Marvellous Midwives – Sheena Byrom OBE

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I’m delighted to add another interview to the Marvellous Midwives series. Sheena Byrom is an experienced midwife, mother and grandmother. She is also the co-owner of The Practising Midwife Journal and maternity platform All 4 Maternity. She is an inspiration to many in the profession, including me!

Tell me about you, where you are from and how long you have been a midwife

Hello Marley! Thank you for inviting me to share my journey with you. My name is Sheena and I am from Lancashire in the North of England. I qualified as a midwife in 1978 so that means I have been in the profession for 42 years. Heck – a long time…..

Why did you decide you wanted to become a midwife?

Well my aunt was a midwife, actually a head of midwifery in Rochdale, though I wasn’t aware of what that meant at the time. She often spoke about her work to me and my sisters. When I was training to be a nurse I spent several weeks in the maternity department and was lucky enough to ‘catch’ a baby under the hands of the most senior midwife on the labour ward. She shouted at me – ‘’Murray, (my maiden name) come here quickly!’ When I entered the room a woman was there, no birth partner which was usual in those days, and the midwifery sister asked me to put gloves on. I was overwhelmed and it was a pivotal moment for me. I haven’t heard of anyone else having that opportunity, remarkable really! So, when I qualified as a nurse and the trend was to get an extra qualification, I chose midwifery.

How did you find the training?

My training was just that – a training rather than an education. I didn’t think that at the time, I enjoyed learning but now I realise it was basic. I found it strange after nursing because for me the job satisfaction was much less – I didn’t feel I was making a difference. I actually found the midwives a little condescending, and there was an even greater bullying culture than in nursing which I detested. But as I got closer to qualifying (which was only a 12 month course!) I started to enjoy it. It was only when I started practising as a midwife that I fell love with my work.

What has been the highlight of your career so far?

Oh there have been so many! I guess being one of the UK’s first consultant midwives was the pinnacle of my career because I though I found it daunting, I had the freedom to develop new services and gather like-minded individuals to be part of our innovative team. I loved it, though I didn’t realise at the time just how ground-breaking and important our work was, or how lucky we were.

The focus of my role was public health – so my work was grounded in promoting the need of the most vulnerable communities we served to try to reduce the health inequalities that exist. I worked in an area of huge social and economic deprivation, and I saw the consequences unfolding with each generation. I could talk forever about this topic, it’s close to my heart. I had to try to influence the mindsets and judgmental attitudes of those I worked with. One comment which made me more determined was  “Sheena, why do they pay you so much for looking after riffraff?”  There was much to do!

As a consultant midwife and with the help of others I successfully bid for external funding, created new posts, initiated the birth of a ‘user-led’ theatre group with an aim to prevent birth trauma and contributed to the research agenda for the first time, and lots more. It was fabulous.

What have you not liked so much?

Working in a negative bullying culture which permeated most of career – even when I was the head of midwifery. I absolutely despised the disempowering impact of command and control structures and organisational constraints which impact on the care women, birthing people and families receive. It’s what keeps me going now – I’m always striving to demonstrate why and how it doesn’t have to be like this. That positive, respectful and compassionate relationships transform the way we feel and the way we thrive in our work and at home. I also feel sad about the increasing presence of ‘fear’ in maternity services, and how the risk management and risk avoidance culture seem to have overtaken the agenda. Again, if we focused on relationship-based care instead of risk-based care – we would potentially make services safer.

Tell me 3 qualities that make an excellent midwife

I firmly believe that midwives should have the appropriate clinical skills to work as a midwife – this is the foundation, the floor.

The 3 qualities that make her excellent, for me are:

  • Awareness of importance of and ability to demonstrate compassion whatever the situation. This includes compassion towards themselves, their colleagues and those they are serving.
  • The ability to treat individuals the way they want to be treated.
  • Understanding of research evidence not only if it exists, but whether it is reliable and how to articulate the key points without judgment or bias.

7. There has been a lot of awareness raised in recent months and years about the plight of Black and Bown women having babies. What do you think we can do as midwives to help reduce the “5 x more” and “ 2 x more” stats?

First of all to access available resources, to learn. We’ve all got so much to learn!  Then to examine our own privilege and bias – to help others to learn too. Checking in on the culture within your workplace.  As midwives we must LISTEN to, and hear what women are telling us, paying extra attention to Black and Brown women.  If women aren’t speaking up – ask them what they need and want in a nurturing, welcoming way – ensuring access is culturally appropriate and sensitive to the needs of each group.  Remember the impact of love!

What is a typical day like at work for you?

Well I’m 65 years old and I didn’t think I’d be answering a question like this! Since I took early retirement from the NHS 10 years ago I’ve never stopped. Yikes. The big decision came 3 years ago when my midwife daughter Anna and I bought The Practising Midwife journal and transformed it – plus we created an associated online learning platform All4Maternity and launched another journal especially for student midwives!  This forms the main part of my daily work and I’m almost always found tapping on my laptop connecting with midwives globally. I arrange blog posts, eLearn modules and organise podcast recordings amongst scores of other things!  Our aim is to make learning accessible and easy to understand – to maximise the potential for student midwives and midwives to be the very best they can be.

I also do lots of engaging with student midwives, midwives and maternity workers through delivering conference sessions – workshops and talks – and this is mainly online now as you know! I’m currently writing two books – so that takes up some of my time too…

Do you have any interesting birth stories that stand out?

I have lots! I supported a woman to give birth in water at home in 1990 when I had never even seen such a birth in hospital. It was extraordinary and I’ll never forget the courage I had to muster up..and the elation when Helen met her baby (now a young man in the army!)

Another special story starts when I saw a pregnant woman at her GP antenatal appointment and I discovered her baby felt small for dates at 36 weeks gestation. We didn’t measure (with tape) in those days but I knew from feeling the baby there was a problem. When I listened to the fetal heart there were irregularities so after getting a second check by the woman’s doctor, I called an ambulance.  The woman was taken straight to delivery suite where further monitoring identified significant morbidity and a Caesarean section was necessary.  I went immediately by car to be with her – and as her partner was away I stayed and went into theatre as an extra pair of hands and to be by her side. The baby was born severely compromised and very small, but alive. I cared for this mother and baby postnatally, and I see the young woman (the baby) from time to time as she lives quite close by. Her sister is currently a student midwife! When I see the family, the mother always tells me how she’ll never forget what I did – and I feel warm inside when she says it. That’s special I think!

There are so many more, some happy and some not so happy – but all unforgettable. I’ve helped women to give birth in ancestorial homes and impoverished high-rise flats – and of course, in hospital. Each one imprinted on my heart.

Give me a few random facts about yourself!

I’m the youngest of 5 girls and my mother was a fierce feminist but didn’t know it. She taught us to always stand up to injustice.

Part of my life I lived a baker’s shop – my mum was a confectioner. It was riddled with cockroaches and to this day the sight of one makes me yelp.

I didn’t pass a formal education exam (11 plus for those as old as me!) yet I passed a Master’s Degree.

I was invited to supper at 10 Downing St. with the then Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife.

What tips do you have for any prospective student midwives?

  1. Think carefully about why you want to be a midwife, and what your inner values are. Our work takes us to the very core of life itself and done well, it resonates for generations to come.
  2. Find a positive role model (midwife or student midwife) and observe what they do – either in person or online.
  3. Read as much as you can – books such as Give Birth Like a Feminist (Milli Hill), The Midwife-Mother Relationship (Mavis Kirkham) Confident Birth (Susanna Heli) and The Roar Behind the Silence (Sheena Byrom and Soo Downe).

Follow Sheena:

Twitter @sheena_byrom

Instagram @sheena_byrom

Facebook: Sheena Byrom – Catching Babies!

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