“We refuse to be what you wanted us to be; We are what we are; That’s the way (way) it’s going to be.”
–Bob Marley and the Wailers
The Trials of Mia Aretha (as Witnessed by Karl)
For real though. Ordinarily I don’t vent in public. In fact, I am not active on any of the social media platforms. But when my wife, Mia Aretha Ben, asked me to write a blog post about being married to a female black doctor, I decided that now might be the time to share some of what she has shared with me over the years and the things to which I can bear witness.
I can remember the first time Mia shared a story with me about being told by a hospital security officer that she couldn’t park in the physicians parking space, because those parking spaces were reserved for —well, physicians. And despite the green scrubs, hospital ID clipped to her scrub pocket, and the red and white physicians parking permit tag hanging conspicuously from her car rearview mirror somehow the security officer opined — yes. out loud to Mia Aretha —that she couldn’t be a physician.
I actually reached out to the hospital’s security director that time. All the security officer had done was pissed me off and put his director in an embarrassing situation. The usual apologies and explanations (excuses) ensued.
While I like to think of myself as a patient man, honestly, I am not sure how I would respond if I were in the same situation.
Every time Mia Aretha shares the daily assaults on her dignity, her humanity I feel a sense of outrage.
Like the (many) times she has been confused —yes, I know, I know — with being the nurse (or the cleaning person) by fellow physicians, family members, visiting friends, and food service employees.
It’s not confusion if the intent is clear.
Or the time the patient’s grandmother asked her when the doctor was going to come see her grandchild. To which my wife responded, “Ma’am, I am the physician.” To which the grandmother responded, “Oh, I thought you were the cleaning person.”
Yup. Standing there with her green scrubs, white coat, and credentials hanging from her coat pocket. And, yes, she had introduced herself to everyone in the room as Dr. Ben. Being the target of bias is one thing but being the target of unchecked racism is infuriating.
And when the black, female doctor being subjected to unchecked racism on a daily basis is your wife…it is a challenge not to overreact.
And each outrage brings its own cost to my constantly defining (and redefining) where it is I belong in this process. How does a man handle these incessant bombardments of aggression on his wife?
Am I an actor in this process? Or merely an observer?
How did we get here?
Looks like what drives me crazy
Don’t have no effect on you—
But I’m gonna keep at it
Till it drives you crazy, too
–Langston Hughes, Selected Poems
Did I tell ya’ll about the time the drug rep thought I —Dr. Ben’s husband — was a white guy that worked in her office?
Here’s what happened…
A drug rep new to the area visited the office for the first time and had heard that Dr. Ben’s husband worked in the office. One day he visited the office and began to engage in a rather prolonged and lively discussion with the front desk clerk about the area and community.
A recreation of a misadventure of a plus-one follows.
“So, how does your wife manage her diabetes population? Does she use reminders in her EMR”
“Yes, does Dr. Ben use—”
“I’m sorry, John… my wife doesn’t work here. “
“I don’t understand…aren’t you Dr. Ben’s husband?”
“No Sir! I’m a front desk clerk.”
“I was told that Dr. Ben’s husband works here and—”
“Well, Mr. Ben does work here. He is the practice administrator. His office is in the back. I can see if he is available if you want to meet him.”
Head- scratching. Awkward silence.
“I, I…sure. What does he look like, so I won’t make the same mistake… again?”
“He is shaved bald, dark-skinned…”
(I couldn’t tell you what he looked like, because I never met the man.)
Apparently, in John’s mind this black and female physician could only be married to a white guy; any white guy. It is quite a burden being a bystander at times in the life of my wife.
I ask myself all the time, “When did this happen? How did I become a plus one?” It is a unique undertaking becoming a semi-colon in someone else’s bio. Or at least an inconvenient consideration in this sui generis model of social stratification of race and status and relevancy.
My wife once informed me that she had—on my behalf mind you—paid for my membership in a spouse of doctors type organization. I was made aware of this during a local event. And I was, of course, the only male member of the group.
Well, lucky me.
Two things of note: none of the female spouses of the black (and male) physicians could bear to acknowledge the status of the black (and yes female) physicians in attendance, and I felt like a wedding crasher for the remainder of the evening. It was to be sure an odd night. Awkward and disparaging.
I did not take issue with attending the event to support Mia. After all I’d do anything to show my support, but that felt…like…it was done in jest? Ha-ha. Frankly, I have had a few years to think about that night and honestly, I don’t know if the whole thing was necessary. It felt, at best, avoidable.
Make Me Wanna Holler
Late nights and other misadventures of Mia Aretha.
Missed parent teacher conferences. “Daddy, did Mama come home last night?” A steady stream of family movie outings that Mia Aretha didn’t attend. Sometimes the first day(s) of school for our children. I think of these as missed opportunities.
There were times when I did not feel up to the task of “getting it done”. Early mornings when Mia Sofia required that last minute touch that only her mother could provide.
Don’t get me wrong I don’t regret the responsibility of spending time with my children to visit the zoo, the park, the latest Marvel film, etc. But there are times when Mia Aretha’s absence due to her work commitments results in some frustrating situations.
“Good morning, Daddy.”
“Good morning, Daddy.”
“Did Mama come home last night?”
Pause. Oh no not again. “Yes, yes she did…”
“I didn’t see her this morning.”
“I think she slept downstairs on the sofa so she wouldn’t wake me up when the pager went off.”
“Daddy, will we see her this evening before we go to bed?”
“Of course, Trevor.”
Turns out I lied.
Some years later after the birth of my daughter, my mornings would often go something like the following.
“Good morning, Daddy.”
“Good morning, Daddy.”
“Did Mama come home last night?”
Pause. Oh boy. “Yes, yes she did…”
“I didn’t see her this morning. Did you see her?”
“I think she slept downstairs on the sofa so she wouldn’t wake me up when she received text messages from the hospital.”
“She is on call…again?”
“Yes, Mia Sofia.”
“Daddy, will we see her later?”
“Of course, Danny.”
Same story. Different day.
“Daddy, can me and Mama have a girls day soon?”
After Mia Sofia turned twelve the questions took on a different flavor.
“Daddy, can me and Mama have another Mother & Daughter day soon?”
“I don’t see why not. Did you ask your Mom?”
“Yes, but the last time we went to a movie, she fell asleep.”
“What?” Oh boy!
“Well, your Mom spends a lot of time taking care of her patients, Pumpkin.”
“Can’t somebody else take care of them for her?”
“I don’t think your Mom is comfortable with that. But I talked to your Mom and she said she will try to do better.”
Date nights are extremely rare for us. Honestly, I feel selfish when we do go out. I know she could really use a night of sleep. And I feel less than wonderful when we go out on the weekends, because I know there is the possibility that she will fall asleep mid-movie on me due to the sleep deprivation she endures.
It has been the same thing since med school and residency.
In fact, I remember having to take our oldest, Trevor, to visit Mia Aretha while she was on shift at Children’s Hospital for a few years. He was so happy to see his mother the lateness of the hour did not diminish his seemingly boundless energy.
I think this is when Trevor developed his fondness for bunk beds.
Often, I would carry him to the car and later put him in bed because he was too exhausted himself during our visit. Some nights he would wake up a few minutes after I laid him down.
“Hey Buddy, I thought you were asleep.”
It was just me, him, and his Mom then.
All told I think he handled Mia Aretha’s absences as well as to be expected.
There were things we wanted to do, but that is all behind us now.
Slipping away from myself
from the surface city at night
–Tom Dent, FOR LOUIS, New Orleans Griot: The Tom Dent Reader
Existence. Identity. Purpose.
These things have become all the more relevant over these last few years for me.
If I am being honest, I would have to say I would definitely approach the challenges of being married to a black female physician differently if I had any of the insight I have now when I was a younger man.
There were people along the journey that tried to inform me (well really us) of the challenges of being married to a doctor.
But I don’t recall anyone—specifically—offering counsel on the challenges unique to the couple that dares embark upon the journey of being married to a black female doctor.
To this I can bear witness.
Karl Ben is a father, husband, native New Orleanian, published author, actor, former Practice Administrator for his wife’s pediatric, and two-time Texas A & M-Commerce business school graduate. His favorite writers are Jimmy Baldwin and Tom Dent.
Thank you for sharing your perspective, Karl. As a mom, doctor and wife you have really given me some insight into what my husband is feeling when I am away working lots of evenings and weekends in the ER.
I truly understand what your talking about. Because I am also living the same things that you talk about here would love to know more about some of your experiences and how you handle them
That was very deep. Then add Master-baker to her resume and I’m sure that can be another hindrance. Well thanks for the read. Through my wife isn’t a doctor, I will use this as a moment of reflection to ensure that I maximize my support for both her and our kids.
Thanks for writing this. I would love to share this with my husband. He is from new Orleans and married a black obgyn.
I take issue with almost everything written. My SO is a physician and we are both black. Okay well here are my two cents. It’s not like we became black yesterday nor is dealing with latent racism something new to us. I know racial bias, implicit or otherwise, is real in the medical field from the perspective the patient. I am not brand new to this. I also have infinite faith in her ability to navigate those waters without me calling security or whatever.
I also am a high achiever and I believe that like attracts like. I am her biggest fan, one man cheer coach, and supporter. I believe that feeling is mutual. We are equals in every sense of the word. So it is impossible that I would ever feel some type of way about being a “plus one.”
Even when I was on heavy travel for work we still made time for dates. Like every week or whenever possible. But I fully accept that folks have to work because I have a pretty demanding job as well. I hail from a family of overtime workers and small business owners who all work 60+ hours a week. We work, and people who work accept that different careers have different work demands. So long as it’s an efficient use of her time, it is what it is. It’s my job to support her just like she supported me when I was on assignment in BFE (like right now) and I didn’t want to be.
Granted, we don’t have small kids and maybe that would change my views on this. But from where I am sitting, feeling like the author does is near impossible if the guy has a lot going on in his life. I do not purport to know anything about the author. I am saying that for me, being married to a black doctor is really no different than being to a high achieving black woman in any profession. Again, like attracts like but maybe it’s also just whatever you grew up with.
Thank you for being a supportive husband and friend to your amazing wife.
Thank you for sharing
Thank you Karl for your transparency and honesty. It was insightful and I just love her even more now. I appreciate you as the husband of a black female physician, a father and her support.
Loved your blog Karl. As a physician in private practice, who’s husband currently manages our solo practice, and has done so for 10 years now, it brought tears to my eyes to read how your kids missed Mia’s presence. We as physicians sacrifice so much for our patients at the expense of our family and our own wellbeing. Fortunately my husband and I have learned the importance of work-life balance. I start my work day at 7:30 am and end it at 2:30/3:00 pm and after I leave work, it’s all about me and family. My husband and I attend all our kids practices/games, parent-teacher conferences, etc. We share drop off and pick ups from school (some days I take my daughter to school and pick her up while my husband transports my son and vice versa, and sometimes we will take one car and do the transportation of our kids, together, just to have that morning, family time). But I also don’t admit patients to the hospital. I leave that up to the hospitalists. I have also trained my patients that emergencies are meant for the emergency room and if it’s not an emergency, it can wait until the next business day, so I rarely get called by my patients. I think as physicians we have to be mindful that we are human too and that we need to have balance and take time for ourselves and our family, because at the end of the day, if I die tomorrow, from being overworked and sacrificing all my valuable time to patient care, my family will miss me immensely and find it hard to move on without me, but my patients will say, “Dr. Feagins was a great doctor, I’m sure gonna miss her.” But they will go on with their lives, enjoying their families and find another physician.
This was heartbreaking to read. I appreciate your bravery in sharing your perspective. My husband and oldest child had similar experiences when I was in residency. Thank you for writing this and hopefully it will help other husbands of black women doctors at the very least to know that they are not alone.
A really thoughtful and insightful piece. To me, in some ways, highlights the plight of black professional women and in general women. The micro-aggressions we aim to ignore or wash off at night, guilt at not being with our families more, and how our work impacts our partners. Thank you for your perspective as it helps us figure out the work-life balance we so desperately seek. Keep writing!