Call the Midwife: Rediscovering the spiritual roots of midwifery

lucyannPresented by Revd Lucyann Ashdown, Independent Midwife, Priest in Charge, Blaenau Irfon and Irfon Valley Parishes, Church in Wales

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Lucyann asked what the group connected with in the series/books of ‘Call the Midwife’?

Answers: 1 had trained as a midwife, 1 had visited the Sisters of St John the Divine in Birmingham, formerly of Nonnatus House, E London. 1 had trained as a nurse at end of 1950’s and identified with the era and care at that time. 1 took inspiration from the caring aspect of the nurses depicted, their attitude to palliative and end of life care.

The key reason that Lucyann identified with the series was that the nuns showed a deep desire to love, trust and community, which she saw as a representation of the Trinity.

There are 2 types of sight – the loving gaze & surveillance

Loving gaze: God looks on us with love – ‘Look of love’. In relation to this a story was related about a journalist who visited a tribe in S America whose tradition it was to gaze at each other for 2 hours in silence to truly know one another. After this experience the journalist found there was no need to conduct an interview. The loving gaze is about relationship and knowing the self and the other person. The look of love affects people positively.

Contrasted with:

Surveillance: Observed as a result of hyper-accountability.

–        It has deviant/criminal associations

–        A masculinised approach in art for example, the male gaze on women’s bodies

–        Depicts a loss of solitude, privacy and relationship

–        It can inhibit and paralyse

–        Denotes suspicion eg ‘big brother’

–        Surveillance during birth can impact on how a woman labours

–        It can be a covert power which is unknown within an organisation unless someone deviates from protocol

–        Denotes being stared at (Song of Solomon 6:5)

–        Can be overwhelming

–        Oxytocin released during child birth described as ‘shy love hormone’ and women need privacy for this reason

During childbirth midwives/carers need to be attentive in careful gentle ways, just as the soul needs a quiet, gentle place without interruptions.

‘Birth’ should be regarded as a sacrament, as is ‘death’. There exists a fear of both

Women can enter a trance-like state (known as Hypotrophic state) during labour where all their senses are reduced as they focus on labour. Lucyann described this as being similar to an act of prayer or spiritual emergence.

She referenced the ‘Quality of Attention’ given to women (depicted in book by Kathleen Farhi). This relates to Christ’s thinking about the whole being. Lucyann asks how the culture of monitoring and anxiety about professional safety placed upon health professionals shifts the gaze from women’s needs.

With this in mind how can we reflect God in our communities in our care of pregnant women & new mothers?

–        ensure these women are connected in to a community by love and prayer

–        could be religious care

–        could be the care given by the church

–        a place of understanding is needed – capitalism is not satisfying people’s needs

–        essential to avoid ‘giving overload’ in this area

Lucyann felt that academic work is needed in health and theological areas of:

1)     Woman’s bodies – listening to women’s needs about their bodies and how they would like to physically give birth has led to medical physiological advances in knowledge. For example women’s request for water birth and the trust of women to participate led to increased knowledge & evidence about foetal respiration after exiting the birth canal and what makes a baby breathe.

2)     The role of churches – is ante-natal preparation required? The National Childbirth Trust provides education and social connection. Who provides spiritual care? Paganism is provided for, but where is the Christian spiritual aspect?

3)     Understanding the role of the Christian community – for example meal provision for new mums and families, ensuring pregnant women are on the prayer list, thinking about their needs

“Perfect love casts out all fear” – How can we display this perfect love and reduce the fear of childbirth?

Royal College of Midwives doesn’t currently provide ‘Indemnity Insurance’ for independent midwives, who tend not to support each other or pull together when there is a crisis. Whereas the Royal College of Nursing does support Parish Nurses in terms of insurance, where there is potentially less risk. In midwifery 1 to 1 care carries with it the fear of being sued.

Winterton Report 1993 suggests there is opportunity in a crisis.

There is a culture of blame rather than a communal solution (comment from floor that private obstetricians have the same problem, and this has occurred with the extended role of the nurse)

It is difficult to break out of the culture of ‘surveillance’

There is a concern for midwives – Lucyann felt that they intervene too much in childbirth eg in the increased number of caesareans, possibly related to fear of labour in women and the desire to take more control of their lives. This can also be a technocratic decision due to hyper-accountability and the fact that there are not enough staff to give 1 to 1 care and to support a woman through natural labour.

The transitional phase of labour can be traumatic if you haven’t got a companion to support you through the distress.


–        fear leads to defensive practice eg women not allowed to drink during labour ‘in case they need a caesarean’

–        if women are provided with a safe environment then they are more likely go to go through labour more smoothly

–        relationship between midwife and woman varies form hospital to hospital eg in some places care is given in teams rather than a woman given a designated midwife

–        high level of burn out experienced by midwives.

–        There is a protocol and policy for everything and therefore we feel under surveillance

–        Anora Anil – Reese Lecture series on ‘Trust’ – does increased accountability reduce trust and increase suspicion as in handwashing for example, where your first meeting with a patient can be confrontational eg “have you washed your hands?’

–        Non-judgemental aspect of ‘Call the Midwife appealing eg how abortion was dealt with sensitively in practical, caring and loving way.

–        Main character started as nurse with Nonnatus and found faith through their ways of working. Importance of ‘Letting things be’ – Culture in NHS to either say nothing…importance of providing space to learn. Underneath the brusqueness there is the heart of God


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