I’m the founder and CEO of an international humanitarian aid group based in Austin called Circle of Health International. We care for moms and babies in some of the world’s hardest places. I am also a mother, a wife, a midwife, an activist, a Jew, and a Buddhist. Not always in that order.

We are currently endeavoring to raise $100,000 through a crowdfunding campaign called “In Her Shoes”(#inhershoesCOHI). There are two elements to the campaign:

  • A three-day challenge on social media showcasing what pregnant and nursing women cared for by COHI eat, drink, and cook on a daily basis, as well as their access to water, power, safety, and calories on that budget. There are 15 different country profiles to choose from, based on where COHI has/is working. Participants tag members of their network asking them to either take the challenge or donate the $60 it takes to feed a mother where COHI works.
  • On November 14th, a physical event in Brooklyn, Austin, and other cities, in which guests will be assigned identities of women COHI cares for and will “walk in their shoes” throughout the event. They’ll receive chance cards during the event that will change their life circumstances based on real life situations that women in crisis face. All elements of the game will be connected to social media platforms for easy sharing and to raise funds during the event.

I’ve been working in global reproductive health for almost 20 years, and I thought I had a pretty good sense of the parts that are hard for me and where my emotional boundaries lie. The In Her Shoes challenge was so much harder for me than I thought it was going to be, and hurt in ways I didn’t anticipate.

The work that I do brings me into direct contact with hard shit: rape, trafficking, moms who don’t survive pregnancy, babies who don’t survive their first year. These things happen because:

  • 80% of the world’s refugees are women and children
  • Food security is a serious concern for two-thirds of the world’s women
  • 70% of women in the world live on less than $2 a day
  • 35% of women of reproductive age are anemic
  • 46% of pregnant women are anemic
  • Over 60% of children are stunted because of malnutrition
  • ­Most rural households have little-to-no access to health care, education, clean drinking water, or sanitation, and most rural women live in extreme poverty.
  • Cultural prejudices against women mean they have less access to services, education, and health care, as well as food resources both in and out of the home.
  • Over 60% of women work agriculturally, but do so with archaic farming techniques that require intense labor.

This work that I do is hard on my body and my heart. I’ve had dysentery more times than I care to count. I had a baby (by cesarean section) while in a country not my own. I know first-hand the dangers of dengue, malaria, and cholera. I have been attacked multiple times, for both my body and my money. To combat all of this, I have developed a tested maintenance plan. I know that I need to go see my trauma-specialist therapist immediately upon return from field work, and on average, every 2-3 weeks for regular emotional tune ups. I know I should stay away from Whole Foods and Target for at least five days upon returning to the US. In my leisure time, I do not consume books or movies with any violence at all.

But what I learned about myself during the In Her Shoes challenge is that I have other strategies to protect myself. I apply mostly a ‘global’ approach to the hard parts of this work and have found this to be the most dominant strategy I’ve adopted. It enables me to think and talk about the tough stuff – the numbers of rapes, the numbers of mothers that die, the locations of babies that are hungry – in aggregate. I do this so that I can come to work each day with a heart not more broken than the day before. But what this challenge required me to do was to think of Her, just one woman, for three full days. It rocked me. And that part, I was totally unprepared for.

It was a three-day meditation for me in how one woman lives without what she needs to keep her babies and herself safe. That was really heartbreaking. Thinking of it now makes me want to cry. And since my blood sugar was low while I was doing it, well, that made it all the harder.

Imagine if everyday you showed up to do your job without what you needed to succeed. How hard that would be? That is what mothers all around the world do everyday. They don’t have the water, the food, the electricity, the transportation, the education, the protections, that I do every day. Every damn day.

I come face to face with this woman when I am in the field, and there it is predictable, sadly. But those moments are forbidden to spill into my life in Austin, my daily life with my kids who have Legos on demand and think mac and cheese is a food group. My head, heart, and soul cannot manage both those experience in the same time and space. But for the three days of this challenge, I had to hold all of these emotions in the same room. It hurt. A lot.

As a midwife, I am good with life hurting. It passes. Just hold the space, don’t hold on to the pain. It will pass. Ride it. At least for those of us with privilege, the hard stuff passes.

I am so grateful for this challenge, that I did it. I forget why I answer emails until midnight, then spend my days talking and writing about how we must do more to care for the women of the world that are infinitely braver than I am. I need to do this work—it is what makes the atrocities of the world a bit easier to stomach. We are doing everything we can to ensure that moms, ourselves included, have what we need to do the most important work any of us will ever do: raise our kids.

Photo via Flickr/jeyh (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)