Midwife and Birthrights Associate Trainer, Octavia Wiseman, reflects on the difference kindness can make in maternity care. Octavia experienced the kindness of other professionals first hand after her house went up in flames just a couple of weeks ago…
The last twelve months have been challenging for us all. For me, the upheaval of the Covid Pandemic has been combined with the stressful and rewarding jump to being a Consultant Midwife. The promotion to a more strategic role has altered my perspective on a job I thought I knew well. It is one thing to teach human rights, it is another to be the conduit between women and a multi-professional team to develop safe, human-rights based, out of guidelines care plans. It is one thing to provide continuity of care to a single woman, it’s another to think about how this can be rolled out in a service. It is one thing to build a relationship of trust, it is another to support colleagues to provide personalised care in a stretched service. It’s one thing to develop research evidence, it’s another to implement it.
I love it when my perceptions are challenged, and amid all the stress and excitement of the new job, my world took another volte-face this week: our home of 20 years burned down. What wasn’t destroyed by fire was damaged by water. We now move into the world of pain that is sadness, insurance, surveyors, builders, roofers, movers, rent, storage units and loss assessors. However, the only important word in that sentence is ‘we’. My family of six, plus two cats, are safe. Five of us were in the house when it happened but we all got out. My youngest lost everything except the clothes she stood up in (including her phone but not her shoes). Three of the kids lost their computers, hard drives, work – just as exams and deadlines approach.
All the ceilings fell in in our house, but not in our life. None of this matters because my family is safe. I cannot bring myself to mourn the stuff we’ve lost. The emotions I felt, the thing which bowled me over while the house burned, was not sadness, or regret. It was gratitude. I was completely reliant on the highly trained front-line professionals who rushed to our aid within 2 minutes of my 999 call. I was overwhelmed with gratitude to the men and women who rushed into our house with hoses, who climbed ladders, who manned drones, who spoke to us gently, who made sure we were safe, who stopped the fire spreading to our neighbours’ houses. And I thought – is this how we are perceived as midwives? As skilled guardian angels who are there when we most need them?
It was not until many hours later, as a late dusk fell and we were escorted back in to rescue our insurance papers (miraculously dry) and a toothbrush before making our way to the sofabeds which awaited us for the next few days, that I noticed that the firemen and women who had gone into our house had wrapped all the valuables they could find in plastic sheets, had covered a bookshelf, had taken photos down from the walls before they turned into a waterfall. These plastic sheets represented more than professionalism. They represented kindness. They represented an acknowledgement that by protecting these memories they were salvaging something, however small, from disaster. It was the plastic sheets which undid me. It was this human touch, this poignant detail which I’ll never forget.
Since the fire I have been reflecting on our job as professional midwives and the big things we do – how we train, how we perform, how we keep safe. But also about the small things we do, as human beings – the cups of tea, the touch, the clean sheet, the joke with a sibling, the tidying up, the bending of unimportant rules to support autonomy. The things not documented, not counted, not found in the guidelines. In my emergency, I understood viscerally how it may be the smallest actions which tell the story about what we stand for, about what is of value, for those who rely on us. Having a baby can be (and usually is) a big, dramatic narrative full of action. The pandemic has only added to that drama and I’m sure for many having a baby over the past year has been a daunting and sometimes scary experience. Safety is essential. But so is kindness, dignity, humanity. These are the things which make the experience transformative. As midwives we have the power to personalise the experience for families, even in a crisis, even when it feels like all is lost.
I want to celebrate the small things midwives do which make our work transformative. The hidden kindnesses which are part of our daily practice, which may never appear in the reports, but which will never be forgotten.
Don’t forget the metaphoric plastic sheeting in your back pocket.
(Oh, and never leave a candle burning when you leave a room…)