How Working as a Midwife Helps My Mental Health
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Working in the NHS, it’s almost a given that my job is stressful at times. Understaffed, underfunded and under-resourced, our National Health Service is a system that relies fundamentally on the goodwill of its staff to endlessly go above and beyond to provide safe and effective care to millions of people, day-in, day-out. Working in such a high pressure, high stakes and emotionally demanding environment, it’s no wonder there are widespread mental health problems within the health service. In recent years, there have been worrying reports of doctors, nurses, midwives and other allied health professionals who have been crushed by the system, sometimes with devastating effects on their mental well-being.
I am by no means immune to this effect. I have had probably more than my fair share of sobbing sessions in the sluice, staring down at my fob watch and giving myself exactly 60 seconds to bawl it all out before slapping on a cheery smile and striding straight back out onto the battleground (otherwise known as the labor ward). Spending a day seeing or hearing things so harrowing that I come home and stare blankly at my husband across the room; his day at the office, while no less important, makes us feel on completely separate planets in the context of the bodily fluids and misery of some of my shifts.
However, my work is one of the things in my life which brings me the most joy. I’ve had a pretty rocky year so far in terms of mental health, culminating in a breakdown, a suicide attempt, two months in hospital and consequently nearly four months off work. Nervous as I was, walking into my patient’s room on my first day back at work and being able to say, “Hi there, I’m Amber, I’ll be your midwife today,” sent a wave of happiness over me. For the first time in many months, I finally felt like myself again.
For me, the best part about my job is “the moment.” It’s no one defined thing, and it’s different for each different person you interact with. If you’re reading this and you’re a health care professional, you’ll most likely know what I mean. It’s the moment when something just clicks between you and the person you’re caring for. When you have built a rapport and you get through to them on their level. You see their shoulders relax, breath exhaling in a rush. They talk to you more openly, the conversation flowing freely. Suddenly, there’s a level of trust that means they can share the embarrassing or difficult things they’d been holding back.
In the unfamiliarity of a clinical environment, and the fear that often accompanies the unknown, you’ve managed to establish yourself as a point of safety, and in doing so, have made things just a little easier for them.
I strive for this moment in every single patient interaction I have. Whether it’s the first-time mum walking onto the labor ward who doesn’t think she can cope with labor; or the fourth-time mum who worries she didn’t feel the ‘rush of love’ for this one; or even the couple experiencing the grief of a stillbirth, each of them has their own moment.
You get your first-time mum to reach down as baby’s head is crowning and feel her amazing strength for herself. She makes a noise that is both a laugh and a startled cry, and with the next surge of pain, she has brought her baby into the world. You sit in a darkened postnatal ward at 4 a.m. and in whispered reassurances tell the fourth-time mum that not feeling the “rush of love” doesn’t mean she won’t bond with this baby, or that she’s a bad mum. She’s just exhausted, worried about the three kids at home, and recovering from an unexpectedly complex birth.
Your bereaved parents are caught in a mist of pain, numbness, disbelief and fear. They are unsure, not knowing how to behave; the books don’t cover this. You tell them how beautiful their baby is, coo softly as you would if the baby had survived. The parents follow your lead, and when they hold their baby, they get precious moments of love and bonding, all wrapped up in the grief.
I sometimes wish I could tell patients exactly how privileged I am to share these moments with them. I wish I could tell them just how much they help me. Knowing I’ve given someone what they needed at that particular time, no matter how big or small my part, is priceless. Being able to help people in this way has such a positive effect on me. When things are really bad, it gives me a reason to get out of bed in the morning. It gives my undernourished self-esteem a much-needed boost. Even in the midst of the chaos that can often cloud my mind, the ability to help others grounds me, gives me purpose and makes me feel a little better about taking up my little space in the world.
Getty Images photo via gorodenkoff