In My Life and Work, I’m Guided by the Energy of Two Powerful Women: My Mother and Harriet Tubman
Each month, I set intentions around a theme that reflects my internal values and align my actions, activities, and projects with that theme. As we close out Women’s History Month, I reflect on the themes that have anchored me this month in my work and in my life: empowerment, self-determination, leadership. And when I think about the people present and past who offer me a lens through which I can see these values actualized, I am reminded of a woman who deeply shaped my life: my own mother.
Terry Anita Carter Danziger was born on April 4, 1958, in Virginia in the midst of the brewing Civil Rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on her 10th birthday, April 4, 1968, which led to the "Holy Week Uprising,” or King Assassination Riots. She has a keen memory of that day and what it was like for her.
As a preteen, her family moved out West and she attended high school in Oakland, California. It was in Oakland in her teen years that she would meet Angela Davis, political activist and scholar, who was involved with various groups including the Black Panther Party. She would confide in Ms. Davis about being bullied at school and felt affirmed in their conversations. As my mother continued to grow self-empowered, she cultivated self-determination and one day, when her bullies showed up in the hallway to torment her, she fought back and changed the relationship. She never had a problem with those girls again. I believe that seed of courage gave rise to a new version of herself, one that would take mess from no one. That is the woman I would come to know when I was born in 1980, when she was just 22-years-alive.
She taught me body literacy from the earliest age; I remember using anatomically accurate terms for the reproductive anatomy and stunning adults at just 4 years of age.
My mother is someone who appreciates knowledge and constantly learning. She also loved teaching me new things. I remember when she was pregnant with my sister, my mother bought all of the books, exposed me to programs, and talked a lot about the pregnancy and birth process with me. I remember watching a show on PBS, “My Mom’s Having a Baby,” which was an animated series for children. She taught me body literacy from the earliest age; I remember using anatomically accurate terms for the reproductive anatomy and stunning adults at just 4 years of age. It was during this time that the seeds were planted for my journey into women’s health and doula work. She was a leader in her time; no one was having these conversations about our bodies, but I was having them in my home.
Although she became a single mother early on and was raising two girls, my mother was determined to afford us the best opportunities, even though she didn’t have access to the spaces and doors she was knocking on for us. It was her belief that we deserved the same opportunities that wealthy white children had and that the best schools were not necessarily in our neighborhood of Oakland. She believed that we needed to expand our wings to be privy to these opportunities that were sequestered. She thought that better education would open doors and set us up for an even better life.
I received a merit scholarship and attended an independent boarding school in Colorado for high school where I was one of a handful of Black children. I then attended Columbia University. My sister also attended a performing arts boarding school and Columbia University. My mother is really an alchemist; she did not have the income or the connections to make a way for us, she was determined to help us realize our own leadership and empowered us with the tools we needed to navigate these spaces.
She also taught me what self care looks like in action. On Wednesdays, my mother would have a massage appointment. Not every single week but at least twice a month. On those evenings, I would make dinner for my sister and me and the therapist would come with her table, provide the massage, and my mom would fall asleep for the night. It was a way for her to process the brunt of stress she was overcome by: economic, racial, parental, occupational, etc. She gifted me a massage table in my early 20s that I still have with the intention that I would also invite regular massage or therapeutics to help me process the brunt of stress that affects my life and shows up in my body. Touch is very important to me, it's woven into my own resilience practices and it's a big part of my work and teachings.
When I became a mother myself, I looked back at the constellation she created; I gaze at the path she took and I find that some of my footsteps have followed. While I didn’t want to become a single mother because I knew how hard it was for my mother to navigate, I found myself exiting my relationship with a little boy, just 3 years of age at the time. And what came over me in that time of crisis and confusion was empowerment, self-determination and leadership.
Our work as doulas or birth keepers is to hold one’s hand as they cross a river. We help people make safe passage along an uneven and unknown terrain.
I knew I had to pick up the pieces and forge a new path. I knew I had to take a leap of faith and break free. This is when I summoned the spirit and energy of freedom fighter and abolitionist Harriet Tubman. I needed a vision for the future and one that was liberating. The seeds my mother planted in my youth around birth work had come full bloom and I was ready to take steps toward doula work. Once I said yes, to the calling, I never turned away. I stayed the course and I’m still walking the path to this day. Now, I am ushering others with me. The seeds of leadership were planted by my mother who believed in me. And I guide others to believe in a vision for a future that centers our safety, dignity, belonging—a future that honors the sanctity of birth.
Our work as doulas or birth keepers is to hold one’s hand as they cross a river. We help people make safe passage along an uneven and unknown terrain. We travel by darkness guided by the magic and mystery of the body. And as someone who is keenly aware of the disparities in birth outcomes in the U.S.A., it is my privilege and honor to stand as a constant presence of support and advocate alongside birthing people, particularly those with marginalized identities.
The spirit of our foremother Harriet Tubman flanks me with the vision, courage, and steadiness to keep going to work toward birth equity. And with all of the foundational love and belief poured into me, I’m reminded by my mother and others who have nurtured me along the way that we can do it.
Looking for more Strong As Her? Check out these letters from best-selling author Layla Saad and Peloton instructor Tunde Oyeneyin.
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