When we think of pregnancy and giving birth, an image of a full-bellied woman and 20-hour labor comes to mind. At least to my mind. Yet there's a different kind of pregnancy and birth that can occur in a woman's life - nurturing potential and creating a life that is a joy to live. Who best to ask about bearing witness to the process than well a doula? So I shifted the focus from moms and babies to a woman who changed her life in surprisingly beautiful ways. I invited Cheyenne Varner, our once Guest Wellness Editor and Maternity Expert/Doula, and founder of The Educated Birth, to share her story of professional transformation, work/life balance, finding joy and maternal-birthing wellness (by proxy).
ALL ABOUT DOULA-ING
What happened externally or internally (i.e a personal turning point or awakening) that pointed you in the direction of being a doula?
I’m the oldest of four. Watching my mother go through her pregnancies was fascinating to me, even from the young age of 7, when my first sister was born. As I grew older, I considered going into medicine and working with women throughout their pregnancies. But the competitive nature of the medical education world turned me off. I didn’t want to compete. I just wanted to do meaningful work!
Well, after college when I learned what doula work was — that was such a sunrise kind of feeling. I started reinvesting all my time to learn more about birth and birth work, which led me to meet with a local doula. During our time, she pointed out that my personality and the quality of my presence might make me a good fit, and I felt so affirmed and excited I signed up for the next available training near me.
Ultimately, I’ve always felt drawn to the sacred new-life space of pregnancy and birth, as well as work that highlights and engages in social needs and meaningful aspects of life in my community.
What was the response by friends and family when you revealed your new path? Or did you not reveal it until your certification was complete?
There was a lot of support and curiosity! I don’t think anyone who knew me well was surprised. But many people asked me, “Wait! What’s a doula?” One of my favorite things was that it opened this rarely-cracked door for people in my life to share their own birth stories with me. My mother in particular enjoyed sharing my new role with her friends, and they in turn, had a lot to share with me about their experiences and the convictions they felt about the birth world based on them.
I’m still on my certification path right now. I announced my doula status to my community via Facebook about a week after I completed my training.
You have an incredibly creative educational background - how do you use those skills or sensibilities in your doula practice?
Thank you! My interdisciplinary major of Educational Activism in the Arts (Education, Theater, Sociology, and Rhetoric & Communications) was born out of an overall dissatisfaction with the given major options at my university. Not because anything was wrong with the standard set of majors but because none of them alone fulfilled the full scope of the work I was interested in doing.
To me education is best when it is seeking to accomplish / change / do something, and likewise activism is empty without a foundational understanding of the roots and complexities of the issues one desires to see change. And then art — art is the color, the vibrancy, the loudness and the boldness. Activism has always branched into artwork (I think immediately of Free Angela artwork [Angela Davis], and Obama’s Hope posters), as have the best facets of education. Both education and activism are deeply served by art’s ability to grasp peoples’ attentions and hearts, to inspire and to convict.
As a doula, I seek to educate my clients on all the options they have in their birth experience; I serve as an activist on behalf of better birth practices that produce positive outcomes across communities; and I continue to be an artist, too. About nine months after becoming a doula, I launched my birth education shop The Educated Birth.
The Educated Birth is where design, education, and the birth world meet in my life. I create infographics covering various birth education topics. Everything is made for other doulas and birth workers like myself to purchase and use with their own clients. When I started, I could find very few materials that simply broke down elements of birth education in a visually appealing way. And even less that showed people of color. That really got a fire under me. I thought, well, I’ll just do it myself! And I’ve loved every moment.
Do you have kids? Want to have kids?
I do not have children currently; I would love to one day! I always saw myself having my first child in my early twenties, and having 3-5 by the time I was in my thirties. [Laughs] Life just doesn’t go the way we plan does it? I’m 26 and don’t have any real sense of a timeline anymore. Which feels a lot more okay than I would have thought it’d feel.
Probably because I’m so excited about the work I’m doing! And I feel like I’m still growing so much. So, it’s a part of my life’s journey that I’m contentedly practicing patience in at the moment.
What was the hardest part of your training? The most amazing part - were there any ah-ha moments?
I think the most difficult part about training is really just understanding the weight of your role as a doula and how it’s going to be a learning process. I knew I probably wasn’t going to have any shadowing opportunities before I had my first client. In training there was this sense of, “Your presence, in and of itself, will be helpful.” So I had to say, okay, I’m not going to be perfect. I’m not going to be the same as someone who’s been doing this for years, because how could I be? But I will be my own version of that one day. I’m going to be learning how to better serve birthing parents for a long time, from the education to birth to postpartum, to everything surrounding those pieces. And this is where I start.
The most amazing part of training was just having the space to be still and in awe of the pregnant and birthing body. I learned so much about my own anatomy and capacity that I’d never known before. And the ‘Ah-ha’ was, “Women are freaking strong.”
ALL ABOUT Cheyenne
Where do you live, etc?
I live in Richmond, Virginia. And I love it here! I feel like I get a little bit of everything in Richmond. A little bit of city, a little bit of that tight-knit community feel, a little bit of country if you drive out 20/30 minutes. And I’m pretty much two hours from the beach, the mountains, or D.C. so, a lot of different experiences feel easily within reach.
The birth community in Richmond is really vibrant and growing as well. I’ve been so excited to connect with everyone. I’m becoming a lot more aware of the other birth workers of color in my area as well. It was hard to connect in the beginning because there really haven’t been a ton of spaces that have felt like they draw POC particularly. But there’s been a lot of awesome work and organizing done in the last year (at least from where I’m standing and perceiving) that’s been changing that.
When not doula-ing (:)) what do you do with your spare time?
When I’m not serving as a doula I spend a lot of time working on design projects. I work some flexible hours at my local health department, but most of my design is contract work with individuals, small businesses and nonprofits. Apart from designing, I do some photography.
And when I’m not doing anything work-related at all, I’m probably watching some funny Netflix show like The Office or Parks and Recreation, or eating chocolate, or meeting with friends somewhere to hang out and enjoy life!
How do you tread a green path in the city/town where you live?
I try to stay somewhat politically aware and engaged and support the green path from that higher level of letting my representatives know what kinds of initiatives that support the environment are important to me.
As a woman of color, how do you think your role as a doula impacts or could impact the Black community?
For me, being a woman of color and a doula is significant because I can offer an option for expecting parents of color who are seeking a doula of color, I can sit at the table of birth workers in my community as an advocate for (not representative of, but advocate for) the community of color, and I can pursue my work in intentional and creative ways that specifically engage the community of color and the Black community more specifically.
For clients, it comes down often to feeling safe and comfortable and understood. I’ve met expecting parents who’ve expressed to me how discouraging it was to look for a doula and not see anyone who looked like them. Race was a factor in what they considered safe and comfortable in a doula. I’ve also met expecting parents who interviewed me and although we’re all Black, it’s not the right fit. Race wasn’t the only thing that was a factor in what they considered safe and comfortable in a doula.
In the larger birth world, it seems that POC birth workers are not as prevalent as white birth workers. I think there are a lot of reasons for this, including economic feasibility of doula work for a large number of POC, social impacts of structural injustice, and burnout. As long as I’m here, I really seek to get to know as many people in my city doing this work as I can, and show them that I’m glad they’re here, I’m grateful to be here, I’m committed to the Black community, and I’m happy to invite them to support us more as well. This means that as long as I’m at the birth world “table” I won’t accept actions or words that demean the Black community, ignore the Black community, or exploit the Black community in any way — or other communities of color for that matter.
And then there’s my own creative birth world work. The Educated Birth, which I mentioned before. I recognized that gap largely because I have the brown skin I couldn’t find anywhere! I hope it continues to uplift the Black community by way of showing our birthing people in positive, beautiful light, while spreading information that can prepare Black birthing people for informed, empowering birth! I also want to expand to show the beauty and presence of other underrepresented groups. We’re all out here!
What are your thoughts about how women of color are represented in the environmental and health justice industry and movement?
My first thought is that we’re barely represented. In most wide-reaching documentaries, books, and podcasts, it feels like expecting POC are a footnote or an add-in — even though I don’t think this is ever the intention, it is the reality.
When we are shown I think it’s often within this narrative of, “And here’s [Name] from [City] where [Issue] is a particular problem and danger to the community… [Name] walks day and night down the dark alleys of [City] to do the work no one else seems to do, in spite of [Obstacle] and [Challenge], she carries on, hopeful each day for a better life for the people she loves…” Our communities are too-often sensationalized as dangerous, dim, dark. True, communities of color face particular challenges and are often deeply under-resourced. But that doesn’t reflect the nature of our communities or the inherent personal choices of our individuals. That’s a product of a system of injustice that has yet to be deconstructed — and even yet to be fully recognized.
I want to see more representation and more nuanced representation of people of color in the green and wellness industry and movement. No more of the same old tired story-lines.