I know this is a highly controversial topic and many people have strong views. But can we talk about midwife uniforms?
Many midwives love them; they give you professionalism, make infection control easier, and make you feel part of the team - and I used to feel that way too.
When I first qualified we had these gorgeous white uniforms with ornate silver belts that drew our waists in. We looked flash.
But then, after shift, in that blissful silent moment taking off my uniform, I thought about it. And I realised I was getting a different reaction from women when I went on to labour ward in my own clothes.
I got more hugs.
I got more emotional information up front. I was feeling different, like I could be more empathetic.
And this was reinforced when I went to work in New Zealand where there are a lot of independent midwives and so hospitals don’t enforce uniform policies. This meant as long as I looked professional, I could dress however I wanted.
I went for black trousers and bright coloured tops and I felt more like me. I was still professional but I brought myself to work. I think it made me a better listener, and more empathetic.
Because to be empathetic you have to let yourself be vulnerable. You have to feel what the other person is feeling.
Can midwife uniforms can be a boundary to relationships?
I’d argue yes, especially for women and families who react strongly to authority. Many birth centres in the UK don't have uniforms for this reason.
I just watched this Nursing Council Debate on uniforms, and found out 75% of the nurses who took part wanted every NHS clinician in a standard uniform.
I feel this is a bit oppressive. I'm not sure uniforms are always appropriate for modern caring professions.
Nurses uniforms originally developed from the Nun’s habit and I don’t need to tell you how strange this is in a modern day context.
When the army first came up with uniforms it was so they could identify people deserting, or to intimidate other forces. Later on they used uniforms for camouflage, and I’ve yet to come across a midwifery situation where camouflage would improve things!
I know there are arguments about not being able to spot a nurse/midwife very easily if staff aren’t in uniform – but I think big, visible name badges and clear, large IDs would be a good way to get around that.
People also argue uniforms gives a sense of professionalism and show we’re organised. But I’d argue we achieve that quality just fine by acting with professionalism and actually being organised.
If midwives didn’t have a uniform, we’d end up with staff who acted and looked professional (as there’d still be a dress code), but who felt like themselves, were dressed in things that actually fit them, and who weren’t...conforming.
In fact, it’s all said in that poem ‘When I’m An Old Midwife I’ll Wear Purple’ – it talks about being standardised by uniforms.
As midwives we’re supposed to speak up when things go wrong, and advocate, not just go with the flow. Isn’t an enforced uniform at odds with this?
Back to how it felt in New Zealand - the culture of the care was different, because you’d be dressed in a way which said ‘I’m here with you. I’m not standing above you because of my practice. It’s a partnership.’
I believe even the few midwives who chose to wear uniform benefitted from this.
Maybe in nursing, or other professions it’s more important to have a uniform to make sure there’s that professional boundary (and slight authority?). I honestly don’t know.
But I think in midwifery, the vast majority of women want to have a partnership with the practitioners looking after them.
They’re healthy and normal, they just want to process a huge life event.
I think care could be more compassionate if we were allowed to wear our own clothes.
The final thing to say is I realise this would be difficult to implement, because you do have to have high standards, wash clothes at a high temperature, take them straight off after shift, etc.
But it could be done! It might look like student midwives having a clothing allowance with certain suggestions. Short sleeved tops, nothing that caught, and nothing that transmitted diseases easily. And I think scrubs have their place in theatre, or as a back up if you’ve got mucky on shift.
Surely what we're learning in this century is that empathy and compassion are all important. I think you can achieve that better when you’re feeling human and like you’re relating to somebody on a personal level.
Of course, I’d love to hear what you think. Do you believe midwife uniforms make a difference in forming partnerships with women? Do you think they're important for safety and infection reasons? Or do you think uniforms are outdated?
As always, thank you so much for reading, commenting and adding your experience and understanding to the conversation. I hope everything is good with you and yours.