The midwife effect, memories and being REAL

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This week I attended two book signing events, one at Whalley Library and the other at Waterstones in Preston.

What struck me most about talking to the men and women who came was that no matter how long ago the birth of their baby was, they remembered every detail of the event as though it was yesterday and were eager to share it with me. 

Rita was one of the women. She had written me a letter and handed it to me in a sealed envelope just before she left. I waited until I got home and sat down with a cup of tea to read Rita’s words. The letter opened by saying ‘I am currently reading your book with great interest and enjoyment, though it has confirmed the anger and upset I have felt for the past 37 years regarding my poor treatment and lack of care….’ Rita went on to detail how she was 31 when she was pregnant with her first baby and deemed ‘high risk’, how she didn’t want to be induced two days post dates as she felt healthy and how she was shunned by the staff for having that opinion. She then gave an explicit account of how she was given an injection of pethedine when in labour and it made her sleep. The midwife (she describes her as small and stood on a stool) hit her and told her to wake up and ‘push’.

There are so many more strands to this sad story, just as horryfying. The cruel midwife’s actions are unthinkable, and had an everlasting effect on Rita’s life. I often talk to midwives about the impact they have during those intimitate and uniquely special moments when a baby is born, and how their words, actions and body language resonates through generations. I will speak to Rita again as she left her number, and because she told me that writing the letter had helped her to feel more at peace. Her troubled memories shouldn’t be.

 

Veroncia Hall, my lovely yet long lost friend came from Didsbury to the Preston book signing. Veronica features in Catching Babies as she was one of the influences on me choosing to become a midwife. Veronica came with Marion, another friend from the ‘old days’ who has recently and delightfully come back into my life. It was fabulous to see them both.  Veronica went to the children’s section of Waterstones and brought back the Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams, and she turned to page to page 10. ‘Listen to this’ she said….’I love this passage, and once had to read it at a friend’s wedding’. 

“What is REAL?” asked the Velveteen Rabbit one day… “Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When [someone] loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”

“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.

“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”

“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. 

“Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand… once you are Real you can’t become unreal again. It lasts for always.

I had never heard or read this before, but I will certainly remember it. I bought the book. Afterwards my special sister in law Gill and dear friend Lynne went to meet Marion and Veronica for a glass of fiz on Winkley St, another unexpected suprise! We will certainly return there!

PS…I met John Welshman in Waterstones, the author of Titanic: the last night of a small town. Friendly and interesting, John is a historian and works as a senior lecturer at Lancaster University. He told me has also written another book about evacuees during the second world warChurchill’s Children . I shall be purchasing both books, and look forward to relishing each one. 

 

 

Charity talks and Catching Babies

 

 

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Yesterday I did the first talk about my book, at the amazing East Lancashire Hospice in their fabulous conservatory, to raise funds for the ongoing care of patients.

I have been invited as a guest speaker to other events, but I was apprehensive because this was the first time, and although I am used to public speaking it felt different. I knew so many people who were going to be there to listen to me speak, and felt worried that my tales wouldn’t be interesting enough. So I was pleased to hear this morning that the event was a huge success, and my input was enjoyed by all. I had some fabulous surprises, colleagues from the old days came…my Aunty Kathleen who is the last surviving Dixon of her generation (thanks so much Aunty you made my day) and a very special card from Mrs Channel! It was almost like a reunion. And what better way to spend an afternoon, raising much needed funds for a very special place? It was truly an honour to be involved. 

The event “Afternoon of Inspiration’ was the brainchild of Jennifer Quinn, the daughter of my lovely friend Pauline, who is working as a fundraiser at the Hospice. What a fullfilling position. There was a very poignant address from Gill Leacy, one of the Trustees of the organisation. Gill made reference to the connection between birth and death (linking my talk to hers) as she sadly lost her husband 15 years ago and he had been a patient at the Hospice. She talked about Blackburn Birth Centre being next door, and described some of the events around the birth of her son 50 years ago.

In the end it was lovely to talk in public about my book, to mention my Mum and the inspiration she was to my sisters and I. And also to describe how the book has given me the opportunity to reflect, to ‘join the dots’ and to leave a story or two for my children.

Now for the next. Hopefully now I won’t be as anxious… 

 

 

Another review…really describes what I set out to say!

When I decided to go ahead with the book, one of my wishes was to influence childbirth practice and philosophy in some small but meaningful way, and of course to leave a story for my children. When I read this review on The Observer website, I thought yeah…I may have done it!

 

‘Sheena Byrom has been at the forefront of developing midwifery practices in her part of northern England, Lancashire. Catching Babies is her autobiography. Not much substance for a book, one could think, but with her passion and understanding of human nature, especially of women faced with giving birth, she manages to make it an exciting read, and a must for medical personnel. It is essential, she says, that all midwives have the right approach – to be kind, caring and empathetic. It’s also important to get the language right.

Pregnant women are not “patients”, she says, because that supposes they are sick. Pregnancy is not an illness. To say that a midwife “delivers” a baby suggests that she does all the work –it is a birth not a delivery -, whereas it is the mother who has all the sweat and toil of labour, pushing out the baby with amazing endurance for the midwife to “catch” at the end. Hence the book’s title. From a family of five daughters and two loving parents, a job in a caring profession appealed to her; the whole ethos of their family had been about caring for others. But not everyone in midwifery, obstetrics and the nursing profession generally had the same idea.

When she was ten, she was admitted to hospital for an operation. Then, she observed, parents were perceived as problematic, and fussing over children seemed to be frowned upon in those days. There was a kind of certainty that the medical profession knew best and parents gave their children to the doctor’s care with full acceptance that it was the right thing to do. During her years of training and practice, she was to come upon high-handedness, coldness and arrogance from superiors, and this is precisely what she wanted to change. And this is why this refreshingly positive book is so appealing.

Patients generally need to be smiled at, to feel a connection with the caregivers (doctors, nurses and other hospital staff) and to have their anxieties ironed out. In the case of a midwife, this meant building a relationship with the woman and her family based on a partnership rather than one where the health professional is “in charge”. Wherever possible, home births were preferred. She describes one home birth on a farm. The pregnant mother, the farmer’s wife, was taken in labour doing the farm chores, which she carried on doing until the moment of birth came – and then back to work!

She helped mothers give birth in immigrant communities, in areas of extreme poverty and mothers addicted to drugs and alcohol, and women with mental health problems. Her experience is wide-ranging, and so she speaks with authority. She has respect for life before, during and after pregnancy, though there is one unclear reference to abortion, which can be taken as either in favour “as a last resort” or against. The book is fittingly dedicated to the wonders and resilience of females, and the fact that they “hold up the world.”