Is it just building sandcastles too close to the waves?
I don’t think so.
I love being an NCT facilitator. For much of the time it feels hugely rewarding, watching a group of people expand their skills, knowledge and friendship group over a 5-week period, and then beyond once their babies are born. As an ex-secondary teacher I would describe it as like teaching your best, keenest A-level class all the time! Or as a Breastfeeding Counsellor, sitting with a new mother and watching her relax and begin to smile is truly lovely.
So what’s the hard bit? It is hearing the tougher birth stories, the stories of dashed hopes, of disappointment and pain. Many parents say they did at least understand what happened, even if it was way off their plans, which is a relief to me as we would have talked a lot about decision-making, asking questions, being actively involved whatever happens. Like all NCT facilitators, I try to walk the line between presenting straightforward birth in a positive way and valuing and being glad of any necessary medical intervention. It is a hard discipline not to take the horror stories personally, but I work hard at this. I couldn’t carry on otherwise.
What I can do, though, is work closely with the maternity units locally, sharing the parents’ stories and looking at the bigger picture. I attend North Central London (NCL) Maternity Voices Partnership (MVP) which brings together all the local units. NCL is a Better Birth Early Adopter and it is heartening to see so many people devoted to making positive shifts in maternity care. Every time I hear a story of a less-than-kind health professional I just have to think of all the utterly amazing ones I meet with regularly and it puts everything into perspective. I also love having a close link to HOMs and Senior Midwives so I know the local units well and can ask questions when I need to. I think it is also hugely important for NCT facilitators to have a strong empathy for midwives, to really grasp the circumstances in which they work and the challenges they face. There has to be compassion on all sides.
I could sit around being angry. Angry that too many mothers don’t get the birth they hoped for. Angry that the NHS is so chronically underfunded. Angry that midwives at all levels are expected to give and give and give, without being held up financially or emotionally, trapped by the system. Instead, I try to do something constructive…
A few years ago, inspired by an NCT Voices event at Acton, I set up Whittington Maternity Voices Partnership (as they are now called) and I haven’t looked back. National and London based MVP events are always extraordinary – full of super-powered women, many of whom are involved with NCT as well. We recently had one at the Oval which was on a whole other level as NHS England was involved too – real coffee, a fancy lunch and a free pen and pad of paper! The national MVP Facebook page is my favourite – incredibly empowering and supportive.
MVPs can really make a difference to local services and people. One mother who came recently had experienced a challenging birth, but had towed the line of ‘well at least I had a healthy baby’ that women so often hold onto to get through. Sometimes it is the ‘right’ response for them, but other times it masks a lot of pain. In this case, coming to the MVP opened the floodgates for her. She was held by a room full of caring women and the next week attended the birth reflections clinic. She hadn’t realised how much sadness she was holding in.
Whilst every MVP is run differently, not least in terms of funding (or lack of it), there is a strong national movement to get them properly valued and recognised. MVPs are a real example of co-production and every NCT facilitator, volunteer and parent can make an incredibly important contribution to Better Births by engaging with their local MVP. So if you’re not already, please do get involved!
There are times when running an MVP and actually seeing any change feels like a Sisyphean task, of building sandcastles too close to the waves. But I am always buoyed up by the responses of the parents who come to our workshops. They feel empowered. They feel heard. They feel healed.