A few weeks ago, I came across The Educated Birth on Instagram. I was so impressed. Cheyenne Varner showcases diversity within families through beautiful, clear and concise infographs. Despite her busy schedule, I had the chance to catch up with Cheyenne and ask her about her work, passion and inspiration.
What drew you to birth work?
I remember when my mom was pregnant with my first sister — I was about 7 years old and I started reading her baby book whenever she’d put it down. I was always really curious; my curiosity surrounding pregnancy and labor just stuck. In my mid-twenties I watched a documentary about birth in the United States — I wasn’t pregnant, but the reality that I could be in the next few years (who knows!) re-sparked my curiosity. And I realized that there were so many gaps in our system — so many birthing people were not experiencing the births of their choice. So many birthing people don’t experience birth as fully safe, fully informed, and were certainly not feeling fulfilled and happy about their experiences.
That’s when I learned about doula work. I thought, “I want a doula when I give birth.” Then it hit me. I’d spent years working in roles that involved building relationship with people during vulnerable times or in difficult situations. People I knew well often commented on my quiet demeanor and said I brought calm presence into spaces I inhabited. I was never weirded out by birth, and I just wasn’t afraid or grossed out at the thought of being in a birth room at all.
“Wait a minute — light bulb — yeah! I want to be a doula.”
How did you decide to merge your passion for birth work with art?
I am an extremely visual learner. As I read book after book about birth to prepare for my doula work, I thought, “What if I was pregnant? Would I have time to read all these books? But wouldn’t I want to know all this information?”
Creating artful educational materials seemed like a really natural and practical way that I could reinforce my own learning process as well as contribute to the educations of many pregnant people whose time and/or resources are limited!
I tried looking for things that existed already at first, but I couldn’t find much. More than that I couldn’t find anything that showed people of color. When I started making my infographics, I just figured I’d send them to my clients and that’d be that. It was another doula in my community who encouraged me to put them up on Etsy. I had no idea how far they’d reach.
Can you tell me a bit about your shop?
Sure! The Educated Birth Shop is something I created for other birth workers like myself. I hope for it to be a sort of resource library — a collection of educational materials that birth workers can use with their own clients as well as use to train and educate other birth workers.
I see my mission as twofold: first, promoting thoughtful, quality education, and second, pairing that with beautiful, inclusive images.
In the future I’d like to work on collections of illustrations that birth workers can purchase to apply to their own educational materials as well. It’s extremely important to me that The Educated Birth provides accessible products. I’m always asking myself, “If I found this online, could I afford it right now?”
As I grow and The Educated Birth becomes more self-sustainable, I also really want some of the proceeds to go toward funding birth workers who work with communities that can’t generally afford to pay for birth support.
What was your motivation to start it?
One of my favorite moments from my doula training was a brief conversation about advocacy. The trainer expressed that doulas are inherently social justice advocates — and how she had concerns that that sentiment was slowly being eroded as more people became interested in the work, and elevated the economics of it.
As a doula starting out, I wanted to offer my clients something more than just my presence at prenatals and in the birth room. I wanted to contribute to their “birth prep toolbox,” let’s say.
As a visual learner, right away I wanted there to be artwork involved. As someone who struggles reading long, dense books, right away I wanted there to be brief, to-the-point coverage of the information that matters most. As a Black woman, right away I wanted there to be images of people of color in that toolbox. As someone who’s lived on very tight budgets all my life, right away I wanted this to be financially accessible — and honestly not something pregnant people would have to spend a dime on at all.
And so, without having even really processed that much thought about it, I just started making infographics. I shared first with my training group, and then much later with some encouragement to a Facebook group of doulas of color. The response in the doulas of color group was over-the-moon-whelming. Absolutely beautiful. It felt surreal. I thought, “Hm. Maybe I’m supposed to keep doing this!”
I’m really grateful your work and find the lack of representation in literature, language and imagery about reproductive health disappointing. Can you talk a little bit about the issues you are hoping to address through your work?
Thank you. First of all I’m learning so much about the significance and lacks in representation, and language in reproductive health through this journey and I’m so grateful for that.
I initially came into this work thinking about racial diversity, and even within that complexion diversity. I wanted my work to show and celebrate Black women of all shades.
Now I have more on my radar. My hopes are that my infographic sheets would be inclusive in both language and visuals in terms of gender, sexuality, body size/structure, reading level, etc. I want to offer Spanish translations very soon, too.
I hope my work is like a great big light bulb glowing over the birth community saying, “Hello! Some pregnant and birthing people have been overlooked for a while and it’s time to talk to us too!”
With the way things are now, it’s like some pregnant and birthing people have to receive their information in channels and ways that are so clearly created with no recognition of their existence — it was so clearly created with someone else in mind, with this “model” pregnant person or “normal” pregnant person in mind. Not only is this just not true, it leaves terrible gaps in information open.
Now, I’m not saying I’ve got this hope handled on my own. I’m going to need so much support and accountability and education myself to better my materials.
What are your dreams for this project?
I want to collaborate more, for one thing. I feel like I have the foundation set at this point. I know this work is valued and useful. Now it’s time to refine and grow and flourish!
I want to continue making educational materials covering a wide range of pregnancy and birth-related topics that birth workers can use to educate and prepare their clients for their own birth experiences.
My dream is simply that this would make an impact on one person’s learning process. If one pregnant person gets any knowledge from my work that they otherwise just wouldn’t have gotten at all — that’s it right there. That’s what this is about.
I also want it to be really easy for birth workers to find what they’re looking for at The Educated Birth. So if anyone out there knows how to create and organize online shops like a boss, reach out to me, for real!
I want to offer more artwork to birth workers that they can use in their own materials. Just this week I released a collection of labor position illustrations, and I’m really happy with them! One of the things that really excites me about this concept is the opportunity I have to set the expectations for who “belongs” in birth materials. The Educated Birth is not going to offer versions of our products that exclude people.
If it ever feels like someone’s identity or experience hasn’t been shared yet, I want people to reach out to me and let me know. Those check-ins make a world of a difference.
Cheyenne Varner is a doula, designer, photographer, and writer in Richmond, Virginia.
Born in California, raised in New Jersey, and transplanted to coastal Virginia in the midst of high school, Cheyenne hit the Richmond, VA scene in 2009, to attend the University of Richmond. There, she completed the interdisciplinary major Educational Activism in the Arts — a mix of courses in Sociology, Rhetoric and Communications, Education, and Theater — and minored in Creative Writing.
Today, Cheyenne is a part-time freelancer, part-time nanny, and a professional birth doula, trained by toLabor. In her free time, she runs an online shop, The Educated Birth. Her passion for all things creative leads her to pursue projects of the design, photography, and writing variety.
Whether solo, or collaboratively, Cheyenne seeks to pursue all of her work with excellence, authenticity, and grace.