We teamed up with Melanie Headley of A Brighter Birth at the same time that she was busy opening up her new office and class space. Melanie is a certified Child Birth Educator, Lactation Specialist and Professional Birth Doula. She is also a part of the Tribecast Podcast, a podcast described as a place "Where we can cry, laugh and drink together as we discover how exhausting it really is to be parents, wives and how to remain true to ourselves." We spent an evening photographing one of Melanie's birth classes and reminiscing about our own birth experiences. It has been great to learn from Melanie during a time when she is growing her team and business. Congratulations on the beautiful new space, Melanie!
When did you decide to become your own business owner?
Well...it sort of fell into my lap! Here's the long winded version...
I came to RVA straight out of high school to attend VCU School of the Arts. I had my heart set on Fashion Design, and a career in NYC doing something fabulous---you know, wearing all black, tiny apartment...that sort of thing. But my world sort of exploded when I became pregnant with my first son at 21.
I knew maybe 1 person who had kids and did not know a thing about what I was getting myself into. Being the kind of person who has always done the opposite of what people have told me to do, I immediately signed up for a natural birth class---taught by, my now dear friend, Chris Dewilde.
My partner and I learned so much in her class. We felt educated and were empowered to even switch care providers at 30 weeks to a free standing birthing center in Alexandria, with 4 Midwives. We also hired a Doula, a rare thing 13 years ago!
My first birth was long and hard and came with lots of choices to be made. I was grateful I had prepared so well and had created the birth team I needed to have around me. They held the space for me to labor and birth the way I wanted and I felt incredibly supported.
I had my 2nd baby at home in Richmond with the amazing team of Nancy Giglio, CNM and Thèrése Hak Kuhn, the executive director of toLabor as my Doula. After my daughter's birth I was completely fascinated with birth work. The level of care and kindness I was shown prenatally and throughout my birth was something I had never anticipated. It was life changing for me.
I took the toLabor Doula training a few years later when I was pregnant with my 3rd. Leaving that workshop, I knew I had truly found my calling. But I also knew I was about to have my own baby and could not yet support other women in labor. That's when Chris Dewilde called:) She had gotten into nursing school and wanted to hand her class down to me. I was terrified, but she paired me up with another amazing lady, Kirsten Olsen (who is still such a strong influence in my life), to show me the ropes.
I began teaching out of my living room with my tiny babe on my back in 2008. That first year was so tough! I'd frantically clean my downstairs, throwing all the chaos of 3 kids and a husband upstairs:), throw a quiche in the oven for a class snack and pack my family up for a night out of the house. It was Crazytown.
A couple of years and one more baby later, I moved my growing class to Hip to Be Round in Carytown, owned by another huge inspiration in my life, Christa Donahue. I taught out of a small room downstairs there for 5 years!
Eventually I added Birth Doula Services and Lactation Counseling into my work, rounding out my skill set. And further entrenching myself in self employment! But it's just now, 8 years in, that I truly have begun to think of myself as a business owner.
This year I was able to move into a big beautiful space next to the VMFA in the heart of the city. I've also added 3 wise women into my practice, and am embarking on rolling out some services brand new to RVA's birth community all together.
What is the greatest joy of "working for yourself"?
I LOVE having flexibility in my schedule. Making my own hours...sort of. (Being on call all.the.time. is tough. You never know when a baby wants to be born.) But, a rule I've made for myself is doing at least school drop off or pick up everyday. Both if my day allows it. I also try very hard to do the majority of my appointments during the day, limiting night time meetings to twice a week, so I can spend time with my kiddos in the evenings and on weekends.
What is the biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge is finding time! I swear there are not enough hours in the day. A Brighter Birth has grown so rapidly in the last few years, that keeping up to date with promotion and marketing and just maintaining the business side of things has been a struggle. The schedule of attending 4-5 births a month, teaching twice a week, prenatal and postpartum appointments, interviews with prospective clients, 3-5 Lactation Counseling sessions a week does not easily lend itself to sitting down in front of the computer to work. That's why I'm so excited to be extending the ABB team! Each of these women brings such different but complimentary strengths to the table.
List 3 tools that are essential to your business.
First, I would say my hands. These hands have rubbed, massaged, pressed and held over 120 women in labor. They are the tool that I use most often, in every circumstance. Touch is such an integral part of what I do and who I am. Every touch is intentional...be it a hand shake at an interview, an arm around someone's shoulders after sharing something intimate during a class or even sitz bones counter pressure when a woman is pushing during labor.
So, I'm old school. My second tool would have to be my paper calendar. It goes everywhere with me. Honestly, I have about 5 different calendars compressed into it. Who is due and when, class schedules and curriculum info, the many appointments on the books and calls/emails I need to respond to. When I don't have it I feel like I've lost a limb!
My 3rd tool would have to be social media. (Even though I just said I struggled to stay on top of it!) FB and Instagram have really helped my business grow and to reach people I wouldn't have connected with when I first began. I love when my clients give their permission to share pictures or stories from their births. And people respond so well to them! I think it helps shape birth in our culture as a normal and beautiful thing, rather than fear inducing and purely medical.
What is unique about being a business owner in Richmond?
RVA is truly a small town. Word of mouth is still by far, the best referral type. Throughout the years I have found myself woven into different circles of this city, providing my services. I've attended many a fire fighter birth, taught and doula'd a lot of families at The Martin Agency, worked with tons of restaurant owners/servers/bartenders, and just recently have gotten to work with a group of colleagues at BrownGreer Law Firm at Rocketts Landing.
I feel so honored when clients refer me to their friends. And Richmond has such eclectic, diverse pockets, I learn so much!
Do you have any other female business owners that you admire? Or look to for advice/guidance? Or are a role model?
As far as other women run businesses in town, I am so fortunate to know and love Lauren Healy of Blue Bones Vintage and Kate Montgomery of Parlor Salon. We've been friends since college, and we have spent many nights (at Parlor or my kitchen table) talking business. Amy Tesauro of Linchpin Realty is my business spirit animal. I aspire to be that focused and organized. They have all built strong, solid operations doing what they love.
I also have a plethora of Role Models. And women that I go to for advice. I'm surrounded by powerful, wise women! Thérèse Hak Kuhn (my doula) and Nancy Giglio (my midwife) will always be my main go to for advice with birth work. Sarah Allen Short, consultant extraordinaire, Christa Donahue, owner of Hip to be Round and, I have to say, Dr. William Fitzhugh (even though he is not a woman) have supported me above and beyond any expectations. I have felt such love from these people! I wouldn't be where I am without them.
What is next for you/your business?
So exciting!!! A Brighter Birth is growing! Hilary Scribner, Colleen Wallace and Bridget Light have joined the team. We are creating a Doula collective, where we each have our own clients, but a safe and secure back up situation. We're also adding more classes and circles of support (think fertility!!). Some even more exciting services are in the works!
What would you say to someone who is considering using a doula?
I would say "good for you!" Having a doula is essential. And it's not just for women who are committed to a natural birth. A Doula can provide comfort, evidence based information, and support to any laboring woman.
Your partner is an expert on you. A Doula is an expert on birth. Together, they make the perfect birth team. With a support person, the partner is able to do exactly as they are supposed to...Love the laboring woman through it. It is not the Doula's intent to get in the way, but rather to facilitate the partner's involvement, in a way that empowers the couple and helps them feel safe, supported and cared for.