Call the midwife: Three Northern Ireland women reveal what the job is really like
A series of events is being planned to mark the centenary of the Midwives Act in Northern Ireland. Three women who have carried out this very special role — ranging from one whose career began in the Sixties to another who qualified recently — tell Stephanie Bell what the job entails.
They are the men and women who we entrust with our most precious possession - our newborns. Now, the stories and experiences of some of the province's midwives are to be recorded in a special publication to mark the centenary of the profession this year.
Northern Ireland's Royal College of Midwives is planning a series of events to mark the 100th year of the Midwives Act in Ireland. Midwifery became legally recognised in Britain in 1902, but it was in 1918 that the profession became regulated here with an act designed to ensure that only qualified midwives could attend births.
The RCM is hoping to mark the centenary with an ecumenical service of thanksgiving and a civic reception to celebrate the role of the midwife.
One of the biggest events of the year will be a book which draws together 100 accounts, experiences and photographs from midwives throughout Ireland - in particular from midwives in Northern Ireland.
The RCN will also be collecting birth stories from women to include in the publication and it is hoped the stories will reflect changing birth practices over the decades.
The first service to mark the centenary will be held in St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast, this Friday night at 5.30pm followed by a buffet supper. And there will be another one in St Eugene's Cathedral, Londonderry, on June 21 at 5.30pm.
We talked to three midwives who shared their experiences and talked about the rewards and challenges of what is recognised as a very special job.
If you would like to share your birth experience as part of the commemorative book you can send your memories to the RCM NI by post to The Royal College of Midwives, 58 Howard Street, Belfast, BT1 6PJ, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call Anne Marie O'Neill, tel: 0300 303 0444 before September 1, 2018.
'Men were only allowed into deliver rooms in the Seventies'
Elizabeth Duffin (77), who lives outside Randalstown, was a midwife from 1962 until she retired in 1984 and has seen many changes in the profession over those years. She says:
I worked in the Royal Maternity Unit in Belfast and in the community as a midwife. Things have changed quite a lot and there have been a lot of medical advances since I started out in the Sixties.
When I first began working there was a lot of home confinement, where women chose to have their babies at home and the community midwives would go out and care for them at home.
But gradually in the early Sixties that all changed as women chose to come into hospitals to have their babies.
Also, back then husbands were not allowed into the delivery rooms and that too changed in the early Seventies - though at first a lot of men didn't want to be in the delivery room and instead would have sat in the waiting room.
Technology has evolved a lot over the years and that has changed the way midwives do their job.
In the late Sixties and Seventies we didn't have any heart monitors and as midwives we would have had to use our eyes, ears and hands more.
We would also have had to check the baby's heart every half hour whereas now with technology they are constantly monitored.
Pain relief has also changed considerably. Women used to get injections of quite strong drugs which also sedated the babies. Now we have epidurals which are great and it means the babies are not sleeping.
There also used to be a lot of forceps deliveries if the baby was in difficulty at the very end of the birth but now caesarean sections have meant there is not as much need for forceps.
Nowadays the mother and the father will know what's happening and are encouraged to ask questions, but I remember a time when we weren't allowed to tell a mother if she was expecting a baby with Down's syndrome.
It was thought that it would be better to let her look after her baby for a while first before breaking the news to her as it was believed that shared time together would encourage her to bond with her baby.
During my career I would have helped deliver hundreds of babies and I never ceased to marvel at it, as no two babies look alike.
It is just amazing.
I think it is a happy job and just seeing the happiness of the mothers and fathers is fantastic."
'I feel very privileged to be part of a couple's journey'
Claire Myers (31), from Kilkeel, has been a midwife for two years and works for the Southern Trust in Daisy Hill Hospital, Newry. Claire was a nurse for four years before training in midwifery. She is also a steward in the RCM southern branch. She recently gave birth to her second child Finn, who is seven weeks old, and also has a young son Jack (4). She is married to Richard (32), an operations director. She says:
My mum was a midwife so it is a job that runs in the family. I trained as a nurse and when I did my midwifery placement as part of my nursing course, I knew that is where I wanted to be. Just watching the midwives and seeing the knowledge they had and how magical an experience it is for the mums and the midwives made me want to do it.
Sometimes in our job less is more and we are very much led by the patient. The body is designed to have a baby and we try to just let the woman do her thing and listen to her body.
We educate them on the choices that are available to them and help them to make an informed decision about how they want the birth.
You build a rapport very quickly with the patients as you are with them through the whole of their labour. They have to trust you and we do what we can to put them at their ease.
Of course, there are women who have tokophobia which is a complete fear of childbirth. Not many people are really excited about the prospect of being in labour and for most people it is a fear of the unknown. We would talk to them and again try to educate them about what lies ahead, giving them their choices and doing what we can to alleviate their anxieties. Midwifery is changing all the time; there is new research everyday and women have an increasing number of choices.
It is very special seeing a family being born in front of you. You are only a visitor to that event and I always feel very lucky, very privileged to be part of that couple's journey. Of course, the tables were turned for me recently when I was giving birth to Finn. I was looked after by my colleagues and it was my turn to be in the magical moment.
I trusted my colleagues to care for me. When I had Jack I was a nurse and I didn't really know what I knew when I was giving birth to Finn - on that occasion I felt nothing but excitement and love. I laboured in water although I didn't give birth in water. I had the birth I wanted.
There is sadness in our job, too, and we also have to be there for the parents who have to deal with the loss of a baby. They need a great deal of support even though they might not have their baby in their arms.
As a junior midwife I get so much help and guidance from my senior colleagues and we all learn from them. The support they give us is invaluable."
'Pain relief is better and there is more water births'
Shona Hamilton (48) is a consultant midwife in the Antrim and Causeway Trust. Shona, who lives in Belfast, is married to Stephen, a psychiatric nurse, and has been a midwife for 17 years. She says:
I have a really lovely job which involves a bit of teaching and some clinical work so I get the best of everything. I had always wanted to be a children's nurse and I was a nurse before I was a midwife, but while doing midwifery as a student something about it just captured my attention and I ended up specialising in it.
I think the key to it for me was that the women tend to be well which was very different from nursing people who are ill and we develop really nice relationships with the mums.
That's not to say we don't have to deal with people who have more complex needs - if anything I think these days we are busier than we used to be, not because more babies are being born, but because of issues such as cardiac problems, mental health problems or diabetes.
How we work has changed significantly in my time. Pain relief is much better now and more women are choosing to have water births.
When I was a student there was no such thing as water births and I remember when I was working in the Ulster Hospital getting the first birth pool and all these lovely water babies being born. Mums love it now and it is a very positive thing.
I have never lost the thrill of seeing a new baby born; it is still as joyous today as it ever was. It is a huge life-changing event, not just for the mum and dad but for the whole family, and we get to be a small part of that.
Midwifery is a lovely career and I feel very blessed. I've met a lot of fabulous people and I hope to continue in this job for many years to come.
I would encourage anyone to consider midwifery as a career."