Ruth Oshikanlu MBE, Honorary Doctor of the University“I’m always asking myself, why am I doing what I’m doing? What difference am I making?”
Nurse entrepreneur Ruth Oshikanlu MBE (MSc Public Health, 2006) is a Queen’s Nurse, parenting coach, health visitor and midwife, and creator of the successful parenting programme Tune In To Your Baby and the coaching service Goal Mind. She has been awarded an honorary doctorate.
It took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do. I knew I wanted to be purpose-driven – I just didn’t know what that purpose was! When towards the end of my nurse training I did a midwifery rotation, I knew I’d found my vocation. But I was also concerned that I’d struggle to operate within the confines of the NHS.
My approach to pregnancy and childbirth is all about empowering women. When I was studying midwifery at Thames Valley University, I had the most wonderful mentor – a proper hippie midwife. She advised me to do my placement in a developing country, so I went home to Nigeria. That taught me so much about being intuitive, and the importance of looking and listening. In medicalising everything, we’ve lost so much – and we’ve made women feel like they’re no longer in control.
To find the right career path, I had to understand what drove me. After I had my son, I qualified as a health visitor and got a role on one of first pilot sites of The Family Nurse Partnership. I Ioved the project I was working on – with teenage mums in Tower Hamlets – but the programme was so prescriptive. I’m not going to stick with something if it’s going to break my soul, but still, I needed to understand why I kept quitting jobs. I decided to train as a life coach and found a methodology called motivational mapping. That showed me that my drivers were learning, autonomy and creativity, and that I should really be working for myself.
Becoming a nurse entrepreneur is a risky business. I’m a single mother, and I have to provide for my son – so the stakes are pretty high. But I was raised by some very strong women, and I have them to thank for my drive and my fearlessness. I always think, what’s the worst that can happen?
My book, Tune in To Your Baby, aims to take the fear and anxiety out of pregnancy and childbirth. When I first started out on my own I was working as a health visitor three days a week on the Isle of Dogs. That’s a place where rich and poor live alongside each other. What struck me was that although their needs were different, the underlying anxiety and vulnerability were the same. So I thought, why don’t I write a book that reassures women, and makes them feel like they’ve always got their health visitor with them? Now there’s an online programme too. It’s just gone from strength to strength.
It’s never too late to change someone’s life. Last year I was head-hunted to set up a nurse-led service for young people in Lewisham. Saying yes is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, but at first I really struggled. So many of the problems these young people face are preventable. I felt we’d let them down. It took me a while to start looking forward instead of back, and to realise that if you support them to become healthy, happy adults you can break the cycle.
We need to get the love back into our communities. I’ve been reading a lot about childhood trauma, and how we can mitigate its impact. I feel privileged to be awarded a Churchill Fellowship so I’ll be travelling to the US, Australia and Scotland to learn about different approaches to tackling youth violence and supporting those who feel marginalised. It’s such an important area. There’s so much unresolved trauma out there. You want to know why young people join gangs? It’s because they need to belong. They need love.
My MBE was the best birthday present I could ever have had. When the letter first came I ignored because I thought it was telling me I had to do jury service! When I finally opened it, I screamed with excitement. Apart from anything else, it’s such a brilliant advertisement for nursing, midwifery and health visiting. So much of our work happens in the community and people just don’t know about it. It’s about time we starting blowing our own trumpet.
When I look back over my life so far, there’s an ‘R’ – for Ruth – that sums up each decade. The first one is ‘Rough’ – as a little girl, I was such a tomboy. The second is ‘Rebel’. All my father wanted was for me to become a doctor, but I needed to carve out my own path. The third is ‘Radical’. I believe that most women can deliver their babies naturally, and that our role as midwives is to enable everyone to birth their own way. It isn’t always easy standing out from the crowd, but that’s fine! The fourth ‘R’ is ‘Resilience’, for the time when I left the NHS to work for myself and became a single mother. Now, in my fifth decade, it’s time for the Real Ruth. I’m bold, I’m unapologetic, and I’ll say what I think, regardless of whether it upsets the status quo. I must be authentic!
To anyone graduating now, I’d just say – find your purpose. I’m always thinking, why am I doing what I’m doing? What difference am I making? Remember, the journey never ends. You’re learning all the time, overcoming new challenges all the time. And finally, don’t forget to celebrate your successes and those who enabled you along the way.