Every birth is so different - I’ve seen it all in my job: mums in labour playing whale song while they pant and wheeze, people who’ve just had caesareans smearing vaginal fluids on their newborns’ faces and mouths in the belief it will help defend against asthma and other allergies, and mums who want to preserve their placenta (the baby’s support system in the womb) by doing things like turning it into tablets or even planting it in the garden under a tree as a living memorial to the birth.
Of course, I’ve seen mums poo during labour too but it’s really no big deal. As midwives, we’re used to bodily fluids of all sorts - it can be a good sign that the labour is progressing. When it does happen, I’ll usually try to change the bedding before the mum notices to spare her any blushes.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve delivered thousands of babies - more than I can count, really. There’s nothing like hearing a tiny baby take its first breath or watching new parents’ eyes light up as they see their baby for the first time. I always feel so lucky to witness those special moments.
But, while there are definite highs to my job, there are plenty of lows too. Labour can be a gruelling and painful process, and those going through it can feel anxious and stressed during and after. Just recently, one patient screamed at me at the top of her lungs because she wanted to go home early. She knew it wasn’t my fault, and there was nothing I could do, but she was just exhausted and wanted it all to be over.
Partners can be tricky to handle too. During the birth, they can feel helpless and, because we’re there, we become the focus of their fear and frustration. I’ve become an expert at defusing tense situations by suggesting worked-up family members step outside for a cuppa or to get some food - they often just need a bite to eat and a breather. It can get very intense in the delivery room!
Dealing with patients’ emotions is nothing compared to navigating the physical and mental toll of my workload. I tend to work three or four shifts of 12 and a half hours per week. Working like that, through the day and night, leaves me feeling perpetually jet lagged - but, sometimes, when we’re very busy, I stay for 15 hours or more. When there aren’t enough bodies to go around I can’t just leave halfway through a difficult birth when the mum is hooked up on machinery and taking strong pain relief.
On bad days, I come home from work feeling tearful and harbouring a sense of dread about going in the next day. My biggest worry is that being sleep-deprived might lead me to make a mistake or miss something critical like administering the wrong drug or the wrong dose.
I know so many midwives who, like me, have constant low-level anxiety about their jobs. And it’s ironic that, even though I work in healthcare, my diet isn’t great - the stress and lack of breaks means I’m constantly relying on things like sugary drinks and sweets to keep my energy levels topped up. One time I got through a shift on nothing but a few cans of cola and chocolate.
I’ve definitely considered quitting. I’m currently on maternity leave - my second in three years - which has given me a mental break away from the pressures of work and it’s given me time to consider whether I can deal with the stress and staff shortages any longer. Sometimes, it feels like things are getting worse, not better.
The toughest part of my job is looking after families whose babies die during pregnancy or are terminated for medical reasons. It’s always so incredibly sad. The worst, for me, is when people come in with a big bump, worrying that their little one isn’t moving. The fear in their faces is almost too much to bear. Thankfully, most of the time it’s a false alarm but, even though stillbirth rates in the UK are going down, one in every 225 pregnancies still ends in a stillbirth. We always warn mums that, if their baby isn’t moving, they should come to the hospital immediately. Don't wait.
It’s a heartbreak I’ve witnessed first hand. About a decade ago, I was due to deliver a baby who’d been conceived via IVF - the mum, who was about eight months pregnant, was waiting on our ward with high blood pressure and began to bleed quite badly. An examination revealed that the placenta had come away from the walls of the womb, which is known as placental abruption. We rushed her into theatre and the surgeon battled to get the baby out in time. He did an amazing job but, even after resuscitation, sadly, the baby didn't survive.
No amount of training prepares you for a tragedy like that. In the moment, my adrenaline took over but I was haunted by it for a long time. I’d get flashbacks lying in bed or during a quiet moment at work - I just couldn’t stop thinking about that little one's life that had been so cruelly cut off, and the grief the parents must have felt.
Some of my happier memories are associated with home births. A few years ago, I was working in Birmingham when I was called to a house in the middle of the night. It was the couple's second baby and the mum had gone into labour. After some strenuous pushing by her and plenty of support from me and her husband, she gave birth in an inflatable pool right in the middle of the living room. I remember so clearly the couple’s older child - a little boy - waking up out of bed and coming downstairs to meet his new sibling. A home birth won't be right for everyone, but this family were all so comfortable being in their own home and didn’t have to worry about the hospital visiting times and other rules and regulations.
Now that I’ve become a mum myself, I certainly have a new respect for what women go through during pregnancy, childbirth and in raising their kids. Being a midwife can be tough but I still love the connection I feel with each family. Even after thousands of births, chatting to first-time parents about possible baby names, breastfeeding, and hearing the nervous excitement in their voices still feels special.
You can get information and support on some of the issues in this piece from these organisations.
As told to Harvey Day