Life's Work

A Photo and Audio Documentary of Pregnancy,
Birth, and Postpartum Experiences Across the U.S.

Life’s Work is a project documenting the services pregnant people are seeking and the services care providers are giving across the U.S. See the notes on the bottom to learn more about the commitments that shape this project, the process, and more.

part one

 Roots Community Birth Center

This first installment of Life’s Work takes place at Roots Community Birth Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Roots opened in 2015, founded by midwives Rebecca Polston, CPM, LM, and Aly Folin, CPM, LM. It remains a small practice today, now joined by midwife Jahan Zuberi, CPM, LM, and several birth attendants.

Roots was documented over the course of six days, January 31 - February 6, 2019. Explore what happened in that time in the posts below:

#1: Written For Pregnant People

To provide pregnant people, or people who are planning to become pregnant, a detailed picture of what it can look like and sound like to work with a care provider before, during, and after childbirth/pregnancy.

This information can help inform their decisions on where they want to receive care, who they want to receive care from, and what kinds of comfort measures, interventions, etc. they would or would not like. It can also help to inspire what questions they may want to ask or further research they may want to do to prepare for their own reproductive experience(s).

#2: Centering Black and POC Care Providers

To center the work of Black midwives, POC midwives, and other care providers who are uniquely serving folks from many life experiences.

Why center those care providers? Midwives are the original care providers for pregnant people and are still common around the world, especially in countries with maternal mortality rates much lower (and still going lower) than the rates in the U.S., where midwives participate in less than 10% of births (link, link).

And although the legacies of Black (link, link) and Native midwives are deep and wide in the U.S. — and again, this is the origin of care during pregnancy here — midwifery care today includes very few midwives of color as well. Only about 2% of the 15,000 midwives in the United States are Black, and when Navajo nurse-midwife Nicolle Gonzales opens her birth center this year, she’ll be opening the first Native-owned birth center in the U.S.

As far as other data goes: According to Data USA, only 15% of Nurse Practitioners and Nurse Midwives are non-white. The records of the American Academy of Nurse-Midwives showed that only 22% of their 2,346 midwifery students in 2014 identified as non-white. Ultimately, the exact demographics of practicing midwives (Certified Nurse-Midwives, Certified Professional Midwives, Direct-Entry Midwives, etc.) in the U.S. remains unknown — but based on experience, a vast lack of diversity is clear.

At the end of the day, there are excellent care providers in the U.S. across all types (Midwives, OBGYNs, Family Physicians, Perinatologists, etc.) and all facets of identity. As this project grows it may touch more upon the work that is happening through those folks as well. However, to begin, we will shine our light here — out of respect to the origins of care for pregnant people in general, care for pregnant people in the U.S., and because we know that access to insight into the work and impact of modern Black and POC care providers is otherwise severely limited.

While each installment of this project may vary based on the context of the location, the care provider(s), and the people being documented, this is the general breakdown of the process and the way in which it will be published on this website.

Documentation includes photography and audio capture. All documented parties are aware of and have consented to this. There may be variations as appropriate, for example, if a person consents to photo but not to audio, to audio but not to photos, or to photography without showing their face, or to audio with the integrity of their voice changed.

Each published installment of this project will include various sections. Each section will represent a specific experience that someone is having with an aspect of their care, for example, giving birth, or attending a prenatal appointment, or being visited for a postpartum visit. Photos, audio clips, and partial/full transcription* of audio will carry the readers and viewers through that experience.

The person behind is project is Cheyenne Varner — me! Hello! I am a graphic designer, photographer, and additionally a birth and postpartum doula. I was trained by ToLabor, Ancient Song Doula Services, and Doula Trainings International (DTI), and am now certified through DTI. My role as the documenter is to stay a fly-on-the-wall as experiences unfold, and otherwise simply ask meaningful questions when the time and space is right for that. That said, you may hear my voice joining other encouraging voices in a birth room, for example, as a parent is pushing, because I am one of those humans who can’t really help that.

This project will inevitably be shaped and impacted by my lens and my experiences. I invite readers and viewers to consider that as you process and/or share this. I also encourage anyone to reach out to me with feedback of any kind. If you feel that there is something that my lens is missing that is leaving a gap in this project, please do let me know. It wouldn’t be the first time someone let me know I had something more to learn, and I will appreciate it.

*Transcription is done with ease of readability in mind, editing out some of the common filler words and clarifying some natural stumbles in language.

The common understanding of “NSFW” or “Not Safe For Work” is that the content to follow might be “inappropriate,” because of nudity, sexuality, profanity, something disturbing etc, and therefore not safe to view in a place of work.*

While some of the content to follow in this project could be placed under that umbrella, and we want readers and viewers to know that in order to decide where the most appropriate place would be for them to view this content — we would like to be clear that this content is not inappropriate in its nature.

As people like Katie Vigos of the Empowered Birth Project have been long fighting for through initiatives like #uncensoredbirth — images of pregnancy, birth, and postpartum are not inappropriate or in need of censorship. In fact, our communities are often in greater need of learning how to healthily and responsibly integrate these realities into our own individual and communal educations and conversations.

So as you prepare to interact with this content, understand that yes, it would be wise to consider your location and surroundings as you do so, but no, there is nothing inherently inappropriate to follow.

*The fun imbalance here is that this “NSFW content” is the actual work (professional and personal) of the folks it is documenting.

Recognizing that people, pregnant and otherwise, identify themselves through language in a variety of ways, Life’s Work uses gender neutral language when speaking about people who are pregnant or planning to become pregnant generally, and refers to each birthing/pregnant person (or partner, or care provider) in the documentary according to their expressed pronouns (ex. she/her, they/them, he/him) and uses whatever expressed term of relationship with their child (ex. “mom” or “dad”) was given during documentation.