Why are we accepting under-par pregnancy care?

This week, I should have had my 25 week appointment with my midwife (how are we more than halfway through the pregnancy already?!). But I was told weeks ago that it wouldn’t be happening, as hospitals cut down on the number of face-to-face maternity visits during the pandemic.

In fact I’ve only met my midwife (let’s call her Emily) once, at just nine weeks pregnant, for my booking appointment. Back then, all my concerns were about whether we would make it to the 12 week scan problem-free. I had no idea what questions I wanted to ask, what symptoms might come up in the following weeks or what support I needed.

Don’t get me wrong, Emily’s lovely, and I’m sure she – like the rest of our wonderful NHS – is giving her everything to keep doing a miraculous job in a really rubbish time. I get the impression she’s exactly what I need too – cheery, unfazed and seriously laidback. Her advice at our one and only meeting reassured me; exercise if it feels right – ‘birth is a marathon after all, may as well train for it’, don’t worry too much about the onslaught of food advice – ‘unless you literally live on tinned tuna, you’re going to be OK’, and other useful gems.

The really fun symptoms have started to kick in now – my first nosebleed since around 1997! I’ve missed being able to check in with my midwife on whether these things are normal or if I should be worried.

But what I wouldn’t have given for a bit more of that advice along the way, especially as more disconcerting symptoms like nosebleeds and hip pain start to materialise. There are obviously good reasons why first-time mums usually get additional appointments at 16 and 25 weeks – to check on ours and our baby’s health when our bodies are being put under strain we’ve never experienced before, but also to put our minds at rest. I’ve found I’ve been quite anxious during the couple of weeks leading up to scans and appointments – being able to listen to a heartbeat or have a midwife measure your growing bump would have made all the difference.

The 16 week appointment should have taken place over the phone, to at least give me a chance to ask questions that were starting to crop up as I got my head round this whole growing a human malarky. But for some reason coronavirus seems to have stopped us from being able to keep to an appointment schedule, so instead of an allotted time I was told to expect a call between 9am and 5pm – as if speaking to your midwife is like waiting in for a DPD delivery. In the end, Emily didn’t get round to calling until three days later, when I was caught completely off-guard and didn’t really ask anything at all. ‘Great thanks, see you in three months – bye!’

Working from home in a small flat is already challenging, but waiting for calls from the midwife that never come just adds more stress to the situation.

On the few occasions I have been to the hospital it’s been eerily quiet – as few women as possible in the waiting room, all wearing masks and sitting apart, while partners wait anxiously in cars outside. Every so often there’s a bit of drama when a partner tries to come in and gets kicked out – it took my husband back to his uni days getting escorted out of clubs for drunken behaviour on the one occasion he did make it inside the birthing centre.

This has been my hospital experience so far – eerily quiet and lonely, without the buzz of excited couples sharing these life-changing moments together.

The amazing #butnotmaternity campaign has focused mainly on the involvement of partners at scans and during birth, and I 100% believe their presence is vital every step of the way. But for me, and many other pregnant women and new mothers, it’s about so much more than that. It’s the missed appointments that make you feel like your pregnancy doesn’t matter. The antenatal classes and baby groups that still can’t happen face-to-face and rob you of those vital friendships you were relying on to keep you sane. The reduced number of hospital visits leading to mums missing warning signs and stillbirth rates rocketing in countries across the world.

I’m determined to focus on the positives (I’m going to need that training for hypnobirthing, right?), and in some ways having to do this on our own has made me more relaxed, allowing me to trust my own instincts more and only consume the information I really want to seek out. And being in waiting rooms full of women doing the same thing, calmly but fiercely bringing this Lockdown Generation into the world, has only renewed my affection for the sisterhood.

But our superwoman strength will only get us so far. We need the government and NHS Trusts to prioritise maternal care every step of the way. It will be one of the worst legacies of this pandemic if they don’t.

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