What it’s like to train as a midwife

Sally Bastable, 24, is a third-year student midwife. Here she shares what it's like to train as a midwife and what she's learned so far.

Midwife Sally Bastable
Midwife Sally Bastable

Midwife literally means ‘with-woman’, you work alongside women to create a space for them to have a pregnancy and birth experience that is not only safe but meaningful.

You have to build a rapport with people quickly so you can be the best cheerleader you can be. Childbirth is such a personal, animalistic experience; you witness the highest of joys and the most tragic lows.

Midwifery as a degree is comprised of 50% practical learning (in placement) and 50% university. It’s an intense degree – you don’t get the student experience as you’re working full time, probably part-time too, and doing academic work all at the same time. You need to have a strong work ethic.

Most degrees are three years long and you qualify with a Bachelor of Science (BSc Hons). However, a couple of universities have started running courses that are more like apprenticeships (you get paid as you train), so it’s worth looking into this also.

What is an average day like for you?

Midwives don’t just catch babies all day. The type of day you have ahead of you really depends on where you are working; you might be on the antenatal or postnatal ward, delivery suite, working in a birth centre, driving around the community doing home visits or running clinics from a GP practice.

As a student, you get to try every aspect of midwifery and you find what suits you best. The majority of midwives rotate every year or so to work in other areas to keep up their skills in each aspect of care.

Midwife Sally Bastable
Midwife Sally Bastable

As a ward midwife, you arrive either at 7.30am or 7.30pm for a 12.5-hour shift. You huddle with the team to talk about the women you will be caring for that day to make sure everyone is aware of each other’s caseload.

Community midwifery is slightly different; you are more likely to be starting at 8am until early evening, five days a week, with about two overnight on-calls a month.

Every day is comprised of the same principles though; risk assessment and health promotion. The balance between helping and hindering is a tricky line to walk; we are becoming aware more and more of how sometimes the interventions we introduce into natural processes can do more harm than good. You also have to find your own way of giving health advice without feeling like you are lecturing people all day.

What’s the thing you love best about being a midwife?

The privilege of witnessing some of the most powerful moments in people’s lives; watching all kinds of families come together.

The absolute pleasure of providing care that is free to all women and families, care that is equal and devoid of any other motive than kindness.

What’s the biggest misconception about midwifery you’d like to clear up?

You never really get to cuddle babies.

Tell us a bit about your path to getting where you are now. What did you study at GCSE and A-Level?

For my GCSEs, I chose art & design, textiles, biology and chemistry. I failed physics because I am just terrible at maths. Luckily, I passed my maths GCSE because I had a fabulous teacher who painstakingly went through everything with me again and again until it stuck. Thanks Ms. Rodgers!

For my A-Levels, I chose psychology, biology and English literature. I dropped chemistry in Year 12 because, once again, maths. I knew that I wanted to be a midwife, and to get into university you needed at least three A-Levels (usually ABB) including either biology or chemistry. Now I wish that I’d taken art at A-Level and that I hadn’t taken it all so seriously by only taking what I saw as ‘academic’ subjects.

The first time I interviewed for midwifery I was fresh out of sixth form. The midwife that was interviewing me recommended I go travelling and have some carefree time before I got a ‘serious’ job. I didn’t get into any universities that year, which is a great thing because I then went travelling instead. It was good advice; travelling helped me to realise what was important to me and that nothing was going to come to me unless I got up and made the effort.

Did you always want to go into midwifery? Why?

I come from a big family of lots of nurses and midwives; our strong sense of care must have come from my Great Auntie Sal who I am named after and who was also the midwife that delivered me. I decided I wanted to be a midwife when I was at high school; I always been fascinated with biology and I’ve always been a feminist. I’ve always wanted to have a job where I feel like I can make a difference. Midwifery is a natural convergence of each of these traits.

There is a quote from a great book written by midwives that sums it up for me: “Midwifery is an expression of love and political consciousness, combining health, wellbeing, and the nurturing of women, with human rights and feminism, and is part of women’s struggle for equality and control over our own bodies- all in one profession”- Olivia Armshaw (The Roar Behind the Silence)

Midwifery is a profession in which respect and compassion for women and their families is paramount; being able to work with and advocate for women every day is important to me. I have three sisters; I have a unique relationship with each of them, but I love and respect all of them boundlessly. In practice, I often think to myself ‘how would I want my own sister to be treated in this situation?’ I find that grounding, it motivates me to do my best for everyone.

Choice and control for childbearing women are controversial human rights issues globally. Although some of my colleagues would disagree, I feel you can’t practice as a midwife without strong feminist values. Although midwifery and obstetrics are professions still tarnished with patriarchal values, we are constantly striving for improvement; it is a privilege to be a part of this change.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to train to be a midwife?

Start by volunteering in any caring role; in a nursing home, helping to run activity clubs for children, on a postnatal ward etc. The most obvious reason is that it looks great on your CV and will set you apart from others during your midwifery interviews, but most importantly it will also help you to work out if a caring profession is for you.

Jobs in which you constantly give can be draining, you need to have a deep well of empathy to give from. You cannot care effectively without looking after yourself first, guard your self-care rituals fiercely (especially your sleep). Treat yourself as well as you treat everyone else. Talk to someone who is in a similar position to you; midwifery isn’t quite like any other job, it can be such a relief to talk to someone who is also going through the very specific trials and tribulations of becoming a qualified midwife.

Don’t worry if you’re shy; the only thing you need to start with is kindness, you can learn everything else.

Read as much as you possibly can about midwifery and feminism and trailblazers in our field; write down quotes or ideas that inspire you. These are the people that will get you through the demotivated, despondent days when you want to give up.

What’s next for you?

Next will be qualifying as a midwife!

The great thing about midwifery is that you can take it almost anywhere; I’d love to go and work in New Zealand or Canada for a year, I also want to do some volunteering around the world at some point too.

If you could go back and tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?

Stop worrying, it always ends up fine doesn’t it? Whenever you’re being hard on yourself, remember you would never speak that way to anyone else.

My Reading List for Aspiring Midwives

The Roar Behind the Silence: Why kindness, compassion and respect matter in maternity care by Sheena Byrom

The most inspirational book about midwifery I have ever read; it put into words so many things I had felt but could not explain.

Give Birth Like a Feminist: Your body. Your baby. Your choices by Milli Hill

A great book written for women, it keeps you in a woman-centred mindset that obstetric care can sometimes veer you away from.

The language of kindness: A Nurses Story by Christie Watson

Not midwifery specific but so relevant for anyone in a caring profession. It makes you proud to be a carer.

Call the Midwife by Jennifer Worth

All of Jennifer Worth’s memoirs are lovely and give insight into what maternity care was like in the last century. These are the books that the series Call the Midwife is based on.

A Passion for Birth: My Life; Anthropology, Family and Feminism by Sheila Kitzinger

Sheila was a radical birth rights activist and pioneer, she tirelessly campaigned for the natural childbirth movement in an era in which birth was completely medicalised. This is such an interesting read, she was a truly brilliant woman.

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