Midwifery was in the news for all the wrong reasons at the end of last year. As a midwife of ten years, I was heartbroken to read headlines from The Times that said: ‘Midwives “toxic” working conditions putting babies’ lives at risk, report finds‘ and The Telegraph that said: “Russian roulette’ maternity units risk lives of mother and babies, say midwives‘. At first glance, I assumed they were referencing the maternity staffing crisis across the NHS. After all, the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) has been trying to raise awareness of the ‘midwifery exodus’ for several years now. However, as I read on, I realised that both articles were actually referencing a report that had been published by the Association of Radical Midwives (ARM) about bullying in midwifery and why midwives have left, or want to leave, the profession.
If I thought the news headlines were hard to read, the report’s content knocked me for six. Reading almost 150 pages of first-hand accounts of incivility and bullying of staff, some at the hands of the very people who were supposed to advocate for them, reduced me to tears. I found myself echoing David’s words to God in Psalm 13: ‘How long Lord?… How long will my enemy triumph over me?’. I have been very blessed that I have never experienced bullying in my career, but I grieve for my fellow midwives who are suffering. First, an erosion to the way the art of midwifery can be performed; next, chronic staff shortages and burnout; and now this.
It certainly seems like a dark and hopeless time for midwifery at the moment. I mourn for the student midwives who are trying to learn how to care for women in a system where ‘care is being squeezed out in the interest of efficiency‘ (Bunting M. Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care. London: Granta Books, 2020). I mourn for the newly qualified midwives, who are expected to take on too much too soon because there is no one else to do it. I mourn for the midwives who don’t feel like they can speak out against bullying for fear of their jobs being made harder than they already are. I mourn for the loss of my great love, my calling, this huge part of me…
…And yet, I cannot walk away. So what keeps me?
I believe in our workforce. The newspapers report toxic midwifery cultures, and they do exist, but here’s what I know about midwives. They love, they care, and they go above and beyond to be with women – the original meaning of midwife. I could tell you so many stories of the selfless, Christ-like care I have witnessed midwives giving at my trust, enough to fill an entire newspaper. But here are just a few.
During the pandemic, outside pressures meant the homebirth team had to disband. However, now when the call goes out to see if anyone can attend a homebirth, midwives of all grades and from all areas of maternity voluntarily give up their precious days off to facilitate the best possible birth experience. Furthermore, one of our community midwife teams has recently set up a hub in a particularly poverty-stricken area so that they can reach women at risk of poorer maternal and fetal morbidity and mortality outcomes. The midwives always stay late, trying to ensure that their ladies are safeguarded from mental and physical harm and that they receive the appropriate care they need. I know many midwives who have stayed on shift several hours after their twelve-and-a-half-hour day to help a birthing woman deliver her baby, come in on days off to support a bereaved family, missing family birthday celebrations, Christmas with their little ones, and school plays, all because they care. So, reading those headlines moved me to anger that these deeply caring souls are turning against each other because they are so overstretched on understaffed teams.
Midwives should not have to work in these conditions. And while understaffing and other systemic changes need to be addressed from the top down, we can do something about injustice and incivility. We can speak out against it, just as Jesus did. Jesus clearly identified that all people were made in his image. That we are all of equal value in God’s eyes, and we are duty-bound to alleviate oppression and discrimination wherever we see it. When Jesus saw that the Pharisees were more interested in observing the Law than they were interested in caring for the lost sheep of Israel, Jesus said:
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practised the latter without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. (Mathew 23:23-24)
As a profession, we need to be actively speaking out against bullying and speaking up against the poor working conditions that midwives face. We need to lobby our union reps, senior management teams, and the government in a call to action for meaningful change, for more funding to plug the numbers of midwives who haemorrhaged from the profession during and after the pandemic, and for better wellbeing strategies to be implemented to care for those who remain. Most importantly, we need to be actively praying, calling out to God, who hears our prayers (Mark 11:24), for peace, for us to be made more like Christ, and that he would bring his kingdom through us to transform our workplaces. I pray that our culture would be so radically changed from negative to positive that the newspaper headlines would only be able to tell of the amazing things that midwives do.
Gemma Griffiths is a Growth Assessment Protocol (GAP) Midwife in Northampton, and CMF Nurses and Midwives Staffworker