Family Life: It's a Boy!; Pregnancy and Childbirth Can Be a Frightening Experience When You Are Constantly Faced with the Unexpected. So How Do New Mums Feel When the Midwife Turns out to Be a 'Midhusband'? Caroline Foulkes Meets Two Men Working in This Female-Dominated Environment and Hears from a Woman Who Put Her Trust in One of Them

The Birmingham Post (England), July 19, 2003 | Go to article overview

Family Life: It's a Boy!; Pregnancy and Childbirth Can Be a Frightening Experience When You Are Constantly Faced with the Unexpected. So How Do New Mums Feel When the Midwife Turns out to Be a 'Midhusband'? Caroline Foulkes Meets Two Men Working in This Female-Dominated Environment and Hears from a Woman Who Put Her Trust in One of Them


Byline: Caroline Foulkes

The history of male midwives

Childbirth has traditionally been something women dealt with. Men were simply there to fetch the towels and buckets of hot water. In medieval times, midwives were part of the feudal balance. Because land was handed down through families, the more children you had the more it would get split up. By acting as a confidante to women, the medieval midwife provided the main means of population control. This role was lost with the arrival of the plague, which wiped out two thirds of Europe. The world had to be repopulated, so birth control was no longer such an important factor.

By the time this role came back into play in the 1600s, a new, educated merchant middle class was beginning emerge. Among them were college-trained physicians, who decided it was high time they ousted the traditional midwives, who were often illiterate, not to mention lacking in training. The fact that because of prudery many procedures were carried out under the bedsheets did not help matters for the case for these women. These men, who became known as 'man-midwives', had access to drugs and surgical instruments such as an early form of forceps, whose use was denied to women. They began to compete with the traditional midwives for business.

But while they may have had education and surgical instruments, some man-midwives could be reckless with their tools and drugs, over-using them. William Smellie, of Lanarkshire, a family doctor and pioneer of obstetrics, was so distressed by some of the procedures he saw carried out by both male and female midwives he set up an apothecary's shop in Pall Mall where he taught midwifery for five shillings. Yet many of the traditional midwives felt it was undesirable for a man to be involved in such an intimate procedure. Among them was Elizabeth Nihell, who wrote that Smellie was a 'great horse godmother of a he-midwife' and that his teaching methods were so bad that a traditional midwife would often have to be called in to help.

David Wilkes has lost count of the number of women whose blood he has washed from his hands.

But he knows that each one was happy when she left his care. For it was blood that was given willingly, needfully. And he helped them along the way.

David is a midwife.

'I think people are always a bit surprised when they find out what I do,' he says.

'Reactions normally vary from disbelief to 'you're having a laugh, aren't you?', but they are always surprised. But then after that initial reaction they get really interested in it, not just because you're a man doing what is traditionally seen as a woman's job, but because it's a job that most people are curious about.

'A lot of them just want to hear horror stories -but I don't really have any.'

David, 40, is one of just a handful of male midwives currently working in the UK. And although some people still regard midwifery as an exclusively female preserve, their numbers are growing steadily.

David originally trained as a nurse at King's College Hospital, London. In 1982, when he was undergoing his training, the law still prohibited men from holding the role of midwife thanks to the 1952 Midwives Act.

During the 1970s male nurses fought against the Act, fiercely opposed by the Royal College of Midwives. When the Sex Discrimination Act was passed in 1976 midwifery was made exempt, but the government later decided to set up two experimental training courses, which were held in England in 1977 and in Scotland in 1978.

A study into the courses determined that women had no objection to male midwives, although the finding was disputed. Men were finally allowed to enter the profession in 1983 -despite the fact that male nurses had been expected to do a 12 week stint in obstetrics as a standard part of their course prior to this.

'Once I finished my course I went to work in intensive care,' says David, now a senior clinical midwife and modern matron at North Staffs Hospital in Stoke-on-Trent. …

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Family Life: It's a Boy!; Pregnancy and Childbirth Can Be a Frightening Experience When You Are Constantly Faced with the Unexpected. So How Do New Mums Feel When the Midwife Turns out to Be a 'Midhusband'? Caroline Foulkes Meets Two Men Working in This Female-Dominated Environment and Hears from a Woman Who Put Her Trust in One of Them
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