Rachel Plachcinski shares her incredible NCT journey as mother, volunteer, practitioner and staff member. She also talks about how NCT has helped shape - and continues to improve - the experience of new parents.
My sons have been the making of me. Giving birth, raising them and working out a) how to be the mother I wanted to be and b) the mother they needed me to be has enabled me to consciously shape myself more than anything else. NCT has been there, helping and supporting me, at almost every stage.
I didn’t attend NCT antenatal classes when expecting my first baby, back in 1991, simply because I didn’t know anything about them. I spent a lot of time reading up on things and sending off for books. I loved the NHS classes I attended with my husband as they gave me the time and space to focus on my pregnancy – none of my friends or colleagues were particularly interested in birth and babies and I was desperate to talk about it with someone.
The birth of my first son was straightforward and I came out of it with an appreciation of - and admiration for - my body, which I had never had before. However, I still didn’t know many people with babies, so when I saw a postcard pinned up at my GP’s surgery saying: ‘Had a baby? Want to meet people?’ I wrote down the phone number and got in touch with what turned out to be my local NCT branch, Dewsbury and Spen Valley.
I soon ventured out to my first coffee morning where the second person I spoke to became, and still is, a firm friend.
That was my first contact with the fabulous resource which is NCT volunteers. I am eternally indebted to the members of my local branch who gave me friendship when I felt I had no friends, who held my hand when I broke down in tears about my firstborn’s sleep issues, who lent me books from the branch library (it was 1992 – pre-internet), and celebrated so many mothering milestones with me.
Most people don’t have a clue that much of the growth of NCT is down to the energy and commitment of volunteers, who start up and run the branches. The branches are supported by more volunteers, in the form of the regional teams. That’s women (mainly), pregnant and/or with young children, deciding there needs to be more support available to help them achieve their birth and parenting goals and GETTING OUT THERE AND DOING IT.
In addition, NCT members have been involved with Maternity Service Liaison Committees (MLSCs) since they were first set up in 1984. It’s generally exciting and fulfilling work - supporting health professionals to improve maternity services - but also largely unpaid.
And, although NCT practitioners are paid for delivering courses, there’s lots they do to support parents which is unpaid. Much of the work done by breastfeeding counsellors, in particular, is undertaken with no prospect of payment, simply because they see it as their mission to support women in need.
I did my stint on the branch committee and I developed the utmost respect for secretaries (I was good at taking and typing up minutes from branch meetings, but not much else) and fundraisers (I organised some enjoyable social events, including the very popular family Sunday brunch, but budget control was a whole new concept to me and it took a while before my events contributed anything to branch funds).
At some point our local antenatal teacher announced that she wanted to retire and, without much thought, I offered to replace her.
I joined my NCT tutorial group in 1995, when I was pregnant with my Third-and-Final Son and fed up with my career in local newspaper journalism. I’d been demoted when I switched to working part-time (whilst pregnant with Son-in-the-Middle), I was incredibly bored with the work I was being given and I couldn’t think of anywhere else I wanted to work as I thought it would be more of the same.
Having said all that, I had no plans to leave that job as I was terrified of not having the money – I thought that the antenatal teaching would be an interesting hobby with the added benefit of a bit of pay.
I loved my monthly tutorials from the start. I would leave my sons with my husband or mother; throw books and food into the car and battle through rush hour traffic, thrilled to be heading for an evening of stimulating conversation and learning, plus rock solid emotional support from my tutor and fellow students.
Life got quite challenging over the next few years – I decided to leave journalism to be a stay-at-home mum; there were some traumatic events in Third-and-Final Son’s birth; I got what I now realise was postnatal depression; my husband was made redundant; we had to claim benefits to get by plus I took on various part time jobs to make ends meet.
But through it all my commitment to becoming an antenatal teacher with NCT stayed strong.
The training wasn’t easy. I got high scores on intelligence tests but my academic skills were weak. I love to read fiction but struggle to concentrate on textbooks, and I had little idea how to write an academic essay or do referencing. I had left education at 18 after a lousy set of A-level results, primarily due to my total lack of revision, which meant no chance of taking up a place to read history at the University of Warwick, and that always bothered me.
But my tutor introduced me to original research, was unflinching as I worked through various emotional issues and never lost faith in me. I eventually gained my NCT Licence to Practice and, as there was a scarcity of antenatal teachers in my area, I was soon teaching up to three evenings a week.
Part way through my NCT training I decided it was time to get the degree I’d always wanted. I briefly toyed with going back to history but decided that my real interest was in psychology, particularly reproductive psychology. Back then being an NCT practitioner was an internal qualification only but the portfolio of work which made up my Final Submission to NCT’s Teachers’ Panel was enough to earn me a place to study psychology at the University of Leeds.
Third-and-Final Son started school in September 2000 and a couple of weeks later I embarked on full-time study (plus marriage, motherhood, antenatal teaching and working weekends at Sainsbury’s – but that’s another story).
I graduated in 2003, took a couple of years off studying then went back for my MSc in Psychological Approaches to Health. I am proud of my academic achievement and it is unlikely to have happened without the jumpstart I got from NCT.
Another thing which is little known about NCT is how it supports mothers, fathers and families in its commitment to home-based, flexible working for many staff members, particularly in NCT College and Operations. Becoming an NCT practitioner is one relatively flexible way to mix motherhood and work – you are self-employed and have a large degree of control in how many courses or sessions you facilitate and when.
I now have a staff role as NCT’s Research Engagement Officer and I really appreciate having that element of accommodation of family needs in my working life. There are some awesome people on the team, many of whom have left high powered jobs to work for less money for a charity, because the work is emotionally fulfilling and allows them to spend more time with their families.
On reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that my long-time devotion to NCT is in large part down to the role this organisation has played, for 60 years, in helping women to make sense of their lives when they become mothers.
I love the book The Compleat Woman, by Valerie Grove, with its focus on how women have maintained their career and partner relationship when they are also busy mums of three or more children. The book illustrates how mothers have been working to find that balance throughout the 20th century, with their ages ranging from 40s to much older.
I firmly believe that the growth of NCT is in large part due to those tensions faced by mothers; that many members left (or were forced to leave) conventional employment on becoming mothers and consequently threw their considerable energies and intelligence behind a charity they felt passionate about.
NCT is one of the organisations which has both been shaped by, and has helped to shape, the changes in women’s lives through the 20th century. NCT’s values and the support and opportunities it offers to mothers AND fathers will continue to make family life more fulfilling in the 21st century.
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