Midwives spend their days (and nights) telling women in labour to take deep breaths as they push new life into the world. But for Marie Louise, focusing on her breathing is as crucial for helping her through tough periods as it is for the new mothers she cares for.
The 26-year-old is a senior midwife based in Cornwall. Six months ago she experienced severe anxiety which ruled her life to the point where she lost a lot of weight and had a dangerously low BMI. “We all go through difficult times in our life, but part of being a midwife is putting other people first - and when you’re struggling mentally, that’s a real challenge,” she explains. “I felt like I was letting patients down.”
This tipping point led to a sudden realisation for Marie: in a role that required her to support others constantly, she needed to take some time for herself. “I used to get heart palpitations and they were so bad at one stage that I ended up going to hospital,” she says. “Now, if I have a stressful day I have to prioritise my health. I make sure I give myself five minutes where all I think about is my in breaths and out breaths. It takes a little while to grasp as your mind keeps trying to bring the source of your anxiety back to your attention, but if you solely focus on your breathing it can really help.”
Marie knew she wanted to be a midwife from a young age. When she was 17 years old she was accepted into the University of Greenwich and three months after turning 18, she was in a delivery suite helping to bring babies into the world. “It was pretty scary,” she says. “I qualified at 21 making me one of the youngest midwives in the UK and from there I’ve just really immersed myself into midwifery and women’s care.”
In addition to running her own business selling pre-packed baby changing bags for women going into labour, the 26-year-old works between a London-based hospital, which she says tends to have more ‘high risk’ mothers, and Cornwall, where there are more ‘low risk’ women and far more home births - for the latter she says there are only usually two midwives on hand.
While she loves what she does and is particularly passionate about the NHS and the care it provides, she recognises that her line of work is not easy.
“The thing about midwifery is that there is no typical day,” she says. “Every day is different and not only that, but every hour is different because you might deliver a baby in room one that is with a woman that was an IVF pregnancy and is 40 years old. And how you approach that situation is completely different to how you approach the woman in room three who is 16 with potentially an unwanted pregnancy.”
“You can come on shift and not know what you’re going to walk into. You just know that fundamentally you need to provide care for women.”
Marie adds that she’s lucky if she gets a break, regardless of whether she’s working a day or night shift, and that’s something which the Royal College of Midwives recognises as a problem across the board: a poll found only a quarter (26.6%) of midwives take their entitled breaks most or all of the time. The same survey also found excessive workloads and lack of resources are leading to burn-out and high stress levels in midwives and other maternity staff.
It’s no secret that the NHS is understaffed and Marie says this is problematic when you consider the fact there’s a growing and ageing population, increased maternal age (which means more ‘high risk’ mothers) and the obesity epidemic (which means patients are more likely to have health problems). “Even women we see in their early 30s are dealing with potential heart disease,” she adds. All of these factors mean greater demand for midwives, but not enough to go around.
To help her prepare for each busy day, the 26-year-old swears by her morning routine which involves meditation and practising gratitude. In the morning she will do 10 minutes of meditation while lying in bed and will then get up, make her bed, brush her teeth and think about all the things she’s grateful for. She says she’ll then body brush “to help circulation”.
“This is all before I’ve looked at my phone,” she says. “I give myself that time. It’s probably about 15 minutes in total. I can’t stress how important it is to give yourself time in the morning.”
After that, she’ll sit down and get organised by writing five goals to achieve that day. Then it’s time for work.
Marie says this simple routine, which she repeats daily, has helped “give her a feeling of control” in an otherwise unpredictable and busy day. During the day, when she feels stressed, she will take time out to focus on her breathing and in the evening she has started attending yoga where, once again, she focuses on her in and out breaths.
“I’ve only being doing it for 6-8 months but it really helps with taking time for yourself,” she explains. “I commit to an hour on my mat where I purely focus on my body and breathing - to have that mental space really helps.”