It’s all starting to get very, very real! I went to my new university on Friday to attend a midwifery seminar, which they hold every 6 months or so. It was a fantastic morning listening to some very interesting speakers and topics (I’ll give you a run-down below). I also received my student timetable for the first year of the course (let’s just say….lots and lots of work ahead, and very few holidays), and yesterday I also got a notice from the NHS that my fees-only bursary has been approved. What a huge relief that is! And for the record, I am an incredibly lucky student, as I am part of THE VERY LAST COHORT of incoming midwifery students who will be eligible to receive an NHS bursary. Starting in Aug. 2017, all incoming midwifery and nursing students will have to pay for their education (to the tune of 9,000 GBP per term), whereas if you are lucky enough to begin your education under the old scheme (as I am), your fees will be covered for your entire course (i.e. 3 years worth of education). As you can imagine, there are a lot of organizations (most notably, the RCM and RCN) which were quite distressed about this change, as it may limit the numbers of incoming student nurses and midwives and destabilize the future of maternity care in the UK. I am not entirely convinced about this, as midwifery and nursing education has ALWAYS been paid for by students in the US, without detrimental effects on the number of students choosing to enter these professions (but obviously coming out with lots and lots of student debt at the end of their education, which isn’t necessarily a good thing at all). In any case, though, as an American student approaching midwifery education here in the UK, I must admit that I am absolutely floored (flabbergasted! Amazed! Delighted!) that my education will be covered by the NHS, as I would never in a million years dream of free tuition in the States for any degree. It feels completely surreal to me, especially as I spent years and years paying off my student debt from my US midwifery and nursing education. And I am counting my lucky stars that I am slipping in just under the wire and will have my fees covered, but at the same time saddened that this incredible system–a system that values a student’s time and energy, and understands that properly educated professionals require investment–is being dismantled.
I met a few of the students who will be in my course, though, as well as a few of the professors, and everyone was incredibly kind and welcoming. I even met a third year student who gave me her phone number (unprompted by me!) and told me that I could get in touch with her at any point if I needed help. What a kind thing to do, and such a wonderful example of mentoring. All of it seems very encouraging, and is making me think (again!) that I’ve chosen the right university to study at. The atmosphere was warm, the students were engaged, and the questions being asked were perceptive, smart and on-point. I am very excited about learning here!
The first speaker at the seminar was the one and only Professor Cathy Warwick, CEO of the Royal College of Midwives (and how fantastic that she’s speaking at conferences at my university??). Her presentation was on the importance of challenging the status quo in order to better deliver personalised care to each woman, which is a core value reflected in the National Maternity Review’s Better Births policy, but is not always easy to implement when a woman’s desires for her birth clashes with the institutionalised norm. She discussed many of the common situations where care is provided based on ritual (i.e. we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way), rather than evidence of best practice (examples of these sorts of non-evidence based rituals include transferring women between wards in a wheelchair when they’re perfectly capable of walking, not allowing fathers to stay overnight in early labour, routine use of external fetal monitoring on admission, transferring women from birth settings in an ambulance regardless of the reasons for the transfer etc. etc.) Prof Warwick pointed out that delivering personalised care presents big challenges for midwives on a systemic level, but that in many situations massive system changes aren’t needed. She spoke, for example, about how you can begin as simply as removing the word “allowed” from your vocabulary (something I can 100% get behind). The woman in labour is the one in charge of her birth. As midwives, it’s our job to support and empower her, but ultimately she should be the one making decisions (in collaboration with her midwife and birthing team). Telling a woman she isn’t “allowed” to do something goes against this sentiment. Ideally, a woman should be able to do whatever she likes in labour and on the ward (within reason), so long as the risks and benefits of her choices have been fully explained to her and she has been given the opportunity to make an informed decision. It’s HER birth, after all. Prof Warwick also pointed out that in some cases, women are labeled as “birthing outside of guidelines” as if they are stubborn and intractable and taking unnecessary risks with their babies, when in fact they are successfully advocating and demanding the type of birth experience they want and are legally entitled to. A better question is: how do we support women who challenge birth conventions/ norms of institutions, and choose to birth outside of these norms? As a strong advocate for home birth, this is something I have encountered many times before, and something that independent midwives facilitate, as many women who choose independent midwifery care are doing so because the institutionalised care offered to them was not in sync with what they desired for their birth. (And I must admit, I found it incredibly encouraging to be hearing this from the CEO of the RCM, especially in light of the recent difficulties imposed on Independent Midwives by the NMC). Safety and risk is perceived differently by every woman, after all; what feels safe to one woman could feel like the definition of risk to another. Prof Warwick also spoke about the need for not only continuity of care, but continuity of carer, and was quite adamant that figuring out how to deliver this type of continuity is something that can only be done by midwives (and that most likely the way forward will be different for each individual midwife, in terms of case-loading v. shift work v. shared call), and that midwives need to be given the power and flexibility to find their own solutions.
The next speaker was Margaret Nyudzewira, a public health advocate and co-founder of the charity CAME Women and Girls Development Organisation (CAWOGIDO), who spoke to us about breast ironing. While I’ve been aware of the dangers of Female Genital Cutting (FGC, or Female Genital Mutilation, FGM) for years, and have encountered it a few times as a midwife in Brooklyn, the practice of breast ironing is fairly new to me. Strangely enough, I first learned about it just a few weeks ago when a midwife friend posted a link to a photographer’s riveting portraits of women and girls who’ve experienced breast ironing. The practice involves using a tight elastic band, pestle, ladle, hot stone, shell, or even hot seeds or heated leaves, to massage and flatten developing breast tissue on young girls, and can lead to many serious medical complications, including chronic pain, scalding, burns, infections, cysts, abscesses, tissue damage, the inability to breastfeed, and of course psychological trauma. Breast ironing is most often done by the girl’s mother (but can also be done by a grandmother, aunt, or tribal practitioner), and comes from a place of love, or more specifically, fear for loved ones–fear of unwanted sexual attention directed towards their daughters, fear of rape or sexual assault, or fear that early marriage or teen pregnancy could education and curtail opportunities. And similar to FGC, this practice doesn’t occur only in Central and West Africa, but in the UK (and the US) as well (although the numbers are difficult to track, and very few studies have been done on the rates of breast ironing in the UK). In Cameroon, 50% of girls on the coast, and 24% of girls nationwide, experience breast ironing.
But one of the things that struck me the most was when Ms. Nyuydzewira said quite emphatically: “It is NOT part of our [Cameroonian] culture to harm girls and young women.” And that is absolutely true. While the practice of breast ironing itself is brutal and debilitating, it’s really important to keep in mind that the practice and the culture are not exactly one and the same. As a (white) midwife approaching a cultural practice like this (which runs counter to my own beliefs, and feels very foreign to my own cultural upbringing), I think it’s crucial to come from a place of support rather than a place of judgement. This is one of the reasons I have come to call it Female Genital Cutting over the years, rather than Female Genital Mutilation (which has our cultural judgement baked into the very name itself) or Female Genital Circumcision (which to me seems to condone the practice, on some level, and also equates it in the mind with male circumcision, which is a false equivalence), especially when I’m discussing it with women/ patients directly (I understand that more generally, in health policy and research, it is more often referred to as FGM). Some women brought up in cultures which practice female genital cutting, for example, may view FGC as no more strange to them than piercing bellybuttons or lips or eyebrows is to us, even if the implications, the actual act itself and the repercussions of it can be much more damaging to them than a bellybutton piercing. When viewed within their culture, it may be seen as a mark of belonging and identity, a much anticipated rite of passage, a way of fitting in, a symbol of their womanhood, a manifestation of their virtue and honor, and on its most basic level, the way that vaginas are supposed to look–beautiful, even, to their eyes. On a personal level, I disagree with these assertions and find FGC abhorrent, but as an outsider to these cultures, I can’t approach a woman by telling her that she’s been mutilated as the starting point for any future conversations with her–that will immediately close her off to me and only serves to project my own cultural bias over her own. Instead, gentleness and sensitivity is needed more than anything else. Rather than imposing my own viewpoint, I would have to elicit the woman’s own views on the topic first, and use that as the starting point for whatever would be most useful to her moving forward: education and resources if desired, medical care if needed, mental health referrals if she feels depressed or traumatised by her experience, or silence and non-judgement if she views it in a positive or neutral light (and should this viewpoint ever change, I can then step in at that point with whatever help or support is most appropriate at that time). To me, this gets to the very heart of my own personal philosophy of midwifery care: LISTEN to women, and DON’T JUDGE. In any case, now that breast ironing is also on my radar, I will be more alert to it if/ when I ever encounter it, and in a much better place to offer sensitive care on this very complex issue. Overall, it was a difficult and disturbing presentation to listen to, but I’m glad that it was part of the seminar, as these things are really important to think about in advance of encountering them!
There were two other speakers at the seminar: Debra Sloam, Midwife and Infant Feeding Specialist from Frimley NHS Foundation Trust, who spoke about her MSc research on student midwives’ attitudes towards offering breastfeeding assistance (as suspected, I will most likely have a lot more time to help women breastfeed as a student than I will as a working midwife), and Dr. Kim Russell from the University of Nottingham, who discussed her action research on challenging midwifery barriers (real and perceived) to facilitating water births on the wards. These were both interesting and engaging presentations, and I’m really glad I was able to attend the seminar.
Two more weeks until classes start!