Annie Francis, 60, is founder of the social enterprise Neighbourhood Midwives.
She lives in Wandsworth, Southwest London, with her husband, the actor and TV presenter Peter Duncan, 60. They have four adult children. Annie helped deliver Eva Toth’s baby Mathias at home.
My first child, Lucy (now 29), was a breech delivery and I was told it was going to be very risky, but I ended up having a fantastic birth under the care of Yehudi Gordon (a natural childbirth pioneer). My other three were born at home with the same midwife, and that was my catalyst for deciding to retrain as a midwife. After my youngest started school in 1995, I began training at the age of 40.
I started out at King’s College Hospital in the home-birth team and spent time working with pregnant women with mental health problems, which I really enjoyed. But the hospital care model was very medicalised. Women are not usually ill; they are expecting a baby and are going through a life-changing experience, which responds best to emotional and spiritual support alongside physical care. That’s why I set up Neighbourhood Midwives.
Our vision is to replicate on a larger scale what small teams of case loading midwives are doing in some areas. I’ve always been passionate about the NHS and I want Neighbourhood Midwives to be part of it but sometimes you have to step outside to show there’s another way of doing things. Our service is fee-paying (from around £2,800 and mums can pay in instalments) but we are in talks about setting up an NHS pilot.
We’re an employee-owned social enterprise which means all the money goes back into the business. The School for Social Entrepreneurs helped me set it up. Our midwives are on call 24/7 each week, apart from one protected period of 24 hours each – but we have a buddy system, so you can ask your buddy to cover for you. All of us meet up at least once a month over lunch, there’s an internal email forum to keep us in touch and share advice, plus each local team meets once a week either in person or via Skype. This way, midwives take personal responsibility for their clinical judgments and the support they give women. Because we get to know the women so well, we can be their advocates if they decide to go into hospital (our births are roughly split 50/50 between home and hospital). If women are empowered by a good birth they can revisit the experience when parenting gets tough. We also offer six weeks of postnatal care (this has almost disappeared in London on the NHS) and we’re in the process of setting up a bursary fund for less-advantaged