusion, real change will stall and the status quo will triumph.

So here’s how we change. We elect diverse leaders. We use every lever we can find to force inclusion if we have to. We partner, we co-author, we embrace and learn from others, and we humble ourselves. We listen and we educate… and we lead. Then we hand up the cover of a classmate who doesn’t look like us. We expect that cover to be placed on the top of Herndon. And until that cover is not thrown down and is instead celebrated, our work will not be done.

 

 

We Humbly Offer (part III of IV)

Today, marchers fill our nation’s streets to protest the murder of unarmed black citizens by police, and the Naval Academy responds to vitriolic racism unintentionally broadcast by an alumnus.   While the Sisterhood of Mother B primarily focuses on stories of women in uniform, we recognize the intersectionality of this moment, and feel the need to respond in our own words.  We are, after all, an organization that calls regularly on men to be allies, to not stand by as our sisters are mistreated.  How can we then stand idle in the face of centuries long discrimination our brothers and sisters of color endure, laid bare?

We will not pretend to have been blind to bigotry until this moment.  Nor will we pretend that we are blameless in our fellow citizens’ plight.  As one our founding Sisters pointed out, we are #sisterhoodsowhite, with no women of color among our core contributors and only one among  our founders.  As leaders, as friends, as wives, as sisters, we all look back on moments when we should have said more. Done more.  Refused to shrink from uncomfortable confirmation of our own biases.

Over the next week, we will be sharing our founding members’ responses to recent events.  From our different walks of life, and our common service, we humbly offer our grief, our anger, and our suggestions for change.  Our experiences are not steeped in the toxic brew of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial animus.  But we are all too familiar with being othered; of being pre-judged for who we are, rather than what we achieve, of being told to grow thicker-skin-it-was-just-a-joke.  Many of us know the gut-wrenching realization that our physical safety is not guaranteed, and our abusers act with impunity.   More than anything, our hope is to build on this solidarity, recognize our own shortcomings, and learn to be better allies, leaders, and friends.

Change requires individual and group action.  In this submission, Shannon Martin McClain (USNA’98) recommends concrete steps that Alumni, Midshipmen and Leaders to address situational and systemic racism.

from Shannon Martin McClain ’98

I hope that we have all been thinking about what we can do as individuals, and what we want from our institution. I have been happy to see a robust discussion among members  of the  USNA Women’s Shared Interest Group (SIG), and I have taken time to think hard about what I think it takes for USNA, Midshipmen and members of the Alumni Association at large to make lasting change.

For me, it starts and ends with leadership. We, the Midshipmen and Alumni, are as much the institution as the bricks of Stribling walk and the walls and windows of Bancroft Hall.  Are we intentional leaders? Do we truly lead with Honor, Courage, and Commitment to the mission of the Naval Academy and our Oath of Office? How are we as alumni supporting the mission? The number of stories women and minorities tell each other about an old grad, a professor, a classmate, or a leader who was blatantly racist or misogynistic, who tore minorities and women down, harassed them and voiced a lack of support for their success is embarrassing. CAPT Bethmann is not representative of our alumni, but neither is he alone in his views. How can we as alumni effect positive change?

If you are at a tailgate or an alumni event and hear anyone interacting with our midshipmen and junior officers, voicing their prejudice outright or in coded language, say something.  Say. Something. We are supposed to be morally courageous, and that means speaking up, especially when you come from a place of power. Silence is concurrence.

If you are part of a local Alumni chapters, partner with local National Naval Officer Association Chapters, the Naval Academy Minority Association (NAMA), and the USNA Women’s SIG to identify and prepare minority and women candidates for the rigors of Academy life. Actively mentor minority and women midshipmen and junior officers once they are accepted and commissioned. If POC and women aren’t attending your meetings, seek them out and find out why.  Listen to them if they say they do not feel welcome, and then work to be more inclusive. Mentor our young men and women to see and combat systemic racism – it is a threat to our national security. Continue recruiting efforts through the NAMA and USNA Women’s SIG for women and minority Blue and Gold Officers, Congressional nomination board members, and Alumni Association leadership positions.

Read broadly. Learn about our country’s problematic and often sordid history of racism. Learn about the POC and the women who have served our nation in every war because they believed  in the nation’s ideals even though they recognized the flaws in its execution. Seek knowledge and share it with our young people.

If you are on active duty, don’t wait for an incident to happen – make your position known without equivocation. Stop dismissing Equal Opportunity training, SAPR training, and diversity celebrations as something the Navy “forces” you to do, and do not allow your subordinates and leaders to get away with that attitude either. Your Sailors and Marines are taking cues from you.  Your attitude and words will determine whether one of them reports harassment, bias, or any other of a myriad of problems they might be experiencing.

Don’t expect POC or women in the room to always be the professionalism police when someone tests the limits. Don’t check and see if it is okay with them. When you know it is not okay. Say something. Say.  Something. If a minority or woman speaks up, back them up. Women and POC, especially when junior, have to pick their fights lest they are labeled “too sensitive” or “unable to take a joke.” Prepare yourself for the unexpected racist or bigoted remark or the off-color joke. Know what you will say before it happens. Chair fly your response. We should all be offended by unprofessional behavior. And leaders speak up. Silence is concurrence.

Demanding professional behavior in the daily conduct of our business helps, but it is just a start.  The Naval Academy prides itself on being a top tier institution of higher learning. As such, it needs to bake diversity into the system. Diverse perspectives improve understanding and create better solutions, so the institution needs to introduce that diversity in all aspects of the Naval Academy – who it chooses to lead the Brigade at all levels; who it chooses as professors and what courses it chooses to sanction; what texts and tools professors use to teach; who USNA invites for Forrestal Lectures and other speaking opportunities; who organizations invite for conferences and panels; what universities we partner with for learning exchanges. Make these choices intentionally to include the thoughts and perspectives of POC and women.

For me, changing the names of Buchanan House and Maury Hall are easy wins.  I know, Buchanan was the first Superintendent and Maury is the “Father of Modern Meteorology” who served this nation for thirty years before the Civil War. However, when the Civil War broke out, every sailor, soldier, and Marine had a choice to make – Loyalty to the Constitution or loyalty to their states and the institution of chattel slavery. When faced with this question of loyalty, we expect our Midshipmen and alumni to choose loyalty to their oath and the Constitution. Why would we continue to celebrate men who failed this test?  The Superintendent’s Quarters have only had the name Buchanan House since 1976 so the cry “but Tradition,” rings hollow in my ears. With the opening of Hopper Hall and the shuffling of department locations, it is an appropriate time to rename Maury Hall. Work with NAMA and the Women’s SIG to determine which of our diverse graduates who have served our country with honor deserve their name on a building. Who we venerate demonstrates what we value.

Determining new names for these buildings reveals the enormity of the larger problem. If you want to name the Superintendent’s residence after a Superintendent, it will still honor a white man continuing the lack of diversity of naming on the yard.  From the Navy’s own numbers (found here and here), on 1 January 2019, 86% of Flag officers were white men. Out of the 221 positions, only 32 were held by women and minorities, including six African American men (2.7%). This despite the Naval Academy classes consistently starting each class from 1971-1998 with 5.5% African American representation and consistently reaching 7% or above in African American officer accessions since that time. The diversity of our officer corps does not reflect the diversity of our enlisted sailors under 60% of whom are white and including almost 20% African American sailors. How are we, the Naval Academy and the Alumni  Community, growing diverse leaders so that we can see a change in the years ahead? What are we doing to retain those officers in the Fleet? What opportunities are offered and what are denied to our brothers and sisters of color? What can the majority get away with that would destroy the career of a person of color or a woman?

If we value diversity in leadership, our long-term goal must be increasing diversity at all levels of our officer corps. At the Naval Academy, that means determining how to find, recruit, prepare and grow those leaders. It means training all of our Midshipmen in the value of diversity and having no tolerance for those unwilling to embrace a diverse force with diverse leaders. It means identifying racist and misogynistic constructs and removing them.   It means evaluating our conduct and honor system to ensure offenses are reported and adjudicated justly.  The time is long past when we should have confronted racism at our institution. We cannot hide from this.  We cannot remain silent.  We are supposed to be better than this.  It’s time to live up to our core values.

We Humbly Offer (Part II of IV)

Today, marchers fill our nation’s streets to protest the murder of unarmed black citizens by police, and the Naval Academy responds to vitriolic racism unintentionally broadcast by an alumnus.   While the Sisterhood of Mother B primarily focuses on stories of women in uniform, we recognize the intersectionality of this moment, and feel the need to respond in our own words.  We are, after all, an organization that calls regularly on men to be allies, to not stand by as our sisters are mistreated.  How can we then stand idle in the face of centuries long discrimination our brothers and sisters of color endure, laid bare?

We will not pretend to have been blind to bigotry until this moment.  Nor will we pretend that we are blameless in our fellow citizens’ plight.  As one our founding Sisters pointed out, we are #sisterhoodsowhite, with no women of color among our core contributors and only one among our founders.  As leaders, as friends, as wives, as sisters, we all look back on moments when we should have said more. Done more.  Refused to shrink from uncomfortable confirmation of our own biases.

Over the week we will continue, we will be sharing our founding members’ responses to recent events.  From our different walks of life, and our common service, we humbly offer our grief, our anger, and our suggestions for change.  Our experiences are not steeped in the toxic brew of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial animus.  But we are all too familiar with being othered; of being pre-judged for who we are, rather than what we achieve, of being told to grow thicker-skin-it-was-just-a-joke.  Many of us know the gut-wrenching realization that our physical safety is not guaranteed, and our abusers act with impunity.   More than anything, our hope is to build on this solidarity, recognize our own shortcomings, and learn to be better allies, leaders, and friends.

Change requires institutional reflection followed by action.  In this submission, Beth Ann (Thomas) Vann (USNA’98) asks hard questions and presents concrete steps that USNA and the Fleet should take to address systemic racism.

from Beth Ann (Thomas) Vann ’98

In thinking about how we the Alumni of the US Naval Academy in collaboration with the Academy Leadership move forward following the racist and sexist statements of CAPT Bethmann in the midst of a huge anti-racist movement in our country following the murder of George Floyd, I’ve settled on a few highlights that require our immediate and intentional action as leaders amongst leaders.

  1. Racism and Sexism are alive and “well” and even protected amongst us. Capt Bethmann’s actions were appalling and despicable, at best.  Looking at the Alumni Associations response to Capt Bethmann’s FB Live statements; Where is the apology, justice, and dignity for all the “Black Bitches in the office” and all the Chinese American and Female midshipman, sailors, and Marines who are taking over the Academy?
  2. What behavior, guilt by association, institutionalism, pride, etc leads so many alumni to come to his defense of being a “good guy” who has done so much “good” in his career and in his past to not be judged for this event? Would these same people excuse the behavior of a “nice guy” turned rapist? Is racism and sexism not as vile or life altering as rape? I do not imply that CAPT Bethmann does not deserve the opportunity to rehabilitate nor that he does not deserve that personal support of his friends and family while he and his family work through this situation. The direct implication is that his personal journey and that of the institution to which WE belong to or come from are not one in the same, and there should be a public admonishment and consequences for his actions as a member of our/my Alumni Association.
  3. Why is the Academy and the Alumni Association quick to respond so delicately and with such discretion? I understand the need for professionalism and decorum; those two behaviors do not prohibit us from being outraged at the behavior of one of our own and more importantly the in-your-face realization that racism and sexism are alive and “well” in our organization and our institution. UPDATE: After this piece was originally crafted, Vice Adm. Sean Buck released a very strong message via YouTube, please take the time to watch (link here).  This is the kind of leadership we need and more importantly we need to support to endure this difficult transition.
  4. It is time to recognize that our history is a work in progress. The people that we pay homage to on the Yard as building names and monuments and in our service are now a small part of who we are today and our growing history. While we should always teach and learn history as it occurred; it is time to take a look again at what and who is important to the development of our Academy and the Alumni Association. We are not merely products of our legacy instead we are authors of the legacy we leave for those that come after us.

In the week following CAPT Bethmann’s statements and in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, I am privileged to read testimonials from several Alumni from classes 2019 thru 1980 that highlight that the presence of racism and sexism were not and are not unknown to the leadership of USNA, and many of those same people are now and have been leaders in the Alumni Association. Instead, these behaviors are often protected or shielded seemingly to protect the reputation of the institution at large.  This must be called out, highlighted, and discussed amongst us. The conversations will be difficult and passionate.  Our institution is only truly strong and honorable if we hold each other accountable and live up to the values that we espouse. Current leaders exhibiting racist or sexist behavior must be immediately identified, advised, educated, and given a brief opportunity to make an about face and if they choose not to do so, they are no longer welcome to participate in the leadership of the Alumni Association, the Academy, and subsequently our armed services.  As humans, we all have biases and in many forms racism is ingrained in our system; now is the time to intentionally highlight those behaviors and beliefs to eradicate them from the Academy, our military service, and the Alumni Association. This will strengthen our force and allow us to focus more intensely on defeating those who threaten our country and our way of life while in uniform and in support of those in uniform once we are no longer active duty.

I can see the damage that continues to be done to people of varying races, genders, and sexual persuasions who valiantly raise their right hands to serve this great country and defend the constitution. It is not right to expect minorities to just be grateful for an opportunity because so few are given the option to partake in the honor of attending USNA. We can be grateful and demand change at the same time because we took the opportunity. I recognize that we’ve made some progress, and I can confidently say it is not enough and coming about way too slowly. Speaking up does not make any minority ungrateful, it demonstrates our investment in righting the ship. If you insist that the way we’ve led and addressed equality and change must be the way we do it in the future, then you are part of the problem. I challenge our leaders at every level to challenge the status quo and mentor someone who thinks, talks, learns, looks, or leads differently than you to take on and succeed as a leader in our institution and our Navy and Marine Corps because that’s our job! Certainly, the members of the Alumni Association and the Academy leadership can see that our organization is not just and fair for all of us. Continue to open your eyes and ears to the experiences of those of us who are not of the majority and are willing to share our reality.  The path is not yet paved, and we will break trail with you to make right the service and institution that we love in great part because of our love for USNA and the brothers and sisters we served with because we continue to support and defend the constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.

We Humbly Offer  (Part I of IV)

Today, marchers fill our nation’s streets to protest the murder of unarmed black citizens by police, and the Naval Academy responds to vitriolic racism unintentionally broadcast by an alumnus.   While the Sisterhood of Mother B primarily focuses on stories of women in uniform, we recognize the intersectionality of this moment, and feel the need to respond in our own words.  We are, after all, an organization that calls regularly on men to be allies, to not stand by as our sisters are mistreated.  How can we then stand idle in the face of centuries long discrimination our brothers and sisters of color endure, laid bare?

We will not pretend to have been blind to bigotry until this moment.  Nor will we pretend that we are blameless in our fellow citizens’ plight.  As one our founding Sisters pointed out, we are #sisterhoodsowhite, with no women of color among our core contributors and only one among our founders.  As leaders, as friends, as wives, as sisters, we all look back on moments when we should have said more. Done more.  Refused to shrink from uncomfortable confirmation of our own biases.

Over the next week, we will be sharing our founding members’ responses to recent events.  From our different walks of life, and our common service, we humbly offer our grief, our anger, and our suggestions for change.  Our experiences are not steeped in the toxic brew of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial animus.  But we are all too familiar with being othered; of being pre-judged for who we are, rather than what we achieve, of being told to grow thicker-skin-it-was-just-a-joke.  Many of us know the gut-wrenching realization that our physical safety is not guaranteed, and our abusers act with impunity.   More than anything, our hope is to build on this solidarity, recognize our own shortcomings, and learn to be better allies, leaders, and friends.

Change requires more than platitudes.  In this submission, Kate Glynn (USNA’98) recommends concrete steps that USNA and the Fleet should take to address systemic racism.

from Kate McCreery Glynn ’98

To work towards racial justice at USNA, and in the fleet, work needs to be done to normalize POCs in leadership roles, to account for past wrongs, and to make specific policy changes to ensure POCs are not disadvantage today.  It will take deliberate action, not just good intentions.  Yes, for some time this will involve quotas.  Yes, some folks will chafe and cry unfair and claim that white straight men are having their rights denied.   Tough bananas.

To Normalize Minorities in leadership roles:

  • Deliberate staffing to ensure senior ranks include POCs (and more than a token few—I see no reason, for example, that one Battalion officer at USNA should not be female, one a PoC at all times). In the fleet, deliberate staffing to ensure POCs command carriers, MAGs etc.  A deliberate effort like this was made when women were first allowed onto warships:  a female officer first, then female enlisted.  We can do this again, and eventually (hopefully) the practice will no longer be required.
  • Deliberately adding works by minority authors to reading lists. At USNA, some portion of leadership class/history class readings should be by authors of color.  Not just works about racism/homophobia/sexism, but books about history and leadership and war by minority authors and about minorities’ in service/leadership/heroic roles.

To account for past wrongs:

  • Remove names that celebrate Confederates. Change racist unit names (I belonged to the HS-6 Indians, aka the Screaming Redskins.  This was considered the “PC” version of the squadron name, which used to be the HS-6 Indian Maidens with a buxom native girl as our mascot to match… So… Yah…).  Don’t do it quietly.  Do it  to encourage the conversations that come with those changes.  This is a serious signal from senior leadership that racism, even casual racism in the name of tradition, will not be tolerated.
  • At USNA, remove the names of Maury and Buchanan, and actively engage the Naval Academy Minority Association in choosing the replacement names.

Specific Changes to ensure POC arent disadvantaged today:

  • Enculturating the idea that NOT saying something when a shipmate is victimized (even ‘jokes’) makes you culpable in the racist/sexist/homophobic slur. This has to start at OCS/Plebe Summer/Boot Camp.  Make it part of the “Honor Courage Commitment” conversation.  Repeat it, again and again and again. At USNA, this should be a cornerstone of “Don’t bilge your shipmate.”
  • Leadership training (Luce Hall at USNA) focused on leading diverse troops: race, sexuality, gender, religion. Focus on ending bystander culture; case-studies, and serious conversations about institutional bias (for example: Are there statistics on discipline meted out to POCs vs. white Marines and Sailors?).
  • Deliberate staffing to ensure more minority leadership in the entry, discipline, promotion, (Admissions, disciplinary/academic boards at USNA) processes. More people of color in the admissions process:  Blue and Gold officers, Admissions officers, Alumni Admissions Board members.  There will STILL be a chokepoint, since most elected officials granting nominations are not POC, so I have zero issues with quotas.

Soft Resilience

by Annie Murray, ’99

I’m no longer a pilot. Far from it. I’m a Navy Clinical Neuropsychologist, and currently the Director of the Traumatic Brain Injury Clinic, the Intrepid Spirit Center, at Camp Pendleton. With Psychology and Neuropsychology, I found a job that was truer to my personality than aviation ever was for me– a nerd who is interested in people and what makes them tick.

“You’re too soft….”

At the end of cognitive rehabilitation treatment, we ask our patients for feedback about the program; things they liked and didn’t like, what we could improve. That was the feedback from a clinic patient, a special forces type, who had lost his leg below the knee in combat and wore a prosthetic. My initial reaction (inside voice) was, yeah, no shit. Maybe you need some softness in your life, and that is why you are here. 

But it also made me sad. This guy did not know anything about me. I have been through “stuff”, too. I am missing parts, too. You just don’t get to see my missing parts, or my scars. My missing parts are kept a secret; they did not earn me any medals.

Women are told to “lean in,” to ambition, to assertiveness, to sucking it up, to the other characteristically male-dominated constructs of leadership and beyond, but what if women “leaned in” to each other instead? What if what women really need is to not feel alone in their struggles, not isolated from their husband, boss, the patient with the missing leg; but especially from other women?

In some weird way, it took losing my uterus, Fallopian tubes, and cervix – all parts that make me inherently “female” – to be a better woman; one with greater depth, empathy, and compassion for other women.

It was a Tuesday night in 2015 when I lost my uterus, about 6 weeks after giving birth to my second son, Jack. Jack was perfect but my uterus was not.

My emergency hysterectomy came at the end of a 3-week period of complications in which I had multiple, post-partum hemorrhages requiring four surgeries, massive transfusion of more than 20 units of blood products – more than twice my body’s blood volume – and resuscitation to survive. My husband – a Navy pilot – had deployed during the middle of all this, so when I woke up from my fourth and final surgery, I was alone.

My husband was flown home for a couple of weeks to be with me, but he eventually re-deployed, and I was alone again. Except I wasn’t really alone because I had a 2-year-old and a newborn, and a metric ass-ton of trauma.

Many years before this, my time at the Naval Academy (’95-’99) were largely spent trying to fit in; never alone, but never really part of the group either. I was never the smartest, the best athlete, the prettiest or the coolest. In fact, I spent most of my time in Annapolis struggling with anxiety, cystic acne and calculus 3. Inside Bancroft Hall, I had a genuine best friend in my roommate, a friendship that continues to this day; but the truth is she was way cooler than me, and she seemed to just “do” the Naval Academy better than me. The other women I befriended at the Academy were the same, and they seemed to breeze through the academic, athletic, and social challenges without any outward signs of the deep anxiety, insecurity and loneliness that I struggled with. The next 10 years of my life were much of the same. I felt out place as a mediocre Navy pilot. I thought at the time that I was the only woman who felt out of place or alone.

I wish I could say that I never felt alone as a woman again, but that would not be true. Before I lost my uterus, my husband and I struggled for years to get pregnant. We tried Intra Uterine Insemination four times before our doctor told us there was nothing more he could do and that our best chances of having a baby would be with IVF. So we did the shots, hormones, blood tests, emotional roller coaster, and everything else that comes with infertility treatments. We were an IVF success story; we had two perfectly healthy boys.

We also had twelve, frozen, 5-day blastocycsts.

This is where things get really awkward, like I am trying to explain the plot of that movie, Memento, or something, and I just end up yelling never mind, it’s complicated, and crying.

But I need to try to explain this; because not explaining the difficult stuff  is why women feel so alone sometimes. We think that whatever went wrong was our fault, or that we should suck it up, we should just be grateful, or that someone always has it worse than us. And then shame sets in, and we stay quiet.

I obviously could not carry another baby after my complications, and we struggled for years in trying to figure out what to do with our embryos. Surrogacy was too expensive and dangerous, and donating the embryos was out of the question for me. I could not imagine a world where my flesh and blood children roamed this earth and I was not their mom, the one who tucked them in at night or kissed their boo-boos. After all my husband and I had been through, I didn’t want to unfreeze and “discard” the embryos (their word not mine). Donating embryos to research isn’t as easy or glamorous as it sounds because they are considered “human product” (also their word, not mine). Continuing to pay thousands of dollars a year to freeze them was not sustainable either.

For those reasons, and a million more, my IVF doctor agreed to do what is called a “compassionate transfer,” an embryo transfer typically done at an infertile time of a woman’s cycle. Since I did not have a uterus or cervix even, it made the idea of transferring embryos all the more non-traditional. I had read about compassionate transfers online (I do NOT recommend doing this. Any choice women make regarding embryos seems to elicit emotion and judgement, the kind so hurtful, you cannot even put into words). I saw this as an opportunity to provide closure from all we had been through in our journey to parenthood, but in a way that held meaning to us. Without my reproductive organs, my options were severely limited, and I saw this as a way to honor what we had been through. In doing the compassionate transfer, our embryos, which were made from my husband and me, became a part of me once again.

Prior to the transfer, our doctor met with us to ask how I wanted the experience to go: any special wishes? (Not really); would I allow a Fellow to observe? (No); did I want to see the embryos beforehand under the microscope? (Yes); did I want valium? (Yes! I mean, No). It was quiet and somber, respectful, though with none of the hope of my other transfers.

Afterwards, the embryologist took my hands and looked deep into my eyes and she did not speak a word. We just nodded to each other, just two women, two mothers in the moment, as she gifted me with the acknowledgement of my grief and the weight of it all. My husband and I were left alone for as long as we wanted, and we held each other and cried.

Then, I got dressed and we went and watched Crazy Rich Asians –drinking wine and crying some more in the dark theater with the fancy seats – because we weren’t sure what else to. It was compassionate, but it still hurt.

I only regret the shame that I have felt throughout this process, and that it took something like this to help me understand what it might feel like to be a woman and not have choice or options. Choosing allowed me a sense of control when everything related to motherhood has felt out of control for me. And I have had really big, deep thoughts about these complicated issues-like what makes “life,” the value of embryos to different people, how we talk about motherhood and choice. And how we are quick to judge one another and try to categorize decisions as either “good” or “bad” when the truth is, we have no idea until we have walked in someone else’s shoes. I have stood and cried with another woman in the very same situation as me, having embryos and wanting more children, but having lost her uterus during childbirth. She donated her embryos. Neither of us judged each other for our decisions, we just acknowledged that it was hard and held space for one another’s feelings.

This isn’t meant to be political or religious, I’m not much of either. I simply hope you can try to consider other experiences, and sit with the stillness of not jumping to judgement of what you think someone “should” do.

There are so many ways that women isolate one another, and placing blame or judgement is just one of them. I recognize that I can share these experiences with you from a place of privilege, that I have a healthy family, and that a few years removed from all this, we can consider ideas outside of personal survival.

In the two years since, I have only told a few friends (and one unsuspecting Uber driver) about everything. Maybe it is because women do not talk about the struggles surrounding motherhood enough, the gray area, the stuff that does not end up on our social media feed. We tend to feel as though we need to have everything figured out on our own, and that is just not reality. We also tend to stay quiet about certain experiences – infertility, miscarriage, mental health issues, children with special needs – and even compassionate transfers – instead of talking about it and forming meaningful connections with other women. Women tend to carry their pain and hide it; while men—like my special forces amputee– are often afforded the grace to do the opposite.

That desire to help other women feel supported has led to my involvement and advocacy for women’s health initiatives and those actions that support mothers, babies, and ultimately, families and communities as a whole. My involvement has allowed me to find purpose from everything that has happened after Jack was born, and it helps shape and give meaning to my experiences. It has opened up my aperture and given me greater perspective: my story is just part of the much bigger picture of the many issues facing mothers – and women more broadly – around the world. We all want to feel like we are part of something bigger than ourselves.

In the past four years, I have found my voice through my work with Every Mother Counts (EMC), a non-profit organization dedicated to making pregnancy and childbirth safer for every woman, everywhere. Whereas I used to worry that telling my story seemed too self-indulgent, I have grown to understand the value in sharing my experiences as a way to connect with women and that my story is only a tiny piece in the tapestry of women’s’ experiences. I have run half-marathons with the EMC running team, because I enjoy running and raising funds and awareness for the organization, but also because it is my version of moving meditation. I allow myself to be amazed at my own resiliency. And my own softness.

More from Annie about Every Mother Counts

Every Mother Counts  (EMC) was founded in 2010 by Christy Turlington Burns with the mission to help women not just survive, but thrive in motherhood. More broadly, EMC identifies  barriers for women and provides practical and meaningful solutions so that all women may have safe, respectful, and equitable pregnancy and childbirth experiences.

The statistics surrounding maternal health care are compelling, and once I became aware, I could not look away. The U.S. is the only industrialized nation with a growing maternal mortality rate despite spending the greatest amount of money on healthcare per capita. In fact, it’s now more dangerous to give birth than it was for our own mothers. Childbirth and pregnancy are particularly dangerous for women of color, as African American women are 3-4 times more likely to die than white women, a statistic that climbs to 12 times more likely in certain areas such as New York City. Research has pointed to systemic racism within our own healthcare systems as a cause for this unacceptable disparity. More attention must be placed on helping woman of marginalized cultures, and finding solutions for those without health insurance or access to prenatal care.