Midwives: having courage, being kind

By Bernie Divall, Professional Advisor for Leadership on 04 June 2020 coronavirus Maternity Services

Cinderella's mother said something really important when she advised her daughter always to have courage and be kind. I re-watched Kenneth Branagh's 2015 live action version of the film recently, and the phrase stuck in my mind. In fact, I thought about it so much, it ended up as a piece of embroidery I sewed for this year's International Day of the Midwife. It seemed such a central tenet for midwives, so I've been exploring it for this blog post.

I suppose the place to begin is by considering what the words mean:

• Courage is about acting in accordance with our beliefs, particularly in the face of criticism. And sometimes, courage is just not giving up;
• Kindness is being considerate, friendly and generous. To put it simply, kindness happens when we demonstrate concern for others.

So how does this relate to midwifery? I found a highly relevant piece written by the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services for Essentially MIDIRS in 2012, detailing the 10 top tips related to what women want from their midwife. The elements described seem to me an embodiment of that combination of courage and kindness: courage is acting as advocates, supporting women's informed decision making and being a courageous profession within that advocacy and support role; kindness lies within listening to women, respecting them, using positive language, and being engaged and humane. These tips seem a useful lens through which to consider the complex nature of the midwife identity – courage and kindness would appear to go hand in hand.

It's made me consider how courage and kindness actually work really closely together, rather than being two separate considerations. We might think that kindness sounds a little 'soft' at times, but I'm sure we can all think of times when it's taken a great deal of courage to be kind! Those times when you know you have to speak an uncomfortable truth – but you also know you need to do it in a way that's not hurtful.

Of course, my subject is leadership in midwifery, and I've been thinking about how courage and kindness apply there as well. Leading with kindness forms a central element of contemporary leadership thinking, being concerned with building effective relationships, acting with emotional intelligence, and having concern for those we are leading. Recently, I attended a webinar in which women leaders from health and social care in the UK spoke of how they've been coping with their roles during the COVID-19 crisis. What stood out for me was their obvious disquiet in having to lead from a physical distance, as well as frequent occasions when they needed to take a more traditional, command and control approach to their leadership role, all of which went against their instinctive leadership behaviours. It's worth remembering that wherever we are in the midwifery profession, employing both courage and kindness always looms large but is rarely without its challenges.