The month of March is said to come in like a lion and out like a lamb, but what of January? In Britain, the month blusters in on a jet stream of wind, rain and travel chaos. My family and I flew from Glasgow to London for a “Twixmas” mini-break. Although thoughts of our carbon footprint prompted pangs of guilt, bitter experience has taught me that these days, a train ticket doesn’t guarantee that one will arrive at one’s destination on time, if at all. And lo, it came to pass: Storms Gerrit and Henk caused widespread disruption, stranding passengers on some lines and cramming delayed travellers on to others.
My smugness was tempered by sheer despair at how steeply our railways have declined in recent years. Lucy Easthope, a disaster planner, posted on Twitter/X about the packed carriages that have become the British norm, noting that “when you have seen the damage to the human body from standing and overcrowding, it makes you very nervous that this is now a standard way to travel”. Our government will have to reckon with this crisis at some point – hopefully well before a tragic rail disaster forces urgent change.
Full to bursting
As an NHS midwife, I can’t help but wonder about the inner workings of the hospitals I pass on holiday. A stroll past the windows of University College Hospital’s A&E department in central London laid bare our broken, full-to-bursting health service, with patients occupying every chair, sitting on floors and trailing down corridors. I know that a team of medics will have been working hard to clear that waiting room, including the so-called junior doctors who have suffered devastating real-terms pay cuts since 2008. Time will tell whether the recent six-day strike will encourage Victoria Atkins, the latest health secretary to breeze through the cabinet’s revolving door, to enter negotiations with the British Medical Association.
I have a personal as well as professional interest in the matter – my eldest daughter is a medical student. Can it be right that her hourly wage after graduating will be only slightly more than she makes in her current weekend job selling doughnuts? Or that she is expected to work in a system where the desperate imbalance between resources and demand makes burnout likely and moral injury inevitable? The Tories would have you believe that the answer to those questions is yes.
I hope 2024 is a brighter year for medicine more widely. Women’s health is my special interest, but it seems as though every advance in 2023 only served to highlight the field’s inadequacies. A Cambridge team found a potential cause for hyperemesis gravidarum (severe vomiting in pregnancy) but we still have neither prevention nor cure. The newsreader and presenter Naga Munchetty, who suffers from the painful disease adenomyosis, highlighted the pioneering research being done at a gynaecology lab in Edinburgh, but breakthroughs can’t come fast enough for the women who wait decades for a diagnosis. In October the Conservative MP Theo Clarke introduced parliament’s first ever debate on birth trauma – while cleverly sidestepping her party’s role in underfunding the maternity system to the point where trauma is far more likely to be experienced.
Some day, women’s bodies will be valued in science and politics alike, but I doubt whether that day will come this year.
Our common humanity
Still, we in the UK must count what blessings we have: most of us are lucky to live peaceful lives, with access to food, heat, shelter and hygiene. The same cannot be said for the women of Gaza, who are living out the seasons of their reproductive lives under siege. Our phone screens provide a constant feed of their ordeal: tales of Caesarean sections without pain relief or of births endured in makeshift shelters are now so common that we risk becoming numb to their horrors.
Since the conflict began with Hamas’s attack on Israel on 7 October, British midwives of all faiths and none have issued their own scathing statements. Sadly, while these polemics are united by a common desire to protect and honour birthing women, many of them persist in promoting polarising views founded on little geopolitical insight. Individual – and often generational – hurt runs deep, and it sometimes prevents us from recognising our common humanity or taking meaningful action.
The 20th-century midwife Jeannine Parvati Baker said: “Peace on Earth begins with birth.” As the year begins, may a fair and lasting peace be born along with it.
[See also: How to escape the self-help trap]
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Year of Voting Dangerously