“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”

“My wife…?”

“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.”

“Hey, Trev.”

“Good morning, Daddy.”

“Hey, Danny.”

“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.”

“Oh, ok.”

“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.”

“Hey, Pumpkin.”

“Good morning, Daddy.”

“Hey, Danny.”

“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.

“Daddy.”

“Hey Buddy, I thought you were asleep.”

“Where’s Mama?”

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. 

Midnight Confessions 

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.

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