A Facebook message recently took me back to what it was like starting training as a midwife. I remember wearing high heels out in my Uni town on warm September nights, treading through brittle yellow, crimson and orange leaves - and feeling out of place.
I can't tell you the name of the student midwife to be I got the message from. But I can tell you she’s kind, organised, and has all those caring qualities that midwives need.
And yet she’s stressing about starting Uni, mainly because of the social side of things.
I understand this. No matter what your age or stage of career, it's hard to balance midwifery and a social life.
It doesn’t matter how ‘popular’ you appear, it can feel lonely, as friends and family don't understand the working hours and demands.
We all feel disconnected sometimes, and if we listen to that critical voice inside, it’s easy to go one way or the other.
Out drinking and neglecting sleep, pushing ourselves to ‘prove’ we can do it all.
Or declining invitations so we can stay at home in our pyjamas, reading Michel Odent and Sarah Buckley to make sure we’re putting all of ourselves into work.
I’ve tried and failed at both of these approaches. Like all things in life, it’s aiming for balance. You won't get it right all the time (this is real life after all) but there are a few key things you can do to make midwife life easier on you and more fun.
1. Don't Assume People Know What It's Like
It's a good idea to give close friends an outline of what midwifery means, so they can make allowances.
When I first met my partner he had no idea that studying midwifery came with shiftwork, intense academic study, and only three weeks off in summer.
He thought I was standoffish and not interested in a social life.
In actual fact, I loved having my friends around and carefully planned to see them as much as possible, often going rockclimbing. It was one of the things that helped me cope. But most people have no idea what the reality of being a midwife is like.
It was only after I explained to James what midwifery meant in terms of time demands, that he understood me as a person. I can literally remember the look of comprehension dawning on his face. If I hadn't done this, I'd don't think I'd be with him now, and the same goes for some of my closest friends.
Take the time to considerately explain what life's like for you, and I bet you'll end up with more support than you thought possible.
2. Do What You Love
I used to feel embarrassed about my alcohol tolerance, or lack of it. I hit my limit at about two pints.
When I’m out, I like to be in a pub talking, or doing something active like climbing or running.
I’m not saying people who enjoy clubs are silly or anything – I have a suspicion they might be more my thing if I was at all good at dancing.
But there seems to be this idea that if you don't enjoy clubs and drinking, then you're boring. It's not true. Some of the most fulfilled and social people I know don't go clubbing.
My point is, take pleasure where you can find it in life, without worrying about what the world thinks.
It's an amazing piece of luck to find things or people that make you happy.
The quicker you stop trying contort yourself into activities you don't enjoy, the better.
Also, if you spend time doing things you love, you’ll find friends who’ll let you prattle on about midwifery, and avoid the subject entirely when you need that too.
Oh, and by the way, if you’re a mature student wondering if you should do Freshers week – it’s totally up to you. Many mature students at Uni do and I bet you'd be welcome. But also, don’t feel you have to, as there are loads of ways of getting to know your cohort that don’t involve Taylor Swift. Like joining societies together. My Uni had everything from Lord Of The Rings Club, to Burlesque Dancing, so there's something for everyone, even those who like Tolkien it all off 😉
3. When You Feel Like Hell, That’s When You Most Need Other People
When something’s gone wrong in midwifery, you may feel like hiding until you’ve ‘got it sorted’.
My first catch as a student midwife gave me such conflicting emotions. I wasn't sure about the care, or my part in it. It had seemed so brisk and terse. My head was in a haze of questions, and all I wanted to do was curl up and hide.
(I'll just add here that my next catch was an unmedicalised experience and I flew around labour ward on sunlit clouds for days afterwards 😀 So if you're about to start midwifery training, know that dizzying highs and lows are part of the landscape).
I found that going underground can lead to feeling even worse, as guilt builds from missing social stuff...and plus, research shows shame can be toxic. I needed to talk with people I trusted.
I’m not saying you don't need time to lick your wounds. Chocolate biscuit cake eaten in the bath with Stephen Fry narrating Harry Potter was essential to my survival on many occasions.
But going out even if you don’t feel like it and saying ‘y’know what, I’m going through a hard time right now’ can be very cathartic. You don't have to spend all night discussing stuff, or 'bringing people down', but being honest about how you're feeling is helpful.
People get it. Everyone experiences events that cause them to question their confidence and choices. That's not specific to midwifery, it's life.
If you need to debrief, talk to a midwife you trust (keeping client confidentiality).
But do continue with your social life, as it’ll stop you going over and over the issue. It’s this ruminating that's at the root of many mental illnesses.
Don’t feel you have to be back on top of things before continuing with your social life, you deserve to have fun.
4. Have Your Professional Bases Covered
Women often remember what midwives say and how they act for the rest of their lives, so it is crucial there's some regulation and guidance on what we do out of work.
The important standard on this topic in the Nursing and Midwifery Council Code is the one about 'promoting professionalism and trust'.
This makes sense to me because especially in the UK we don't have very long term or established relationships with clients. This means if women see us out and about getting drunk and shouty they might assume that's what we're like all the time.
This is quite a responsibility BUT it doesn’t mean you can’t drink or have a good time.
You can absolutely drink. One of my old managers was a real party girl and she was a respected, tough advocate of a midwife. Tipsy in public is fine.
Getting hurt, or doing anything illegal or borderline illegal is not. That's all there is too it really, it's easy to say but sometimes hard to apply.
I know it sounds harsh but it's the flip side to all the amazing experiences you gain with women. Being a practising midwife is a personal choice, but I always felt it was worth it.
5. Remember How Connected You Really Are
It can be very hard being sensible, doing things like sleeping post night shift when your non-midwife friends are together in the sunshine.
But many people, and students especially, feel painfully on their own. It’s a big world, especially if you don’t know what you want to do with your life.
Did you know the word for midwife in Spanish is comadrona? If you’re a midwife, you’re part of a comradeship.
You may not be able to stay out at the pub until midnight because you have an early shift.
But your look to a colleague that without words says 'stick around, we might have a PPH ’ or ‘hurray, she’s started pushing!’ or simply ‘that was beautiful’ are among the most profound communications that humans can have.
And opening up to a colleague always surprised me because they always got it at a much deeper level than I was expecting.
Sometimes I missed social things because of midwifery, it's true. But overall I felt like I had more of a life because of midwifery, not less of one.
Remembering this always helped.
So there are my five ways of balancing socially as a student or qualified midwife! I hope it helps, especially for my student midwife to be friend, who is awesome for so many reasons I can’t count them all.
Now, I’d love to hear from you. Could you share with us:
- How you balance midwifery and your social life?
- How you handle your social life while processing a difficult midwifery experience? (Crucial for any newly qualified or students to hear)
- What you love doing most in your free time, that helps you stay centered?
Thank you for reading. Much love, and I hope the midwifery world is treating you well, the sun is shining, and there's something sparkling and cold in your glass!
P.S. On the subject of Midwife Diaries in general, it’s been quiet around here. That’s because I’m putting the finishing touches on the new Midwifery Diaries Personal Statement School. It's something I’ve wanted to get out into the world for ages, as there are so many excellent candidates who don’t have the support to showcase the best of themselves.
So if you’re about to write your personal statement for midwifery, and want help, Midwife Diaries is where I’ll announce course enrollment first. Consider subscribing if you haven’t already.
Oh, and at the mo on Sundays I do a Q+A on personal statements in the ‘Secret Community For Midwives In The Making’ on Facebook you may find helpful.