As a midwife I lived in two worlds.
The first was reality: full of warm, eccentric and challenging characters, the beginning of new lives, women becoming mothers and the monumental to-do lists stretching from labour ward to community.
The other world I experienced as I read.
I toured America catching babies in converted school buses with Ina May, debated the impact of quantum mechanics in birth with Soo Downe, roamed around the British Isles examining home birth with Lesley Page, and even faced up to gender challenges as a male midwife with Dennis Walsh.
This is why I’m starting what may well be a new series of posts on ‘Midwifery Stars’.
Here’s why I wanted to do this:
1. Many stars of the midwifery world have given me guidance and inspiration. I want to share this with you so that you can bring some of these ideas to practice.
2. Most of us learn best when we feel we know the person we’re learning from. I want to show you what these midwifery writers are like so you can use their evidence with a sense of connection.
3. To celebrate and recognise the phenomenal talent we have in midwifery, and the passion these professionals have for the outcomes and experiences of women
All that and….writing ‘Midwifery Stars’ posts is a great excuse for me to buy even more midwifery books.
(I can hear James groaning in the corner)
This isn’t about hero worship. I have a tendency to do this that I try and curb…it can limit your thinking if you’re always relying on someone else’s.
The most powerful thing you can do when reading an author you love is to criticise them. There are always limitations. Midwives that are able to do this are clear thinkers, and challenging weak evidence is how we grow as a profession.
Today’s Midwifery Star: Michel Odent
Michel Odent is a smarty pants. He just ‘gets it’.
He’s a French surgeon who trained in Paris. He’s from an older generation of doctors who had a wide range of clinical abilities, because, at that time, every field was less complex.
Antibiotics weren’t used much, and as he puts it, ‘most surgeons did not dare venture beyond the abdomen and limbs’.
Whereas these days, medical knowledge doubles every two or three years. This detail has given us mind blowing information and the ability to improve treatments, but it’s become hard to put together the bigger picture. Modern medical professionals tend to specialise.
Putting together the bigger picture is what Michel Odent does best. He takes a long-term view.
What’s his career been like?
His hospital in Pithiviers is 50 miles south of Paris and became famous for being one of the first institutions to support water birth back in the sixties.
(Lots of hospitals would have called water birth child abuse at that time).
He concentrated on social support or as he called it ‘happiness’ of pregnant women – singing around the piano with other expectant families was encouraged.
He’s written 14 books over 30 years, and his conclusions tend to be well ahead of his time.
In 1986, he put together a database to assess how health is formed from the time of conception and the beginning of life. It was pretty ground-breaking stuff.
It’s called the ‘Primal Health Research Databank’ and it’s well worth a look as these days it’s full to the brim.
Michel Odent asks the kind of questions that aren’t politically correct.
He’s been criticised for this.
For instance, he often returns to the idea that birth is best attended solely by one quiet and experienced midwife, as this aids oxytocin.
This has led him to suggest that fathers shouldn’t be present if we want to give women the best hormonal environment for birth.
Properly controversial – but with clear elements of truth.
He’s not phased by the criticism at all. He’s interested in answers, and philosophy, not whether what he finds is culturally appropriate. He’s also unusual in the way he writes.
Medical writing, even if it’s about something fascinating, can be as dry as an elderly elbow…
Michel Odent writes conversationally and beautifully, which shows work and consideration for the ideas and the reader.
I also believe the more simply you can write out an argument for everyone to understand, the more well rounded you are, and intelligence you have.
Not to say the books are laid back reading. They do require a great deal of attention.
If you’re just getting started, I’d suggest ‘The Scientification of Love'. It’s a slim book, but it’s has espresso strength arguments and conclusions about love and its role in midwifery.
Michel Odent’s Limitations:
He presents his opinions as fact sometimes.
For instance in his most recent book he says ‘adrenaline is contagious...’
This is quite a statement.
Adrenaline can be contagious – I’m sure we’ve all felt scared because of the way someone else is reacting.
But I don’t think we have evidence to say adrenaline is always contagious.
He goes on to say: ‘this can be demonstrated through studies…of the mirror neuron system…’
But though I’ve been fascinated with mirror neurones and watched a fair few lectures/read about them, I haven’t heard another source discussing their role in emotion or in prompting the production of hormones like adrenaline.
I have in fact read there’s controversy around whether they exist or whether they’re just part of the motor system.
I’d say Michel Odent has used an argument here which isn’t based upon solid enough evidence.
This is a big limitation for us in the midwifery world because the ‘natural birth’ movement often gets labelled as hippy-dippy.
Any new evidence we bring has to be exemplary.
Another limitation is that a lot of his findings are just not compatible with the reality of being a UK midwife.
This can make for frustrating reading – how could we make birth completely solitary to support the ‘fetus ejection reflex’, for instance?
It’s unlikely this would ever be seen as a safe or acceptable option.
Birth is complicated and unpredictable, and even if we improved outcomes overall, the likelihood is that some women and babies would die from treatable complications.
But overall, this is one of the reasons Michel Odent is such a great thought leader.
Findings can still be valid even if they raise moral and ethical questions which we find uncomfortable.
I’m trying to come up with a summarising sentence for Michel Odent, but I’m struggling. He covers such a broad range of ideas. I think the best I can do is:
‘Heart of an obstetrician, head of a philosopher, writing of a poet’.
But I’m pretty sure that’s based on a Star Trek quote so it doesn’t do him justice!
I would so love your take on this because I bet you've got insights and passion for this topic that we share.
1. What do you think Michel Odent brings to midwifery today? Can we strike a balance between learning from his findings and thoughts, and keeping things as safe as possible for women and babies?
2. What did you think of Michel Odent’s most recent book, ‘Do We Need Midwives?’
3.Which midwifery star has given you most experience and guidance? Which author would you say every aspiring, student, and qualified midwife should read?
Thanks so much for reading, and commenting with your experience and genius. Thousands of amazing people read this blog every week so what you share could be just what another midwife needs to hear.
It's an absolute treasure for me every time I hear from a midwife or midwife to be.
p.s. I have my first ever conference coming up, speaking about confidence and assertiveness for student and newly qualified midwives. This is a wee bit scary for me, but my talk is nearly 100% ready, and I've got my game face on. Wish me luck!
Much Love, Ellie xxx