Entrepreneur Kia Levey-Burden was adamant that she would never be a mom, especially a single one. State Sen. Gary Winfield always wanted to be a dad but never thought it would happen after a first marriage failed.
Before a gathering Monday night in Newhallville, Levey-Burden and Winfield told the stories of how love and faith brought each of them the unexpected adventure of parenthood.
They did so as part of Storytellers New Haven, a monthly series that invites people from the community to tell a story about their lives to their fellow community members. Monday’s event at ConnCAT was the third since the inception of the venture created by husband-and-wife team Karen DuBois-Walton and Kevin Walton. (Read here about the November event.)
DuBois-Walton said Storytellers New Haven is an outgrowth of the community conversations that were held around the city after the last presidential election and the Waltons’ affiliation with the Graustein Community Leadership Program. Like those conversations, the series is designed to bring a diverse group of people from all over the city together to learn more deeply about their neighbors.
“This is our offering to the New Haven community as a way of coming together,” she said. “There are 130,000 residents in the city and there are that many plus stories.”
A Reluctant Love Story
Levey-Burden, a native New Havener and founder of a consulting company called Launch, told the crowd of nearly 50 people Monday that she had a lot of plans for herself at an early age particularly around love. But being a mother was not among those early imaginings.
“I knew I wanted to be a wife,” she said. “I knew we would have the kind of wonderful relationship that writers write about and storytellers talk about. But I knew that I never wanted to have children, even as a teenager.”
Though she loved children, after seeing her own mother through a tumultuous marriage and then widowed at age 30, Levey-Burden said she swore off motherhood.
“She had three children who were not the easiest to raise,” Levey-Burden recalled of her mother. “As I got older and reflected, I knew I loved her for what she did for us, I honored her but I did not want to be her. It just looked too hard.”
She swore it off again when she discovered herself pregnant at 19, during her sophomore year at college in North Carolina. Rather than stay with her boyfriend at the time and keep the baby, she came home to Connecticut. And she said for many years she never told her mother why she had decided not to return to school in that state.
When she did finally get married, she made sure to discuss her desire to not have children. As their friends also started to marry and eventually have children, her then-husband asked her to revisit the idea. Her mind hadn’t changed. But her fate would change about four years into the marriage.
“I knew before I took the test,” she said when she discovered she was pregnant. “I knew it. I cried for two days.”
They weren’t tears of joy, but she wasn’t willing to terminate the pregnancy. She went through the pregnancy “dutifully,” not particularly excited about the process of growing a baby she was certain she didn’t want.
But when her son Seth arrived, she fell in love.
“This baby’s amazing,” she said, drawing a chuckle from the audience. “He is all the things. He’s gorgeous. He smells good, and he’s fun.”
But while she was “growing in love as a mother,” she was “falling out of love,” with her then-husband, she said. The marriage broke up.
In the early days, she was angriest with her ex-husband for making her the very thing she never wanted to be: a single mother. She said it wasn’t the love story that she envisioned. But her love for her son helped her embrace motherhood.
She said she named her son Seth, deliberately because the biblical Seth was “God’s promise.” The meaning of his name is something that she now reminds him of regularly as they navigate systems, particularly school, where they are both confronted with labels like “aggressive,” and “out of control,” when his behavior is in question.
Motherhood has been hard for her, she said, but not necessarily in the way that she thought. It’s been hard to confront the fact that people don’t see her “really tall, really big, little black boy” the way she sees him. She said it has been her job to remind Seth, who will soon be 11, that he “is not bad, not a problem, not a behavioral issue.”
“That’s not the name I gave to you,” she said she tells her son. “You’re God’s promise.”
“There’s always a happy ending,” Levey-Burden told the crowd. “I get to be his shield and his rear guard. I get to tell people how to treat him. That is a love I didn’t know I had the capacity to give.”
She also found romantic love again and got married in July.
What’s In A Name?
When State Sen. Gary Winfield got up to tell his story Monday night, he remarked that is was amazing that he and Levey-Burden hadn’t talked beforehand, given the similarities in their stories.
Winfield opened his story with the demise of his first marriage back in 2014.
A 20 plus year relationship — or 8,522 days from the first date to the day he found himself in divorce court — ended in the blink of an eye. That night when he couldn’t sleep. He decided to have a talk with God. He told the crowd Monday night that in that conversation he said he didn’t want to meet another woman for at least two years.
That is unless God had a different plan.
“Someone said something about not blocking your blessing,” he said. So, he told the Lord, “‘If you have a different plan…’
“He had a different plan.”
An avid user of social media, Winfield a couple of months later noticed a woman was liking a lot of what he was posting on Facebook. He decided they should talk.
The woman’s name was Rasheda. That talk led the senator, who also is an avid photographer, to take Rasheda’s picture. That picture taking session turned into talking for hours.
“When I heard her voice it was like magic,” he said. “It hit me and went through my spine and made me feel something.”
That magic gave him the courage to ask for a date. That date turned into more dates and long conversations. They eventually married in 2016.
Rasheda came with a daughter and a son. Winfield assumed that helping raise those two children would be as close to fatherhood as he would get.
Once again God had other plans.
The newlyweds announced on social media last August that they are expecting twins: a boy and a girl.
Baby boy Winfield will take his dad’s name. Winfield admits mixed feelings about that because he is named after an absentee father.
Baby girl Winfield will be named Imani Harriet.
“Imani means faith,” he said. “Faith allowed me to meet that woman.”
Harriet is for his beloved mother, who died in 2012 after what was supposed to be a routine medical procedure and the lineage of women who came before her. His mother was named Araminta and his maternal grandmother was named Harriet. And his maternal great-grandmother was named Araminta. All the women were named for Harriet Tubman, who was born Araminta Ross. And naming his daughter Harriet keeps the alternating patterns of the names alive.
Winfield said that his mother was a woman of faith who wanted to live up to her namesake’s accomplishments. But she had not been able to. She died before she was 60. In his previous talks with his mother, Winfield knew she regretted not being able to do more of that work. He said it hurt to know that his mother might have died believing that her life wasn’t important.
“My mother was like a superhero to me,” he said. “I wouldn’t be doing the work that I’m doing if not for my mother.” Not only is Winfield a state legislator; he is an activist and leading advocate for criminal justice reform.
And so his daughter will carry his mother’s name and the faith she passed down. That’s how Imani Harriet Winfield got her name.
Storytellers New Haven meets monthly at ConnCAT in Science Park and is free and open to the public. The next event is Feb. 5. Visit its Facebook page for more details.