I was asked to do a talk to student midwives at Salford University last week on the topic of “Women’s Voices” in maternity care. As part of my presentation I included the voices of the midwives who work in maternity care, and a reminder that there are many other women for whom maternity care is their professional, as well as perhaps their personal, experience. “Women’s Voices” in maternity care should cover the midwives, obstetricians, health visitors, doulas who care for us, as well as the women giving birth.
So I decided to start a series of blog posts on “Women’s Voices in #MatExp” from the point of view of those working in maternity, and this is the first of those. This is Dawn Stone’s experience of being a midwife in the NHS. Thank you so much to Dawn for agreeing to write for us.
And yes, I will be doing a “Men’s Voices in #MatExp” series too. Because this campaign is about all voices.
Dawn Stone is a 27 year old midwife living and working in central London. Dawn qualified as a midwife in 2014, and is passionate about improving experiences for students, midwives and women.
It’s an insignificant Monday afternoon in SE London to many. It’s beautifully warm, people are rejoicing in beer gardens as they finish work, I hear the giggles and shrieks of laughter from a nearby park as I walk home. It’s an idyllic summers day; and yet somehow it feels cold to me.
I’m on my way to see my GP. I made the appointment last week, but it feels fortuitous to have this lifeline today. Because today, of all the 303 days I’ve been a midwife, it feels way too much to bear. And I need some help.
I’ve been here before. A few months ago the feelings on inadequacy, frustration and disappointment reared their ugly heads and I made the same journey to my GP, begging for help. She, to her credit, was wonderful but the medication she prescribed was not. I went back to work but felt like I was going through the motions. My appetite was reduced, I hadn’t slept a whole night in months, and I constantly had a knot of tension in my stomach whenever I thought about work.
What do I do? I’m a midwife. And it nearly knocked me off my feet completely.
I trained as a midwife in a busy central London hospital, which often felt like a baptism of fire and was definitely not what I was expecting. I was lucky to witness amazing births, incredible women, and unfortunately, at times, disappointing midwives. It seemed as though some had lost the ability to care about the women as well as for them; and so I qualified with a goal. Be the best midwife I can be, and never forget the power and importance of being kind. It sounds so simple when you write it down!
Upon qualifying, I moved to another busy central London hospital, and began working as a bona fide midwife, alongside a group of also newly qualified midwives who would become my lifeline. Together we jumped into this chaotic and intense career, and discovered that being a student midwife does NOT prepare you for being a midwife. Not at all. You have no idea as a student the enormity of every decision you make – that lochia is normal, that baby is not jaundiced, that baby is unwell and needs an urgent review. And on and on it goes; a hundred different decisions, all before lunchtime and all before you’ve had a drink or something to eat. And if you’re lucky, you’re figuring this all out in an environment which is supportive and conducive to learning, where you know you have more experienced midwives to lean on and ask ‘Does it get better?’
If you’re unlucky, you’re essentially told to suck it up and keep going. Never mind that you’re awake at 4am going over and over the shift from yesterday, thinking about each woman and baby, and what you handed over – did you forget something? You definitely did. Shut up mind, go to sleep. Except you definitely did forget something because you did a blood sugar on the baby in bed 9 before you left and you forgot to write it down. It was normal, thankfully, but should I ring? No. It’s 4am and it’s your day off. Go back to sleep.
Working on a busy 50 bed AN/PN ward can feel like being on a carousel that’s spinning and spinning; there is no slowing down, only jumping on, and trying to stay upright and facing the right way.
When I arrive for my night shift, I look at my workload and I hope for an okay night. I have a mixture of 2 high risk AN women (for close monitoring of their severe PET), an IOL for post dates and 4 PN mums & babies – all of them are on obs overnight, 1 mum is also on IVABX for sepsis, and my colleague has just handed over that one of the babies hasn’t fed for 6 hours. I take a deep breath, try to quell the tide of worry that’s swirling in my stomach, and do the only thing I can do. I make a plan. I read the notes, I look at the blood results, and I try to prioritise what needs doing and when. I say hello to all 7 women, some of whom I know, and I begin to do what needs to be done.
And I’m sorry if I couldn’t sit with you longer during your breastfeed. I can see your baby is feeding well but as a first time Mum you need some support and guidance as you learn this new skill. I want to sit with you, and gently reassure and reaffirm you as you confidently latch your baby to your breast. But I can’t. Because I have 6 other women, and 3 other babies who need me. So I do what I can, and then ask a maternity support worker to step in, and do what I cannot.
I’m sorry my checking on you and baby felt like a list of questions, one after the other, relentlessly. I know this isn’t the best way to elicit how you feel about this huge shift to parenthood, and I may not ask the question you need me to, and so your niggling worries remain unchecked.
I’m sorry I have to wake you at 2am, and 6am, to check your blood pressure. The medication you’re on to manage it is very good but we need to ensure its effective, and the middle of the night BP is actually one of the most useful. I hate waking people up, and I know you don’t mean to swear at me as you grumble and sigh, before brandishing me your arm, but it still hurts to hear. Thankfully your blood pressure is normal, and I can tiptoe out & leave you to rest.
As I walk past the desk, I see my bottle of water, next to my colleagues. All untouched.
I’m sorry you’re in a mixed bay of women, and you can hear babies crying as your labour is starting, and it’s not dark or quiet as you need it to be. I’m sorry you’re quietly sobbing on the edge of the bed as you try to get through this contraction without making too much noise and waking the sleeping bay. I’m sorry I can’t be with you, talking you through your contractions and helping you to relax and reduce the fear/tension/pain cycle. I know that you need me, but I have obs to do on 2 of the babies in this bay, and I need to check on one of women with raised BP as she’s on the monitor and I hope it’s ok as I had to dash out of the room once it was on. I’m sorry I’m only half with you as I rub your back, as I’m juggling my outstanding jobs in my head. Thankfully, some codeine and a warm baths eases some of your pain, and you spend a few hours soaking in there, feeling much more relaxed.
I’m so relieved.
I’m so relieved that your labour didn’t progress rapidly, and your baby wasn’t born on the ward.
I’m so relieved all of your babies obs were normal, and they didn’t show signs of an infection.
I’m so relieved that the heavy bleeding you complained of turned out to be normal blood loss, and you’re not having a haemorrhage.
I’m so relieved your blood pressure was normal, and you’re not feeling any symptoms of pre eclampsia.
I’m so relieved when you come to me at 4am, as I sit at the desk gratefully drinking a coffee as I relish the middle of the night peace that’s descended, and tell me you latched your baby on yourself & it felt like a good feed.
I’m so relieved. I’m also hungry, and tired, and the water has remained untouched although I have slurped a coffee my colleague made for me.
This shift has been busy, and stressful, and required me to constantly assess, juggle and prioritise. But it’s not extraordinary. It’s a typical shift in a typical London hospital on any given day. The women are grateful, and I leave with a small sense of doing a good job.
Until I return the following night to be told I didn’t do a VTE risk assessment. And the dyad I helped with breastfeeding are now mixed feeding as she felt her baby wasn’t getting enough. And the mum who labour began during the night is still on the ward, awaiting a doctors review to formulate an ongoing plan. And we’re short staffed. And I can feel a headache coming on as I didn’t sleep well, worrying and replaying the previous shift over and over.
With such unrelenting pressure, is it any wonder I’m crying to my GP, telling her how unhappy I am, how tired, how morose? And is it any wonder she doesn’t bat an eyelid when I ask for antidepressants, and a sick note?
#MatExp is a campaign about ACTION! So what can be done? We have already written about how it is Time to Act for Midwives, but as this recent post on Sheena Byrom’s blog demonstrates, these issues are not isolated and they are not yet being taken seriously.
Sheena kindly commented on what Dawn had to say:
“Dawn’s reflection of her experience trying to do her work as a midwife is distressing, and tragically, Dawn is by no means alone. I receive regular emails from midwives and student midwives who feel desperate, unable to go on, and ready to leave our profession.
I sincerely hope the National Maternity Review report will kick start the much needed radical reform of maternity services. If we can’t support, care for and nurture maternity workers to provide safe, effective high quality maternity care, we have an unsustainable situation.”
Community Outreach Midwife Wendy Warrington also commented on Dawn’s experiences:
“This could have been written by me and the majority of my midwifery colleagues as accurate, and to be honest been there themselves me included! I came back to work after nearly 3 weeks off and Monday morning I had a knot in my stomach when I turned on my work phone and strolled into the community office. Fortunately all was well, but that was due to in the run up to Christmas ny starting early working at home, finishing late and putting written plans in place. Four women on my caseload delivered and I have high risk caseload due to safeguarding concerns.
In terms of improving the situation there needs to be a shift from the blame and bullying culture that seems to be prevalent within the midwifery profession and the NHS as a whole. Senior management with their expectations bully staff below them and this continues down the pecking order. Midwifery sadly is still very hierarchical. Also the public perception and expectation has shifted from when I first started. There does not seem to be the respect from the public as in days gone by . The “where there’s a blame there’s a claim” culture. Cuts to funding, staff shortages and the media have not helped.
Sadly I am counting down the days until retirement as are many of my colleagues.
So how to improve the situation? As colleagues we should nurture and support one another, and small pockets of us do. I personally have found my escape using Twitter and Facebook groups. Realising there were others out there who felt and thought like me and had not had the passion snuffed out of them really helped me, and gave me the courage to continue and believe that I can make a difference as a midwife. But than in itself can cause problems: cyber bullying, we have seen that. The more your profile is raised the more you expose yourself to scrutiny. I was seconded to Project Manager for Early Years agenda for Greater Manchester and the knives were out . I was devastated when my Head of Midwifery said that this was par for the course: try to better yourself and jealousy kicks in.
There are health and well-being initiatives in some trusts which need promoting. While we are there to do our work the public should remember we have children, elderly parents and our own problems like them, and sometimes we can’t leave it at the door as much as we try to, so compassion and understanding comes from both sides. I do not know of any midwife who comes to work to upset, harm or distress any woman or her family.”
So what do we need to do? What are you doing? What is happening in your Trust that is helping? Please share best practice and ideas – we are stronger when we work together.