By Elana Jefferson-Tatum, Ph.D.
Elana Jefferson-Tatum, Ph.D. is a scholar of Africana religions, a hypnobirthing coach, and a full-spectrum doula. After several years in the academy as a post-doctoral fellow at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and then as a tenure-track professor at Tufts University, she shifted her life entirely. Now, she’s a proud homeschooling mom and the owner of Lunar Flow Doula + Hypnobirthing.
As an undergraduate at Emory University, I was so excited about what life had to offer. Being a young Black woman deemed both “too smart” and “too Black,” I was now leaving behind years of bullying during my adolescent years. I was also leaving behind the critical eyes of extended family members who considered me, the “child-out-of-wedlock,” as unfit and simply unacceptable. I was ready to craft my life moment by moment, like the teenage love poems and R&B songs that had once been a part of my daily existence. I was ready to make myself anew.
Given my own experiences of trauma, including sexual abuse, bullying, and depression, I entered college searching for answers that could make sense of my Black woman bodily experiences: Why does God let bad things happen to good people? Does God really not give us more than we can bear? How, then, could we explain depression and suicide? Not feeling satisfied by the answers I was given at the Southern Baptist church I had most recently attended, I was drawn to religious studies courses in Womanist/Black theology and Africana religions. And, there, in that space of learning, I not only found a place to grapple with these deep theological and existential questions, I discovered a whole world of religious thought and practice. I was awakened to the rich traditions of Africa and its diaspora, and it gave my young Black woman life new meaning and new substance. I had found my ancestors.
Encouraged by a Black woman mentor, who saw my passion for learning and my potential for academic achievement, as but a sophomore in college, I began my journey into the academy. However, I remember looking at her life and thinking I never wanted my life to look like hers. It actually became a bit of a joke between the two of us. Her whole life was about the academy, and I always knew I wanted and needed more. Even still, as a young Black woman raised by a single mother (and with little family support), I wanted somewhere to belong. I absolutely loved learning, and so the academy seemed like a good fit, at least in the short term. It at least gave me the space and the financial resources to explore a whole ancestral world that I had known in my soul existed (from the sacred musings and extra-church going ons in my auntie and grandma’s kitchens) but it was still a this worldly cosmos I had not fully had the words to grasp.
So, I started down the PhD path with no clear vision of where exactly I was going. I know now that I was really in search of myself and of home, something I would never find within the ivory towers of the academy. But, carried forward by my passion for learning, for self-expansion, I applied to Harvard Divinity School, and I got in. Though academically I excelled, emotionally and spiritually, I struggled. Again, I felt very alone and out of place, precisely, not at home. During my two years at Harvard, in an environment where competition and the performance of academic excellence can take precedence over intellectual exploration, for me, there was no room for learning as a journey of joy and fulfilment. Everything was about the performance of achievement and perfection, the performance of a white supremacist conception of what it meant to be “intelligent,” and “educated.” And so, I ended up deeply depressed.
Knowing I could not emotionally or spiritually survive completing a Ph.D. program at Harvard, I was thrilled when I was accepted to Emory University. It initially felt like a form of going back home. But, I struggled. Continuing to look for love, joy, and acceptance outside of myself, the more I excelled academically, the more emotionally lost I became. I was slowly crafting my voice and my selfhood into a package more acceptable for the academy but into something I could no longer recognize. The young woman who sat for hours dreaming of love and writing poetry was gone, or so I thought.
In 2016, I graduated with my PhD from Emory University, and I was thrilled. The dream I had been planning for since undergrad had come to fruition. But, what next? Now, what dream was I chasing? What was my life purpose now? While I had originally contemplated getting a non-profit job, this was not the path for which my training and education had prepared me. I had no clue how to translate my research and teaching experience into something practical and tangible in the public sphere. It felt too daunting a task.
So, since I didn’t know what else to do with a degree in Religious Studies, I applied to postdocs and tenure-track jobs. After a year as a postdoc, I finally got the coveted tenure-track position and with a cushy fellowship at Tufts University, so by most academic standards, I had it made. But, the job required my Black family and I to move to Boston. Excited to finally start our lives (after having moved several times), we thought we could make it work and we really tried. My husband got a marketing job at a tech company, and we found an in-home daycare for our son. My classes were also going great. But, one afternoon, I found myself quietly sitting at home in my apartment with the deep soul-knowing that this life I was living was someone’s dream but it was most definitely not my own. As much as I enjoyed teaching, my students, and research, I wanted more time with my family and for myself. I wanted to live my life without existing in a constant state of anxiety and fear, worried about the next deadline, the next article paper or book that needed to be published, the next conference paper. Each somehow meant to prove I was “good enough” and “worthy.” Yet, I wasn’t yet ready to make a change. I was afraid. What if I was nothing? What if without these degrees, this title, these ivory walls, I was nobody after all? So, I didn’t know how to get out.
I eventually got pregnant with my second child and that changed everything. As much as I loved teaching and my work, I wanted to be more present for my family and my heart was calling me to something else–something more community-centered, more connected to family, more creative and life-affirming. So, after tearfully coming back from maternity leave, I used the spring semester to make a plan. I told my husband I wanted to leave and though initially he was skeptical and concerned (since he’d supported me through much of my PhD journey), he got on board. He hated living and working in Boston, especially as a Black man. And, honestly, I could see that him following me around from job to job was hurting his own career growth and happiness. When my husband and I first met, he’d just gotten out of the army and I was doing my Ph.D. coursework. So, while we were dating and eventually married, he worked tremendously hard to get his Bachelor’s degree. He’d even traveled to Benin with me to do field research, and all the while still working diligently on his undergraduate course work. So, I felt deeply that he also deserved an opportunity to follow his dreams. After all, this was no longer my dream and had never really been.
So, we started our transition with the following questions: Where could we live and thrive as a Black family with two Black sons? And, where could we live on one salary? (At the time I was making more money than my husband, so I knew for this transition to work we’d need to make some major changes.) Both questions honestly initially eliminated everything in the US but because we both had our mothers here to consider, we knew we couldn’t make a permanent international move. So, we looked again and settled on North Carolina. The end of spring semester, I told my department chair I was leaving. They offered me an unpaid leave instead so I figured it didn’t hurt to take it. Then, we left. My husband applied for several jobs before we moved but hadn’t landed anything so we took a leap of faith and moved anyway. Within a month my husband found a job and we got settled into our new life. Initially, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I had planned to keep up with some of my research and transition into being an independent scholar. But, I’d also always been interested in homeschooling so I jumped into that head first. Then, the pandemic hit. But, having already set our lives up to be more centered around family, we were ready. My husband eventually got a great remote job making more than I was making as a tenure-track professor, and we temporarily moved out to the country with my mother for a while during the pandemic. This period of self-quarantine, though challenging and difficult on so many levels, truly gave me the space and time I needed to figure out what was next for me. It forced me to sit with myself for the very first time and ask myself: What do you want for your life? How do you want your life to be meaningful? The answers to these deep self-reflective questions did not come easy, but they did come. And, I had some help.
While in Boston, I had encountered Afro-Flow Yoga. I remember my first class fondly because my family and I (my husband, myself, and two kids) all went. The class description said “all welcome” so I figured I’d try bringing the kids, and thankfully we were welcomed with open arms. Between dancing and yoga postures, with the help of my husband, I breastfed my youngest and gently guided my oldest child. It was amazing. So, when I found out Leslie was offering an introductory Afro-Flow Yoga training course online, I jumped at the opportunity. I wasn’t sure I was interested in teaching yoga, but I knew I needed to study and explore in a new way. And, it was just what I needed. I discovered a new sense of passion for teaching but one that took me far outside the college classroom. Yet, I still wasn’t sure if yoga was the path for me so I kept exploring, and began working with body coach and yoga instructor Melissa Alexis of Cultural Fabric. (We’d previously also met in Boston through a mutual contact.) And so, over the course of four body work sessions, she helped me move out of my mind and into my body to connect with my deepest purpose: family, community, and motherhood.
Having gained this clarity, now I’ve started a new venture Lunar Flow Doula. So, in addition to homeschooling our two kids to which my husband and I have completely committed, I’ve trained as a hypnobirthing coach and full-spectrum doula. In the end, I came to realize that my long held academic interests and passions around nature, personhood, birth, and motherhood/parenthood were more than theoretical, and that there was so much needed work in the birth space. So, I’m super excited to be on this new journey. I still look forward to continuing to contribute scholarship as an independent scholar but this new life I’ve crafted finally makes me feel at home in myself and in the world, which as a Black woman is truly a blessing.
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