Introductions: Mark Harris
Next in our series of people who have an interesting answer to the question “what do you do?”, we meet Mark Harris.
Mark is a registered midwife and nurse, as well as an NLP trainer, hypnotherapist and teacher. He delivers the Birthing4Blokes birth education programme online, as well as producing the monthly Sprogcast podcast. His award-winning book Men, Love and Birth was published in 2015. We caught up with him to find out what brought him to the traditionally female career of midwifery and where it’s taken him.
When did you first want to be a midwife? How did you find out about it as a possible career?
I was kicked out of school for being disruptive and went straight into work at 15. After trying the world of work, I realised that I’d like to do something to make a difference, and began training as a nurse.
As a nurse, I found that career progression actually pulled me away from caring and being with people and into management. A colleague, Dave Smith (the first male midwife in Warwickshire) knew how I was feeling and told me:
‘Midwife is not a noun but a verb. Mid = ‘being With’, Wife = ‘the Woman giving birth’. So you can’t be a midwife without being with the people you’re helping.’
He said he thought I’d love it. I qualified as a midwife in 1994.
What challenges did you face in training and practising as a midwife?
I was the second man to train in Leicestershire as a midwife. And in twenty years, there haven’t been any more. Initially many female midwives had reservations about men entering the profession - which I can totally understand. Men’s input in to birthing has generally been to a more medical view, with a heavy focus on getting the whole thing over as quickly and safely as possible.
The other thing was that men’s progression in nursing had often been quicker than women’s - they moved up in to management (and therefore in salary) more quickly, and I think there was a little bit of concern that maybe I was just doing it as a career move.
I stayed as an ‘entry level’ midwife - on the hospital ward for 15 years. Career progression or salary progression for midwives also actually rewards you moving away from being present at births. We don’t ‘reward’ core midwifery roles as we should. The heart of it is being with a woman as she births.
Men are still rare in midwifery. There are 121 registered midwives who are men. When I first qualified I was a big guy - 28 stone. I was particularly concerned that women had a choice to have a man in the room before I came in, and then once they’d seen me and met me I’d say ‘I won’t be offended if you don’t want me to attend you’.
I’ve also always compulsively wanted to connect with folk. I don’t think there are going to be lots of men becoming midwives, but for some men it’s just right, who knows why?
What encouragement did you receive? Did you have any mentors or champions?
The first male midwife in Leicestershire was Denis Walsh. I was lucky to train in the same hospital as him - it definitely made it easier having someone like him as a friend and colleague. He’s now Associate Professor in Midwifery at the University of Nottingham, and a world-renowned expert on midwifery. He’s my best friend and we still meet up regularly, and have done for over 20 years. He’s been a constant source of encouragement.
He introduced me to post modern literature and feminist literature - and getting an understanding of some of this was so important for me.
I think it’d be easy for some men to go into midwifery and be at ease with the existing structures. For me, seemed so at odds with what was actually going on for the women. I felt that it was actually impeding birth - women were birthing in spite of the culture around them. For example, the only reason for stirrups is to make it more convenient for the doctor. It actually makes it physiologically harder for the women because of the attitude of the pelvis. It’s not that the men that put these structures in place were not caring, it was that intuitively for them, this seemed the most sensible way: they were responding to birth as a ‘risky event’, with a masculine viewpoint on the situation.
What skills and strengths do you need to be a midwife?
Being a midwife is seen as synonymous with being a nurse, but they are far apart. Midwives are not treating a pathology, an illness - there isn’t an emergency waiting to happen. They are being with a women experiencing a life event. Nurses are caring for someone with an illness, treating pathologies and and fulfilling the prescription of a doctor.
Birth is a mystery to me. As a man, I see the world through a masculine viewpoint. But this can also be an advantage as a midwife. Since I have no intuitive understanding of what it might be like to be a woman, and specifically a woman giving birth, I don’t bring any assumptions with me. I have to treat everyone as an individual. I can’t bring my own expectations. When someone is having an experience that you have had, it’s possible to think that your experience is the same as theirs. But it isn’t and it can’t be: you are not inside their head. I really know I don’t understand what they are experiencing, and so I’m present without making assumptions.
Where has midwifery taken you now?
I moved out of midwifery for a while, and worked in teaching and therapy for a while. When my first wife Diane died, I realised life wasn’t ‘going to be better when…’ The ‘when’ is an illusion. I wanted to connect with humans in a meaningful way, and birth was the area where I felt most at home.
I still felt I had something to give in the area of birth, and specifically wanted to connect with men around birth. I began by offering face to face sessions, and then started teaching the principles to other birth professionals. Then we took it online and created an online course that partners of pregnant women can join up to. It’s also offered by some other birth professionals as a part of their own programmes. I do then speak to men in one-on-one sessions as well.
What do you work through with the men on your courses?
If you ask most men ‘cocktail stick in the eye, or go to a group to talk about birth?’, they might find it hard to decide! It doesn’t fit intuitively for them. A lot of material for men in fatherhood and birth is written by women and delivered by women.
While women can try to approximate what the male viewpoint might be I would gently say that it’s possible that I can get a bit closer to what a man’s perspective in certain situations might be.
A lot of what I discuss in the course and in my book Men, Love and Birth is about building better relationships. Parenting finds its foundation in the kind of relationship that the two partners are in.
Part of the course is for the man to try to do things that will increase oxytocin in their partner. We set some tasks - learning to listen to your partner all the way through something she wants to discuss, identifying and doing a job around the house without being asked or expecting praise, or even to pick some area of your own life that you’ve been complaining about and making some changes without discussing it or looking for praise. The response for these is that they are real game changers at home.
I also do a lot of one-to-one sessions about men not feeling they are bonding with their new baby. Also, and something that a lot of men would feel very uncomfortable voicing in a group, is about them losing some ‘self-esteem’. When a woman is focused on their new child, this can lead to a man feeling they are no longer attractive to their partner. A lot of male sexuality in the west tends to evolve around pornography, and the sexualisation of the breast. If a woman is breastfeeding or if their libido is variable this can be hard to understand.
My teaching framework is based on an evolutionary model. We are mammals, and there are physical distinctions between the sexes as there are in all mammals. We all have the same hormones within us, but they dance in different ways. But Homo sapiens is different because alongside these physical distinctions we have evolved the ability to tell stories, to construct stories around us. We can invent something that doesn’t exist, and we can also convince others that it does, like money, or nation states or time, even gender stereotypes.
The dance of our hormones evolved for different reasons throughout 25,000 years of evolution. While we might therefore experience physical reactions in different ways - we also have this facility to use language and live within a story. Understanding that we might react in different ways means we then can hopefully better understand our partner, and it means there is no excuse to act like a nob!
Have things changed since you trained?
Unfortunately not much.
It’s still a man’s world - we all live in a world that’s set up for men. It’s hard to see that though as we all speak the language of the patriarchy. I’ve trained hundreds of student midwives and they often use language like ‘our ladies’ or ‘our women’ - we are often so deep in it that we can’t see outside of it.
The Change in Childbirth report came out in 1993, and we all thought it would change practices around birth, bringing more ‘choice, control and continuity of carer’. But twenty years later the Better Birth report, chaired by the same Baroness Cumberlege that chaired the 1993 report has shown that we’ve not made those changes. It feels that we’ve come full circle. This time though I hope the proposals have more backing from government.