THE incredible life and career of well-known Ribble Valley midwife Sheena Byrom has become the subject of an insightful, captivating and often heart-warming autobiography by the mother-of-four who lives in Whalley.
The public’s fascination with the process of childbirth has been proved by the success of recent fly-on-the-wall documentaries such as Channel 4’s “One Born Every Minute”, charting day-to-day life in a bustling maternity unit.
And Sheena’s story gives the reader her own view on what she herself describes not as a job but as a vocation, and on an impressive career which has spanned more than 35 years.
A passionate advocate for women, Sheena has been at the forefront of evolving midwifery practices in East Lancashire throughout her working life and has witnessed a complete and radical change in maternity care and the philosophy behind it over the years.
In an extract from the book, she explains how the title came about and why she feels the term “catching babies” more accurately describes the arrival of a new life than the traditional description of “delivery”.
“As many of my close colleagues and friends know, I am passionate about language and the words midwives and doctors use. If we say ‘patient’ we render the healthy pregnant woman sick and we place her in a position of vulnerability.
“It’s the same with describing what we do. If we say ‘delivering’ babies, it implies that the midwife made it happen. It’s a birth, not a delivery. Midwives inadvertently take the power away from women if they claim to have done all the work. It is the mother who has all the sweat and toil of labour, pushing out her baby with amazing endurance, for us to ‘catch’ at the end,” she writes.
In the book, Sheena shares many of her experiences, from her very first day as a nervous student nurse in Blackburn in the 1970s to the dedicated completion of her nursing qualifications and her training as a midwife in Burnley.
As the first midwife in the area to oversee a home water birth – considered radical and unusual at the time – Sheena describes the excitement of attending the impending birth.
“Waking with a jolt, I heard the telephone ringing. Grabbing my bag, I raced to the door, stopping momentarily to glance into my daughter Olivia’s bedroom. As I suspected, she was tucked up peacefully and in a deep slumber,” she writes.
“Racing out of the door and into the dark, I headed off down the road and, within minutes, found myself outside Jan’s semi-detached home. My colleague Angela met me at the door and thanked me for coming. ‘No problem,’ I beamed back, the excitement of another impending birth now racing through my veins.
“Inside the house, I found Jan, a friendly woman in her early thirties, ready in her birthing pool. This was Jan’s fourth baby and she’d specifically requested a water birth.
“The room had dimmed lighting and the atmosphere was calm. There was a gentle lapping sound as Jan swayed in the water while, in the background, James Taylor played quietly on the stereo. After a short labour and with one last mighty effort, she finally freed her daughter into the water and scooped her up to the surface. I held my breath as Jan held her little girl gently in her hands, examining her features for the very first time with a look of pure love and wonder.
“As I watched this special moment between mother and daughter – the circle of life unfolding before me – I thought for a moment about all the other women I’d met and helped to give birth. I would never fail to be amazed by the strength of mothers, pushing with all their might to bring their babies into the world.
“Likewise, the sheer joy of birth and seeing a new life starting out in the world would always enthral me. I feel uniquely privileged to be able to witness this miracle on an almost daily basis and to be able to assist women on one of the most important days of their lives. It is something that I feel I was born to do.”
A moving account of an extraordinary career, “Catching Babies” reveals the unique experiences that filled Sheena’s days as she looked after countless new parents.
The book also recounts tales from her home life and the juggling act of balancing her own growing family with her beloved vocation, including humorous and familiar snapshots of the challenges shared with many career women keen to give their all to both their careers and the upbringing of their precious offspring.
Sheena describes how sacrifices had to be made throughout her working life to ensure that her family remained her first priority and never more so than when a unique opportunity to work at a small maternity home called Bramley Meade, near Whalley, came up .
“I hadn’t really planned on going back to work until my children were much older, but this seemed like a great opportunity as I’d heard it was a wonderful place to work and it would help us make ends meet at home. Bramley Meade was a beautiful grand mansion house which had once been home to a wealthy mill owner and was converted into a maternity home in the 1950s,” she explains.
“It was quickly agreed that I’d work one night a week, so back home, Mum, Paul and I sat down and thrashed out arrangements for child care. I wasn’t going to be easy with a 15-month-old and a new baby!
“When the time came for me to do my first night shift, I had so many anxieties. The last thing I wanted to do was to leave my tiny baby and I drove to work crying my eyes out. I had no idea what would be expected of me and I was so anxious. Like everywhere else I’d worked, Bramley Meade had its own hierarchical system and distinct culture. My first night was a real eye-opener. I was welcomed by Sister Carla Gazzola, who was to become my lifelong friend and also the midwife I chose when I had my two further children.”
Alongside the heart-warming stories recounted throughout the book, Sheena also tells of harder times with the example of finding herself at the centre of a traumatic home delivery that resulted in a nine-year litigation case and tested her to the very limit of her beliefs and working ethics.
Her honest and frank account of this, the most difficult of times, reveals her feelings and confusion throughout the ensuing case and serves as a reminder of the very serious and demanding nature of the role of the midwife, where decisions taken can literally mean the difference between life and death.
Overall, this wonderfully warm and engaging memoir is testament to Sheena Byrom’s determination to make a difference and positive change to women’s whole outlook on birth and their own personal birth experiences.
Whatever has come her way, Sheena’s tenacity and will to make a difference shines through in every chapter of this fascinating and utterly enjoyable read.
• “Catching Babies – the true story of a dedicated midwife” by Sheena Byrom is published by Headline, priced at £6.49 and available from most good book shops.