A Passion for Birth: passing on the baton

                    My family - 5 girls

                    My family - 5 girls

I recently read Sheila Kitzinger’s biography – A Passion for Birth. The first thing that struck me was the synergy between Sheila’s life and mine. It was quite a revelation.  Poles apart in terms of heritage and social standing, Sheila and I not only have similar names, but Sheila was born to a strong rebellious mother as I was, she was mother to five girls, and I am the youngest of five girls.  Like Sheila, there is no division in my life between work and home – it all blends into one, and childbirth and women’s human rights thread through the core.

Until I read her biography, I wasn’t aware of these aspects of Sheila’s life. The book reveals facts about this legendary woman, who set the scene for radical change in childbirth practice in the UK and around the world, and challenged us to think about the experience of childbirth as a potentially exciting, exhilarating, and fundamentally important event.  Sheila's work and passion epitomizes the ROAR of childbirth activism.

During the first part of my career, in the early 1980s, birth activists were mystical beings that I never saw – and inspirational texts were far less accessible.  Individuals like Ina May Gaskin and Sheila Kitzinger influenced my thinking, my practice, but their physical presence was far from my life.  These inspirational women provided me with ideas for ‘another way’, when I was immersed in a culture where ‘doing to’ women was the norm, and permission was not sought for routine unnecessary medical intervention.

Having been brought up in a family of only girls, gender inequality hadn’t occurred to me, even though my wonderful mother, like most women, did the ‘double shift’ of paid work and unpaid housework and motherhood.  Until I read Sheila’s work I didn’t understand the enormity of women’s rights, and how childbirth was fundamental to the struggle.  During my early career childbearing women were compliant, and any woman revealing that she’d attended NCT classes was labeled ‘difficult’ even before the next sentence. Midwives conformed to hierarchies too, and bullying was accepted. I remember a time when I was reprimanded by my colleagues for ‘allowing’ a woman to have a bath shortly after giving birth. The midwives were horrified, as it was the usual routine for a woman to have a bed bath shortly before being transferred to the postnatal area. I couldn’t believe it. I’d worked in the GP maternity unit (that was part of the same organisation) for years prior to this, and there it was normal practice for women to soak in a bath immediately after birth. My superiors told me I was practising dangerously. I challenged the directive, and there began my first move to try to influence maternity care, and I contacted other units in search for evidence. I was never confident even though my belief was strong.  I was considered rebellious (for such a simple thing) and ‘alternative’.  It was around this time that I read Sheila’s book, Pregnancy and Childbirth (1980) – it was a revelation.  My instinct to question unnecessary rituals was founded, and looking back, it was then I began to ROAR.  With a few like-minded midwives, mostly fellow members of the Association of Radical Midwives we searched for evidence to support change. I was fortunate to work with an enlightened head of midwifery, Pauline Quinn, who listened to feedback about our maternity service from women who had their babies with us, via a local NCT tutor. Clare Harding was a highly educated individual, and a member of the Maternity Services Liaison Committee.  Slowly, things began to change. The separation of mothers and babies, binding engorged breasts, giving milk supplements to breast-fed babies, and enemas, pubic shaving, routine episiotomy gradually became activities of the past. But it wasn’t easy, and if it wasn’t for the injection of information and assurance via articles and books from people such as Sheila, I would have been more reticent.  The compassion within me that lead me to choose midwifery as a profession, that helped me to try to be courageous, was often tested. Like others, I was often fearful….

Today we have evidence, and greater access to midwifery and obstetric leaders who continue to push boundaries to promote and support women centred care. We can even chat to them via social media channels. Social media also enables us to learn about innovative practice, and can link us with like-minded individuals then we can join together to enable a greater, unified message.  However, we also have the increasing fear of recrimination, of litigation and doing the ‘wrong thing’, that is leading to defensive practice and vicious circles of despair and distress. This isn’t resulting in a safer service, quite the opposite.  Because of this, and due to our extensive networks, Soo Downe and I decided to bring together a global voice to speak out and identify the need for another way, and to highlight practice where positive change has been made.  We wanted to convey the notion of a link between compassion and love as a antidote to fear, and to try to encourage practitioners to acknowledge the difference between real fear that protects us, and manufactured fear that potentially leads us to practice defensively, and adds to an already stressful situation (Dahlen 2010),.   

And through the years leading up to the birth of The ROAR Behind the Silence, Sheila’s philosophy has underpinned my actions, my search for courage, and my attempt to spread compassion.

Sheila Kitzinger certainly handed me the baton, and I am always willing to pass it on.




Dahlen H (2010) Undone by fear? Deluded by trust?  Midwifery 26, 156-162


Patient opinion matters

Image It happened on Christmas Day.

Our Christian celebration and a time for love and hope and goodwill. My son J and I saw this is abundance in one single half hour in a dental surgery, and it was totally unexpected and surrounded by worry.

Our delightful little 4 year old grandson came with his big sister from Holland to celebrate Christmas with us, and during a short walk on Christmas Day afternoon, he fell full length on some ancient stone steps in the grounds of Whalley Abbey, and knocked out one his front teeth, and loosened another. Amidst his screams and copious amounts of blood, my husband ran to a nearby shop (amazingly it was open!) for tissues and then for our car to take him home.

After at least an hour of trying to convince NHS Direct that we needed a dentist and not a trip to the local hospital's emergency department, I gave up and contacted our private dental practice and asked to be put through to the emergency on call partner. A little while later we were on our way to the surgery, having been directed to enter by the back door.

To say we were anxious was an understatement, my son was as traumatised as his little boy, and we were worried about the decision about to be made on the future of the loose tooth. Dr Alison Whittaker met us at the door, with a beaming smile and such a pleasant, reassuring attitude. She instantly made us feel safe and secure. What a difference it made to us all, and our small grandson didn't hesitate climbing on the treatment couch so that she could look at him.

Dr Alison Whittaker with Q

I have recently posted about my experience of NHS care, and the importance of positive attitude, kindness and compassion from healthcare workers. I am no stranger to the impact this has on patient experience, and how a nurturing environment aids recovery and supports families to aid the process. I have also recently discovered the brilliant and 'common sense' work of Robin Youngson who demonstrates how 'compassionate care saves time, money and lives'. And I have seen it myself from a caregivers, patient, and family member perspective.

Through #Twitter I came across Patient Opinion, the UK's leading independent non-profit feedback platform for health services. The website facilitates 'honest and meaningful conversations between patients and health services', and I was happy to tell them about our liaison with Dr Whittaker. I think feedback is a powerful tool, and crucial in encouraging and supporting first class health care. And what better way to let someone know they have made a difference? Or that there needs to be an improvement?

And what a perfect antedote to the negative unsolicited media coverage of the National Health Service, which does nought but instil fear in those who use it. Patient Opinion can help those of us who work or have worked for the NHS and affiliated services to promote positive stories and further empower those who are committed to serving their community with pride.

Do you have a story to tell?

A letter to a special midwife....


Dear Shelley,

When I saw your face nestled amongst other delegates in a lecture theatre at Coventry University this week, I was overwhelmed. The joy of seeing you made my day, and I am still smiling. How could it be that we lost touch after sharing such a close relationship as young midwives, and young mothers? We grew together didn’t we? You shared your sunshine personality with so many others, and everyone loved you. Including me. I was always delighted when I knew we would be on the same shift, caring for mothers and babies, as I knew the hours would be full of smiles and compassion even when it was busier than we thought possible. I can see you now, coming through the doors of a birth room with a great big smile to help someone else. Always helping- ‘no’ wasn’t in your vocabulary.

One occasion when we worked together stands out above all the others.  You came out of one of the birth rooms on the Delivery Suite at Blackburn and asked me to ‘mind’ Julie, the woman you were looking after, whilst you went to have some lunch.  You sought me out. ‘Sheena this young girl is in early labour and is frightened of me leaving her’.  ‘I promised her I would find someone kind to sit with her whilst I had a quick bite’ you said. You explained that Julie had distressing social circumstances, and she had learning difficulties. I was flattered that you trusted me, and followed behind you into the room. The young woman was crying because you’d gone.  So you hugged her, and kissed her forehead, and as I looked on I caught glimpse of the head lice crawling around her locks of hair. I also became aware of the stench and saw the grime on Julie’s skin and nails, and I bent to her level to try to reassure her that I would stay as close and carefully take good care of her whilst you were gone. Julie swore at me, and said she didn’t want me, only you. You asked if you could go for just 15 minutes, as you were so hungry, and she screamed ‘NO!’.

So you stayed. You stoked her hair, and put your arms around her neck and then moved back to get eye contact. ‘OK Julie, I won’t leave you’.  You didn’t worry about catching the lice, or the offensive smell, you didn’t just care for Julie, you loved her. And she felt it. It may have been a first for her.

I have often recounted this tale Shelley, especially when talking to student or new midwives about real humanity and compassion. I have always considered myself as being up there with others in my ability to nurture, empower and to be kind. But you go beyond that. You are the ultimate midwife, your sensitivity and love is a rare gift, and I am thankful that I witnessed your capacity to make a difference to so many women.

At our unexpected reunion at the Baby Lifeline study day we talked and talked of times gone by, we laughed and we cried. And we spoke of other stars, Anita, Louise Slater, Sue Henry and Katie were amongst those we remembered.

Later that evening I posted the photograph above on Facebook, and these comments from some of your friends quickly appeared:

Patti Hughes Shelley Shore! Lovely lady - and doesn't look a bloody day older!

Jean Duerden Loved it knowing she was in York. A very special person. X

Tina Chatburn Shelley Shore .....loved her tales !!

What do you think about that?

Shelley Shore: a legend

Love from your friend,

Sheena x