Monday, June 13, 2016

Are we nearing the end of the villagemidwife era?

Dear reader
In seeking to answer this question, are we nearing the end of the villagemidwife era?, I would like to take you today on a reflective journey.  Please come with me along memory lane - not just our memories, but including our mothers' and grandmothers', and more.  If you would like to leave comment at this blogpage, please do so, and thankyou.

What do you know about your own birth?  If you have given birth, how does that compare with your mother's experience of giving birth?


In my lifetime, and within the broad scope of my culture, the person called midwife has progressed from a midwifery nurse, whose language included 'confinement' and the 'lying in' period, and who was required to work under medical supervision, to a highly regulated modern professional who has endorsement that enables access to public funding, hospitals, and prescribing certain medicines.  My generation of midwives experienced a movement to claim midwifery as a profession distinct from nursing.  This can be seen in the two documents pictured below, both from 1973.  The graduation certificate, from the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne, states boldly that I have graduated as a midwife from the hospital's School of Midwifery.  In contrast, the Certificate of Registration, issued by the Nurses Board of Victoria in the same year, declared that I was a MIDWIFERY NURSE. 

Graduation as a midwife 1973

Registration as a midwifery nurse 1973

My mother was also a midwife.  In her lifetime Penicillin was discovered, and surgical interventions in birth became safer than they had been.  My mother's generation of midwives taught young women to scald cow's milk, and add sugar and water, making it a tolerable food to replace the mother's own milk - something that became all too easy!

My grandmothers were not midwives, but they gave birth to their babies in the care of midwives who attended them at home or in a private 'nursing home', strictly enforcing requirements for bed rest, and stayed for a couple of weeks afterwards.

One of my great grand-mothers, Angelina White, died 'in childbed'.  Her death was two weeks after the birth of her child, probably from sepsis and haemorrhage: the sort of illness that I would treat with antibiotics.  My grandfather was only four years old when his mother died.



So, what do I mean by the villagemidwife era?

In the beginning, some women learnt that unique and life-affirming skill of accompanying women through their childbearing event.  Those women learnt to work in harmony with amazing, hormonally mediated natural processes; learnt how to teach others enough to prepare well, without becoming overwhelmed; learnt how to reduce and minimise fear and anxiety, so that the labouring woman accepted the work of labour; learnt how to support without interrupting the processes of mother-baby attachment, ensuring strong bonds and resilient families.  The image in my mind is that of a midwife who was known and recognised by her community as being the guardian of the next generation of mothers and babies.

I discovered the villagemidwife model soon after I set up my private midwifery practice in the early 1990s.   I was providing clinical support to a group of RMIT midwifery students at Box Hill Hospital at the time.  A midwife at the hospital asked a student "What would the villagemidwife do?", when faced with a particular challenge.

The villagemidwife then, as now, is known and recognised by her community as being the guardian of the next generation of mothers and babies. 

It was an absolute privilege for me to, over the years, return to families as their known and trusted midwife.   I also felt deeply privileged to guide women in their first birthing - a significant challenge.  And to support - and dare I say 'help' - women who felt violated in their previous birth.

Yet I need to also tell you about the other side of this coin.

There were many frustrations.   My 'village' had no boundaries.  Working with a caseload, on call 24/7 is the big commitment made by a midwife, but it is not easy.  Some of the births I committed to required me to travel one or two hours, often driving through the night.  One morning as I made my way home along Burwood Highway after a birth in the Dandenongs I realised with only moments to spare that I was heading for a tree.  A micro-second of sleep had almost robbed me of life.   I had learnt over the years of hospital night shifts to eat an apple slowly as I traveled home, giving a steady supply of sugar to my weary brain.  I could usually make an apple last the distance.  But my 'stay awake' strategies were not perfect!

I would not take a long distance booking if the mother could find a midwife who was closer.  Not only was the travel costly on my time and energy, but it meant I might not be able to provide as much postnatal care as I would have wished.  

There was a reality that I had to face - my 'village' needed to give me enough work to pay the bills.  There were times when I accepted bookings that required distance travel, or that put several women due in the same week.   There was no way of predicting when babies would be born.  Many times I would look at the calendar - two due this week, one due the following week, and one the week after that.  Then, all of a sudden, four babies would be born within a couple of days.   Add to that the travel from one side of Melbourne to the other, with crowded suburban roads to cross: not the ideal!

The commitment I made to the women in my care meant that my children had to get on without me, sometimes at special times in their lives.  I missed a couple of Paul's birthdays - to the same mother who gave birth to two of her children on that day several years apart!   There were a few occasions when I had to ask another midwife to cover for me, but the very thought of not being able to keep my commitment to that mother caused me deep sorrow.  One birth I missed when I needed to travel to Brisbane when my Dad was dying.  The fact is that the caseload commitment of a midwife is a very difficult commitment to make.

Last month I decided not to renew my midwife registration. More than a year ago I decided not to renew my professional indemnity insurance, so although I was registered I was not able to practise midwifery. During the past 18 months I have lived quietly, gradually recovering from the physical and emotional burnout that developed gradually over several years. I have been enjoying the beautiful grandchildren (and their parents) that God has sent into our care, the change of the seasons, the garden, and many simple life challenges.

It's ten years since I began writing the villagemidwife blog, telling stories and making comment on midwifery issues. It's about 20 years since I wrote what I called The Midwife's Journal http://www.aitex.com.au/joy/journal/contents.htm. These stories were initially written by hand in a book, often while I could still smell the amniotic fluid on my arms, and while the oxytocin and other wonderful hormones of life soared in my body, and I added precious photos - in the pre-digital camera days. 

During these years of writing and reflecting, I have felt that I am in a position of guardianship, recording and discussing life from the midwife's perspective. I am thankful that advances in computer technology in my lifetime have made it easy for me to do this in a systematic and retrievable way.
Although I am no longer able to do the work of the villagemidwife, I do not think I have lost the ability to think about life from this unique perspective.

I have not yet answered the question at the head of this post.  Perhaps that's for another day! 

I would appreciate comment from anyone who reads this post. Thankyou.

1 comment:

Narelle said...

Hi Joy, I have just discovered your blog. Thank you for the love, dedication & support you have given so many women over the years. Thank you for sharing all you know & have learned with others. Good for you for finally putting yourself first & taking time to be present & enjoy your life. Just because you are no longer practising midwifery does not mean you are not a valuable source of love,support & guidance for many now & in the future. Again thank you for your service to women & babies. Xx