Secrets of the labour ward – a midwife tells all

As a NHS midwife in Scotland Leah Hazard has seen it all. After giving up a career in television she qualified in 2013, wrote a best-selling book last year and now she's here to reveal more

I’d know The Look anywhere. I could be passing time at the bus stop, chatting to an old woman while we wait for the number 44. Or maybe I’m at the salon, making small talk with a new hairdresser while she paints colour onto my roots. ‘What do you do?’ they say, and when I answer, ‘I’m a midwife,’ there it is – the wide eyes and raised brows, the mixed titillation and fascination – it’s The Look.

I should be grateful, I guess, that people are so fascinated by midwives. For almost as long as the job has existed (and that’s just about as long as humans have been having babies), many cultures have believed that midwives possess some supernatural secret wisdom. In darker times, midwives have even been tried and killed as witches – their knowledge of natural remedies and womanly ways so powerful as to be dangerously subversive.

Nowadays, NHS midwives like me are more familiar with tablets and injections than we are with homemade potions and prayers, and we’re more likely to be seen on a hospital ward than on a broomstick, but some things never change: we’re still privy to the female body’s most wonderful secrets, and our knowledge is a source of public fascination – hence, The Look.

There are some things I can’t possibly explain to you, like how it feels to catch a baby when it slides out of its mother’s body, or what it’s like to comfort a woman as she’s told that her baby will never survive to draw breath, or how nightshift hilarity kicks in at 3am when your colleagues are high on caffeine, jelly babies and the buzz of new life. These are all ‘you had to be there’ moments – experiences you’ll never have unless you walk a mile in my (battered and blood-stained) shoes. But I can let you in on a few secrets of the labour ward – you might not be able to bluff your way as a midwife, but share these gems and you might be rewarded with The Look.

A Midwife's Story

Leah Hazard’s Hard Pushed: A Midwife’s Story (Arrow) is out now

You might poo… and you might not

OK, OK, let’s start with the question that’s always first to be asked in antenatal classes. In the final stage of labour, your baby’s head descends onto your pelvic floor (the sling of muscles and tissue that basically holds all your lower organs in place) and presses your bowel like a tube of toothpaste. And just like a tube of toothpaste, if you press it hard enough, whatever’s in there must come out. The good news is that you probably won’t even be aware of a poo or two (let’s just say you’ll have other things on your mind), and your midwife will get very excited at this surefire sign that a baby’s head can’t be far away.

There are no prizes for bravery

You may or may not have written a birth plan, and while it’s fantastic to be able to make informed choices, I often say that planning your birth is a bit like packing for a trip to the moon – you won’t really know what you’ll need or want until you get there. Whether you’re adamantly drug-free, or your idea of heaven is an effective epidural, there are no rules and no prizes. Just you do you. Your midwife is there to be your guide, advocate, cheerleader and counsellor. She has no agenda or preference other than to keep you and your baby happy and healthy; it’s not witchcraft, but it is kind of magical.

Women are awesome

Does this qualify as a ‘secret of the labour ward’? I think it does. Our modern culture pays plenty of lip service to girl power, feminism, body positivity – call it what you will, and hashtag it to your heart’s content. But until you’ve seen the countless ways that women meet the challenge of childbirth head-on, you haven’t really, truly seen what the female body – and mind – can do. Midwives know that however a woman births, she is capable of untold acts of heroism, strength, beauty and grace. That’s why if you ever hang around outside a hospital at the end of a shift, you just might see a few midwives wandering towards their cars, keys in hand, eyes still glazed with The Look.

* Leah Hazard’s Hard Pushed: A Midwife’s Story (Arrow) is out now

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