For children like me, growing up in a working-class environment in the 1960s, it was unusual to ‘stay on’ at school. My parents ignored my pleas to go to Art College partly because of the cost and partly because of the image of art students at that time. Instead, I left school at 16 and became a cadet nurse, after which I completed my mental health training before general training. In those days, it was quite common for trained nurses to go on to do midwifery training but this did not appeal to me.
Later, with two children, I worked as a nurse doing a variety of bank and agency work that fitted around their needs. The variety excited me and I worked in lots of different areas—including a stint as an ECG technician. It was when I worked on a neonatal unit and accepted a part-time permanent position there that I began to envy midwives and consider a midwifery career. Indeed, I thought it might be one of the most wonderful jobs in the world.
I trained as a midwife in a large teaching hospital in the 1980s. Being an advocate for women was really important to me. I remembered the hospital delivery of my daughter and what a difference midwives made to the experience both in a positive and negative sense. When people are vulnerable, they need kindness, compassion and competence. I was on a mission to do deliver that. I was studying part-time for a degree and was becoming increasingly aware of issues of power, inequalities, divisions in society—especially gender divisions—and learning how to challenge assumptions.
Parts of the role I loved, and parts I disliked. Meeting people on labour ward for the first time was not good for anyone, but if you had got to know someone in the antenatal period and could care for them after the birth it could be wonderful. Some of my colleagues were fantastic midwives and some were not. The hierarchical structures were still rigid and seemed to have a dehumanising effect on the staff. The increase in technology compromised women’s choice and also their freedom to choose. When normality is only measured in retrospect and everyone is at high risk of a complicated birth, women become fearful, and practitioners become defensive. The role of the midwife is precariously placed between being an advocate for women and trying to ensure a safe delivery, according to medical protocols.
When I qualified, I did not stay long because, on balance, I felt I was swimming against the tide. I became a full-time post-graduate student, believing that research and education was the way to change the system.
What really matters is that some of the women I cared for told me that I had made a difference. I received messages that still make me cry when I think of them. I am aware that not all babies survive in the womb and after birth. I think that midwives can make a difference to the relationship that women and parents have with their babies; no matter what the outcome of the birth, this relationship does not end.
I am not sure that I would have been able to care in the same way if I had trained when I was much younger and before I had children. That does not mean that the experience of being pregnant and giving birth is crucial to being an effective midwife. What I know is that I remembered that I wanted kindness, compassion and competence in this strange and unchartered territory and I remain convinced that this is a need that all mothers and parents share.