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Midwifery: the joy and the struggle

By Mary Renfrew, Professor Emeritus, University of Dundee

In recent months, and over the past few years, there has been a lot to challenge midwives across the world. In this week of the International Day of the Midwife, Mary Renfrew, Professor Emeritus, University of Dundee, reaches out to students and newly qualified midwives, encouraging us all to reflect on the positives of midwifery practice going forward.



Midwifery: the joy and the struggle

A message for student midwives and newly qualified midwives, and those who support them


What does being a midwife mean to you? Whatever context you study and work in, the International Day of the Midwife, celebrated each year on 5th May, is an opportunity to stop and reflect for each of us individually, and together with colleagues (; What does it mean to be a midwife? What do midwives contribute to the health and wellbeing of women, babies and families? How can midwives make a bigger difference?


I qualified as a midwife 44 years ago, and in a career that has spanned practice, research, education, and policy it has always been both a joy and struggle. Sometimes more of a joy – the experience of being able to make a difference for women, babies and families is profound and energising, and working together with talented and committed colleagues is immensely rewarding. Sometimes more of a struggle – working with women who have difficult outcomes or experiences is painful, and if there is a lack of support, inadequate resources or bullying and criticism in the workplace, or conflict and poverty in the wider context, continuing to care can stretch you to your limits. That duality – the joy and the struggle, the light and the dark, seems to be a common experience shared by midwives across the world, wherever they work and whatever job they do.


The past two years must be among the most difficult ever in which to be a student or an educator. Covid-19 arrived in late 2019, and it changed everything, everywhere – on a personal and family level, in studying and working with colleagues and peers, and in working with women, babies and families ( Your experiences during this time have been extraordinary in every sense of that word, and the unique learning opportunities you have had will stay with you for the rest of your professional lives. Learning about midwifery is much more complicated in the context of a virulent and dangerous disease, communicating effectively and with compassion while wearing masks, and dealing with your own fears and concerns for yourself and your families as well as the families you care for. That struggle has highlighted the strength and commitment of students and educators, and there are many, many examples of how students and educators responded positively to the challenges (; Each of you will have your own story, and you will know what this time has cost you, and you will all know colleagues who decided to leave. All of you are to be commended for doing your best – and continuing to do your best – when faced with such new challenges. But it’s more than that. Students, newly qualified midwives, and educators alike have learned unique and irreplaceable lessons during this time; new knowledge, problem solving, personal and professional initiative, how to keep women and babies safe in the face of a dangerous virus, how to continue to give the best care, and how to care for yourself and your colleagues in very difficult circumstances. ‘You will never learn more, or faster’, Emma Donoghue wrote in her wonderful novel, ‘The Pull of the Stars’, about midwifery during the 1918-1919 influenza pandemic. That is true for all of you who have studied, qualified, and supported students during this time.


Midwifery has faced other challenges in the past few years, and it still faces barriers and challenges in many countries. As Horton and Astudillo (2014) wrote in The Lancet, ‘midwifery is commonly misunderstood’ despite the strength of the evidence on the power of midwifery to make a difference ( – especially so in contexts where there is a lack of balance between the use of bio-medical interventions and skilled care. Even in the UK where midwifery has a long history of being a strong and recognised profession, severe budget cuts to the NHS over the past 10 years have resulted in an acute shortage of midwives, and midwives are experiencing stress and leaving the profession in unprecedented numbers ( Caesarean section rates are currently at the highest levels ever, and induction rates are climbing fast despite a lack of evidence to support its routine use (NHS Maternity Statistics, England – 2020-21 – NHS Digital; Serious inequality in the outcomes of pregnancy and birth and in women’s experiences persist and must be addressed ( At the same time, midwives, midwifery care, and physiological birth are facing high-profile criticism by journalists, politicians, and other professionals following a series of reviews of maternity service failures ( The final report of the Ockenden Review is the most recent of these, describing a context where institutionalised care took priority over the needs of women, babies, families, and staff (; The experiences described by women and families in this report include neglectful, unkind, at times abusive behaviour, resulting in preventable deaths and trauma. Staff described a bullying culture where it was impossible to speak up ( Their voices demand an effective response.


This feels like a watershed moment for midwifery and the maternity services as a whole. Although the outcomes for most women and babies are good (, there is much to do to transform service provision and the quality of care and ensure that all women and babies receive the care they need and want. That transformation must be based on the whole range of relevant evidence, on listening to the diverse experiences, needs, and wishes of women, and on designing services that focus first on women, babies and families. To achieve this, a genuine multidisciplinary environment needs to be developed in which the use of bio-medical interventions is balanced with skilled, knowledgeable midwifery. Effective implementation of continuity of midwifery carer is crucial for this; it improves a wide range of outcomes for women and babies, empowers women, and gives midwives a better working environment (; Midwifery is an essential foundation for quality care, and the widespread misunderstanding of what midwives do and of physiological labour and birth needs to be addressed. Midwives – well educated, supported, enabled to practise the full scope of midwifery within the context of quality multidisciplinary care – are key to the solution, not the problem.


Daunting as this situation is, this time of struggle has illuminated the strength and determination of midwives and students and their commitment to safe, quality care, and the strong alliances with women’s voices organisations (; This time is an opportunity for real transformation in the way women and babies are cared for; the problems of the current system have been laid bare and demand an intelligent, pro-active, evidence-informed response. I have seen at first hand the quality and ability of student midwives, newly qualified midwives, and educators. I was privileged to be the Lead Adviser to the Nursing and Midwifery Council in the work to produce the new standards for midwives, often known as the Future Midwife project. During the three years of that work, I met hundreds of students, newly qualified and experienced midwives, educators, managers, policy leads, professional officers, interdisciplinary colleagues, and advocates for women and families across all four countries of the UK, in workshops, meetings, and webinars, and extensive written contributions (; I listened to fierce, intelligent, and informed debate about what women and babies want and need, and about the knowledge and skills midwives must have. It is evident to me that, despite the huge challenges it faces, UK midwifery is safe in the hands of its new and future midwives. Those I met were informed, committed, and clearly focussed first and foremost on women, babies, and families. They were a testament to the knowledge and skills of their university and clinical educators. As a result of all of that input the new standards for midwives, which now set the benchmark for the profession, are founded on human rights and informed by evidence and experience. They prepare midwives to provide the best quality care for all women, babies and families, and they have been recognised as leading-edge internationally



There has been a sea change in midwifery since I was a student. Education now is informed by evidence, much of it produced by midwife researchers as well as multidisciplinary colleagues. There is now clear evidence and understanding of the contribution of midwifery to the survival, safety, health and well-being of women and babies (; There is extensive international work to implement and value midwifery (, and there is consistent evidence that women want more midwives as a key component of respectful, quality care ( Your role in public health, your contribution to the health and well-being of women and babies in the short, medium and long-term, your ability to work in partnership with women, to prevent complications and to recognise and respond to them in a timely way, the importance of your input right across the continuum from pregnancy, through labour and birth to postnatal care and the early weeks of the baby’s life, are all evidenced. Your skills in analysis will enable you to examine, critique, and learn from reports about midwifery and maternity services and from new evidence.


As student midwives and newly qualified midwives, you are a key part of the solution. I have every reason to believe that over the coming years your commitment, knowledge, and skills will shape the system to a focus on quality care for all. The future of midwifery, and the health and wellbeing of women and babies, are truly, and safely, in your hands.


Mary Renfrew, Professor Emeritus, University of Dundee

May 2022



Susan Crowther 5 May 2022 at 00:06

Wonderful and truly affirming. Thank you Mary
Best wishes to you Mary and all midwives everywhere on international day of the Midwife. Susan Crowther Professor Midwifery Aotearoa New Zealand

Francesca Entwistle 5 May 2022 at 09:30

Fabulous blog Mary thank you

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