During Black History Month we honor those who forged a path for us and their contributions to our legacy. We often forget we are already on the path to become ancestors, that our lives, stories and our personal journeys are worth sharing and celebrating. We are thrilled to share the journey and work of a birth worker who is following in the footsteps of her ancestors. We interviewed Barbara Vernéus about being a doula, her journey to becoming a midwife, and the role she intends to play in reducing fear and restoring joy in the birth experience, especially for black women. Barbara is a mother and birth practitioner who has worked in the social services field since 1999 and began her birth work journey in 2003. She is the founder of Tiny and Brave Holistic Services.
MAMA GLOW: You’re a practicing doula and on the path to becoming a midwife. We’d love to know what inspired you to become a midwife?
Barbara Vernéus: What inspired me to become a midwife honestly started with a movie called Losing Isaiah. I then became a doula and witnessed my first natural birth with my mentor and midwife Memaniye Cinque located in Brooklyn, NY. When I saw my first birth I knew at that moment I wanted to become a midwife. I also apprenticed in Senegal, West Africa through an organization African Birth Collective and there I witnessed my first fetal demise and was in shock, but again knew this what I wanted to do even more. I wanted to be a conduit to stop maternal and fetal death within my means.
The US ranks 55th of developed nations in maternal deaths. Black women are at risk when giving birth in this country. Can you speak about the importance of black midwives, especially in the current climate?
Traditional midwifery offers so much value that you wouldn’t learn in the medical model or nursing school, which approaches the body out of fear and temporary solutions with no regard for the whole person. Traditional midwifery focuses on the art and practice of providing natural and holistic health care. In the work of becoming a traditional midwife, I desire to uphold traditional midwifery to comfort and heal families.
Many of these tragic deaths are related to socio-economic status. I want to meet families where they are and enable them to take healing into their own hands without feeling intimidated or judged by their care provider. Eventually, I would like to teach others to become healers in their own communities as a preceptor.
Midwives are part of the answer to the current climate crisis. But these maternal deaths are happening in hospitals where midwives may not be able to help families. It is in the hospitals that the OB approaches the pregnant person as a problem and fears of all things that may go wrong during pregnancy and labor. It is in the hospitals that the pregnant person is not being heard and obstetrical violence is occurring. Personal rights including, the right to equality, freedom from discrimination, access to information, integrity, health, and reproductive autonomy are challenged in the hospital. Black women are met with suffering, humiliation, ill-health and even death, which comes from the spirit and essence of James Marion Sims, the father of obstetrics and gynecology. He is the reason pregnant beings like Shalon, Kia, Erica, Crystle, Lashonda, Tahmesha and Yolanda have died because their voices and concerns were ignored. So what we really need to do is expose the doctors and the pregnant beings who have died under their hands. HOLD THEM ACCOUNTABLE!!!!
When there is so much news skewing negatively on black birth, how do you educate your clients about their options and prepare them for birth from a lens of joy?
Recently, I’ve had many clients approach the process with fear of death or the safety of their unborn child. I try to validate their feelings and comfort them the best way I can. I also share with them the truth of who they are. I support them by giving them material, information and books that will answer their questions in a simplified manner. Sometimes it’s just that simple. And other times it’s not and you just have to be a listening ear and constant presence throughout the process.
You’ve done a lot of work supporting teens and teen mothers. Our society often shuns teen mothers, how does your work center them and help empower them on the path toward parenthood?
I approach teenagers where they are. And honestly, they are more receptive to learning when they are faced with the reality they have to care for another being at such a young age. They are scared and just want to be mothered through the process. I was employed as an advisor to teenage mothers at PathWays PA, an organization that helps women, teens, children and families achieve economic independence and family well-being. I lived in a home with these same young mothers and what got through to them is that I cared hard for them no matter what they did. These teens had been through trauma and all they wanted to see if you would use them and leave them like others did. When they saw I was sincerely there they opened up and I was able to meet them where they were in their process.
What has been one of the greatest lessons you’ve learned on your path as a doula and midwife assistant?
- I am only a vessel.
- I continuously suffer from imposter syndrome and have to remind myself this journey is greater than me and I am here for a reason the God thought I worth using to be conduit.
- No one will never understand your passion or calling like you do so don’t expect your preceptors, especially if they’re white, to have any desire to step outside of their bubble to understand.
- Always be in the posture of a student in overall life.
- Always remind you why you are doing this.
What do you hope to contribute to the lineage of birth work as a midwife?
I hope eventually I will become a preceptor and hopefully open a birth center to have a foundation to teach other Black/Indigenous womxn to become midwives is the overall goal. If I can be a part of the solution in any way that’s all I desire.
The path you have chosen isn’t easy. There are so many steps to take to get educated, licensed, practice and become experienced and on top of that, to make a living. The education can turn so many people away from the work because it’s often cost prohibitive. Can you talk about your journey and the hurdles as well as the triumphs in doing this life affirming work?
To be honest at this current time I can’t speak of my journey and hurdles because speaking on it is re-traumatizing. I’m still trying to find a way to process it myself, even though I have those I can confide in. But at the current time I am emotionally tapped out. Just imagine this… imagine driving where there is no street lights at night but you only see house lights and a giant confederate flag dancing in the wind and hoping that’s not the home I have to enter. Or driving where I have no phone signal and having a racist person driving me off the road just because I’m black in an area where no one would ever think of searching for me. But these are the risk I’m taking so I can become a midwife in order to serve families and be a safe preceptor for other Black/Indigenous students in the future. This journey is TRAUMATIC!!!!!! PERIOD and it’s now 2020!!!
Who are your guides and role models historical and living who have paved a way and deeply influenced you and your work?
I am a Black Haitian-American with Arawak/Taino bloodline so my culture has a big influence on how sacred I look at this journey as a doula and aspiring midwife. A traditional midwife was more than a person who caught babies; she was the counselor, healer and seer. That’s what guides me, to be many things to my community in God’s divine timing. The person who has first and foremost paved the way for me and deeply still influences me is my mentor Memaniye Cinque who is a midwife in Bedstuy, NY. It was through her I saw my first natural birth and fell in love with this calling. Next would be Jo-Ann and a Rorie who is a midwife in Boston who taught me how to research Maternal and Infant Public Health from Boston University and seeking solutions in 2007-2008. And Makeda Kamara from Boston as well. Chanel Pochia from Ancient Song Doula Services who became a sister and mentor to me after my training with her in 2014 while I was pregnant with my daughter at the time. Shafia Monroe who conducted the first and only Black Midwives and Healers conference where I met so many other midwives like Sarahn Henderson from Atlanta, Racha Tahani Lawler, Asasiya Muhammad, Jennie Joseph, Umm Salaamh, Angelina Ruffin-Alexander and Nikki Mclver-Brown.
Those before me have been an inspiration. Imagine waking up every night with no street light, no car and walking to a laboring person in the night with only the stars to be your guide. That is a humbling thought that keeps me from complaining of the hurdles I face day to day to make this dream happen. So I honor people like Mary Coley, Onnie Lee Logan, Ms. Arilla Smiley, Maude Callen, Margaret Charles Smith (who I actually met), and Mary Jane Trust Lawson many who viewed being a midwife as a very spiritual calling that could not be separated from God but brought you closer to Him and the entire birth process. I pray and meditate and hope my path will remain open, protected and sweet throughout the journey.