Three Midwives on Their Profession, The Power of Birth and The Future
It seems as though – especially in New Zealand – midwifery only makes headlines when it’s for all the wrong reasons. “Underfunded”. “Undervalued”. “Overlooked”. In May last year, when New Zealand’s Budget was announced, many midwives across the country were forced to walk away from their job. Health Minister David Clark delivered a 8.9 per cent “catch-up” increase to community-based midwives fees, but it wasn’t enough. One Auckland-based midwife said, “I get paid less than a digger driver – I can’t do it anymore.”
I spoke with three Kiwi midwives on their incredible profession and the emotional toll it takes to keep going and going.
Carmen Lett is 31 year’s old and is the mother of four young children. She works as a midwife in the labour and delivery suite at Tauranga hospital and runs Hatched Antenatal classes as well as an online course.
When I was 16, I was at the Parachute Music Festival and I got the call that my friend, let’s call her Lisa, was in labour. She had given me plenty of notice so I had time to go home, eat some food and have a shower. By the time I arrived at the hospital Lisa was progressing well with her labour but despite a lot of pushing she still hadn’t delivered so the doctor decided to do a ventouse delivery (this is when they uses a vacuum-style device to assist the mother birthing the baby). I have this vivid memory of the doctor removing the ventouse cup from the baby’s head and this tiny wee face just staring at me. I was captivated: at the strength of my friend in that moment, at the female body, and at the birth of this perfect being. I remember lying in bed, wide awake, knowing with out a shadow of a doubt that I was going to do this for the rest of my life.
I’ve now been a midwife for ten years, working to make a positive impact on a women’s journey to motherhood and support them in all their choices. Unfortunately, some of the most significant moments of my career have also been the most heartbreaking; women who carry without knowing they won’t have a healthy baby to take home at the end, or women who discover during pregnancy that they won’t be delivering a breathing baby. Parents who were so excited to meet their child but never given the chance. It is a devastating reality that most of us will never understand unless we have walked that road. Working in a high risk unit in South Auckland meant that I have too many of these stories etched in my brain, and even now that I’m based in Tauranga, loss is still a possibility. Recently, I was working with a couple and they were just the loveliest people ever. I can’t share too many details due to privacy reasons but what I can say is that this baby was possibly their only chance at becoming parents, and they had to walk out of the birthing unit with empty arms and a broken heart. I’m so thankful that they told me the care I provided during their tragedy was positive for them.
My belief is that our care as midwives must be the same, these women still have to labour and birth their babies – even without the incentive of a live child at the end – so I still care for them in the same way I would for any other mother. I’m not scared to let my emotions show, to allow the tears to flow when I am sitting with them after I have delivered their baby that doesn’t take a breath. I still call their baby by name, I tell them how beautiful they are. So many parents have thanked me for acknowledging their beautiful baby’s lives when others have been too scared. I can’t ever change what has happened, but I can make their experience of birthing an angel a positive one.
Care and love go a long, long way in this job.
Courtney Jensen is 25 year’s old and lives in Russell, a small town in the Bay of Islands of only 800 residents, where she works as a rural community midwife, otherwise known as a LMC (Lead Maternity Carer).
Home-births are the most special for me; it’s really beautiful to witness how calm and empowered a woman feels when she is in the security of her own home. She owns the space and you are the guest – this is how the dynamic should feel in every birth environment. Research shows that women who birth their babies at home have a higher chance of a positive experience because their “labour hormones” work more efficiently. After all, our mammal friends seek out a familiar, warm, dark and quiet place to birth their offspring.
I still remember a water birth I assisted in the hospital where the mother and her partner were in the pool together. The baby was born into the partner’s arms and he spoke a Karakia over her as the baby was brought up to the surface, laying along the length of his forearm. The baby was breathing, perfect and calm, and as he finished the Karakia the baby opened her eyes and cried. It was so beautiful to allow this women to have a birth experience in the way she wanted, without unnecessary intervention.
By contrast, I remember the first time I was involved in a shoulder dystocia (this is a serious emergency when the baby’s head is birthed vaginally but the shoulders remain stuck on the pelvis). It was scary but I’m so proud that I remembered exactly how to manage the situation and the baby was born safely.
Growing, nourishing and birthing a human being should be the most empowering and sacred experience of a woman’s life and it’s such a privilege to be a part of that. To help a woman find her strength during such a vulnerable time is a gift. I think the moment that solidified those feelings for me was when I supported my sister through her unplanned home-birth. She laboured in the comfort of a warm, dark room in the early hours of the morning, her three-year old child gently stroking her face, and she gave birth to her baby girl passively (this means without pushing) into my arms with zero complications.
Justine Burton is 25 year’s old. She previously worked as a core/hospital midwife for three years and has been a self-employed LMC (Lead Maternity Carer) based in South Auckland for the past 12 months, providing care for her patients during pregnancy, birth and the post-natal period.
The most significant part of my career as a midwife hasn’t been a singular moment, but rather the realisation of how undervalued we are. I can recall over one hundred experiences from working as a core midwife in hospital when I was in a situation that was beyond my limits, being paid $23 an hour without a meal break. Nearly every day, midwives work in an under-resourced, under-staffed, over-flowing environment: Resuscitating babies who aren’t breathing, stopping women from bleeding out, treating fulminating blood pressure conditions, caring for two women in active labour because no one else is available – these conditions are not sustainable. I feel infinite love when I see a mother holding her fresh new child for the first time, nothing else matters in that moment, and I feel privileged to work alongside such strong women, but long-standing resilience is becoming tiresome and I see midwives at breaking point.
As a midwife committed to providing undivided love and attention to women and their whanau, it’s easy to shut the door on my own mental health and well-being, but it’s imperative that I maintain my identity as a female, daughter, sister and friend.
I think birthing women are a reflection of the strength of midwives: after a long, hard day in labour, there is always, always, always a light at the end of the tunnel.