What do you do as workers when your labour IS labour?
I am an NHS midwife working in a busy hospital. My profession, after years of taking everything that a combination of Tory governments and night shifts could throw at it, has finally taken to the streets.
A grassroots movement led by doulas (lay workers who support families in pregnancy and birth) and people calling themselves birth workers then started to gain traction within the pool of working NHS midwives. The group March with Midwives was born and its membership swelled overnight. Work groups shared and promoted this group and shared action, bypassing the universally declared “useless” union. The Royal College of Midwives, RCM, has not done enough, shouted loud enough or put forward the view from the ward with enough force. The twin set and pearls RCM was roundly denounced at the water coolers and nursing stations.
It all started, in a way, with the recent petrol crisis. Midwives saw the queues at the pumps, the havoc and the clamour in the media all the effect of something as small as a few missing lorry drivers. For many, it was the last straw. My social media started to fill up with a shout of rage:
“First toilet rolls, now petrol and they care…don’t they know that there is a massive and life-damaging shortage of midwives! Why does no one care!”
Pushing for change
March with Midwives’ steering group pulled no punches, saying :
“It is clear that maternity services in the UK are in crisis, giving birth in the UK; a high-income country, is becoming critically unsafe. This is unacceptable. Where we have women, birthing people and babies at risk; their families, communities and countries become sick. This is a genuine national emergency which impacts every level of society.”
This is true. It is very very tough out there in the grind of the ward and birthing room. A perfect (and predictable) storm has been brewing for years. Midwives are leaving the profession in droves, the younger ones are dropping their hours, the older ones retiring. Sickness is high, burn-out and trauma related problems common. It is normal for new starters at a trust to be given a “welcome pack” that includes tissues, for when you cry in the bathroom at work.
The reasons why are many and complex. Student bursaries were cut by the Tory government. Brexit took lots of our wonderful European colleauges. Our acuity, (a measure of the amount of work and need not just the numbers of births) rises daily as people are getting older, fatter, iller and mental health complications are rocketing.
Our working conditions are hard, for historical reasons. The management call it “the needs of the service”. This means in translation: rotas are vicious. In midwifery you never know when you are working, there is no pattern or rhythm, no set shifts. We work Christmas, nights, weekends. We work often now at half staff capacity, doing the work of two or three people. On shift we don’t eat or drink regularly: if we walk away from our families and something terrible happens we are liable and there is no one to relieve us. Sometimes, there is no one to take over and we have to stay until the birth finishes.
The government answer is more safety training. As if we need to be taught how to care and risk assess and be safe! What we actually need is to be given the conditions and tools we need to do the job we know and love. Or even just a fucking lunch break!
Tory MPs quote the Long Term plan for the NHS. Which is sky pie. They want to bring in “continuity of carer”: a team of midwives working across all areas to care for a small caseload of familes. Continuity midwifery has brilliant outcomes, evidence and great satisfaction for women and birthing people. But we don’t have the staff to do this… it’s a dream. It is also a dream not shared by midwives in general as workers… we don’t want to work on call. We see our caseload colleagues working 60-70 hour weeks. So more midwives leave and the vicious cycle continues.
So the Midwives are coming out into the streets, all over the country on the 21st of November. It might seem a small thing, no wild cat strikes, no barricades, no buring effigies. But this is a inherently cautious and quiet profession. It is a group of (majority) women serving (majority) women. It is honestly a calling and a vocation for many of us. We prize stoicism and resilience For us to make a fuss must mean things are truly dire.
So come along, bring your kids. Check the national facebook group for your local vigil.
- What: Nationwide vigils to stand in solidarity with midwives and healthcare professionals in a call for
government action to address the urgent crisis in maternity services
- When: Sunday 21st November 2021- 2pm
- Where: In every town with a maternity unit, UK wide
- Who: Supportive parents, lay-people, doulas, midwives and health care professionals
To find out more follow this link.
~A Secret Midwife