• Helen Shallow

A(nother) Tribute to Mary

After Mary Cronk's death we posted Mavis Kirkhams's tribute to her on January 2nd. We are now posting Helen Shallow's tribute given at her funeral. Mary's life's work so clearly encapsulates so much that we want to say about midwifery and what it can do for women, babies, families, and ultimately humanity, that we don't think that two tributes is excessive.

'I last saw Mary at the Normal Labour and Research conference two years ago. It became

evident, with all the international delegates, that not everyone knew who Mary Cronk was. Olivia accompanied Mary and brought her to an early evening event and Mary, as always, had something to contribute, but no-one was listening. Who was this elderly lady at the side of the room in a wheelchair? Once I introduced the audience to Mary, the evening took off, as Mary set about giving a practical breech birth tutorial. We scrambled around for pillows and Olivia played the mother-in-labour and spell bound, everyone listened to what Mary had to share.

Today, we have a wealth of evidence to support our practice thanks to dedicated midwifery researchers who have shown time and again that fundamental good midwifery care improves outcomes and reduces interventions. Ahead of her time, and our leading light, Mary challenged questionable practices. She gave us strategies to support mothers in adversity and how to protect them against what she believed, and we now know, to be harmful interventions. She told us to ‘accidentally drop’ our scissors to the floor, to make it impossible to perform the unkindest cut of all, the unnecessary episiotomy. She challenged those that would perform caesarean on all breech births, whilst at the same time supported mothers striving not to have unnecessary surgery. I never forgot her wise words about caring for the mother in labour with her breech presenting baby,

if the breech is advancing let it, if it’s not, DON’T mess with it. Take her to theatre and have a happy section”.

Mary was not a cavalier or a maverick, she was a highly skilled, authentic midwife. She courageously left the NHS in order to support those mothers who could not access NHS care when their birthing decisions did not comply with rigid hospital policy. Mary’s advice stood us, in the NHS, in good stead through the difficult years when we too supported women to birth their breech babies against hospital advice.

Nadine Edwards reflected that one of the most moving memories she has is when Mary and Jane Evans attended the breech births of her twin niece and nephew in Aberdeen nearly 20 years ago. When one twin needed help, their two minds and four hands worked in unison, quickly, skilfully and always in relationship with Nadine’s sister to help her safely birth her babies with least interference or damage. This Nadine says, is the deep skill of midwifery - that simultaneous trust, relationship, focus and manual skill. At any birth she was fortunate enough to be invited to, which Mary attended, Nadine saw in her eyes and hands, that total focus and alertness, following every move, sound and gesture of the woman from moment to moment - absolutely ready to act if needed and calmly staying back if not. A focus which she would maintain until she knew that mother and baby were completely safe and well.

As Mary fearlessly supported mothers, she understood the need to have fearless lay representation in powerful organisations such as the UKCC - now the Nursing and Midwifery Council. To this end she was instrumental in ensuring that Beverley Beech, the former Honorary, longstanding and outstanding Chair of AIMS was selected to represent women on the Council membership board. Like many of us, Beverley will never forget the support and midwifery and obstetric guidance she received from Mary over many years.

Mavis Kirkham observed that, ‘Mary was part of a midwifery tradition of oral teaching. She told stories, she explained by adopting the position required (or getting someone else to, as arthritis began to limit her mobility). She demonstrated clearly with a doll and pelvis. She used pictures in a way that enabled us to really see how that mechanism worked in future births. Anyone who attended her Day at the Breech, or heard her talking about twin or breech births appreciated the clarity of her explanation. She had so many memorable turns of phrase and her useful phrases which parents might use in answer to professional “advice” were wonderful in highlighting where power lies and where it should lie’.

And Sarah Davies shows the BBC documentary ‘Birth Story’, in which Mary features, to all her new student midwives every year. Mary’s deeply moving description of standing up against the edicts of the consultant impresses on them that it is possible for individual midwives to challenge - and change- harmful birth practices. As Mary says in the film, she always took pride in her ability to help women give birth ‘as atraumatically as possible’. Her pride in the art and expertise of midwifery is inspirational for new midwives and will continue to be so for future generations.

Mary’s influence and legacy is far-reaching: about three weeks ago, Sara Wickham re-shared a blog post on her website in a tribute to Mary. The blog post cited Mary's incisive analogy that we should imagine that labour, with all its different factors, like hormones and muscles and so on, is like a synchronised swimming team. ‘It all works really beautifully together’, she would say, ‘But induction of labour?’ ‘That is like throwing one of the swimmers in the pool and hoping the rest jump in!’ This post went viral and, even now, responses are still coming in from all over the world, from midwives, women and others who remember Mary and her words of wisdom and who want to share how much they learned from her.

Mary stayed true to her roots as a steadfast and forthright radical midwife. I respected Mary enormously. She is a loss to our treasured midwifery profession however her wisdom lives on. I am cheered to think that wherever Mary is now, she might be talking to ‘Mr High and Mighty’ and adding a whole new perspective to her on-going journey.'