By Olivia Pierson
I’ve become aware of an issue in New Zealand that makes my blood boil.
That issue is how poorly women who have just given birth are cared for in the New Zealand health system.
It has become a fight just to give new mothers the minimum legal right of 48 hours of maternity care. Too many women are pressured to give birth then move on, often without the confidence of being able to properly breastfeed their baby and without feeling well enough to go home, either physically or mentally.
Sometimes women are traumatised by a difficult birth and lack of quality care but are sent home anyway to go it alone with overwhelming feelings of anxiety and inadequacy. That’s a recipe for chronic post-natal depression in itself.
Little wonder then, that New Zealand’s maternity suicide rate is shocking: five times higher than the United Kingdom’s, with far too many of those women being Maori. I’ve read horror stories which have become far too common, where new mothers who are in labour themselves are the ones helping other women in labour because the hospital staff are too busy to attend them.
One heartbreaking incident in Rotorua in 2018, saw a young mother give birth to her still-born baby with no medical staff in attendance, only her own traumatised mother at her side. The baby had been dead inside her for a week, which is why she had been sent to the hospital. Staff were aware that this was the case but left her alone anyway as they just couldn’t spare anyone to help her, or so they said.
Not exactly The Red Tent.
On the upside, there now exists quite a powerful campaign to address this problem – and rather than being a government initiative, it’s a private charity called Mothers Matter and was founded by Chloe Wright, CEO of the Wright Family Foundation.
In what can only be described as a highly ambitious project with a massive dose of heart, Chloe Wright’s foundation has already built four new, beautiful birthing units around the country, where mums can give birth in a high quality, well-resourced and staffed environment – and get the post-natal care and attention they desperately need before going home. Chloe has even made sure that their partners/husbands can stay in the facility too if they wish to be part of that golden window of parental bonding which happens in the first 48 hours of an infant’s new life.
Funded by the foundation, these birthing units are free of charge. So far, there is one in Mangere, one in Tauranga, one in Palmerston North (the management of which was taken over by the MidCentral DHB in 2020) and one in Lower Hutt (which was closed, then recently reopened again, run now by Health NZ). The Tauranga unit receives a small amount of local DHB funding, but Auckland receives none.
Chloe was hoping that the Government would allocate some much-needed funding through the DHB to the Nga Hau Mangere unit, saying:
“The centre is free for birthing women but only seven of the 20 suites are being utilised as the Foundation continues to fund the centre independently. To date, the DHB refuses to engage. It’s a ‘no brainer’, but clearly a ‘no heart’ approach to the women and families of South Auckland.”
After the birth, the main goal of the birthing units is to see “all of our mums to return home feeling confident and empowered in their ability to look after their baby.” If mums struggle with breastfeeding after they have returned home, the staff can offer advice over the telephone or link up mums with support services to help.
I commend Chloe Wright for her heart, passion and drive to address this important problem in New Zealand. What could be more essential to early human flourishing than mums bonding with their new little ones in a calm, supportive and safe environment?
In becoming aware of this problem which Chloe has magnificently addressed, I realise how drastically times have changed in this country from when I had my three children between 1988 and 1994, and now.
My first baby was born in Papakura Obstetric Unit. I stayed there in cozy comfort for five nights while Cyclone Bola was ravaging the North Island. I could not have asked for a better midwife and received impeccable care, not going home until I felt super confident I could do everything on my own. I was 18, so probably needed it (though would never have admitted that at the time). Still a cruise by nature to this day, that baby daughter slept 7–9 hours most nights from the time we returned home from the hospital. I had to wake her for feeding time. I was lucky, but the carers at the maternity unit sent me home a very relaxed new mother.
My second baby was born at home on a cold spring night, in front of a roaring fire, with the same excellent midwife who delivered my firstborn, as well as having a doctor present, who just stayed well out of the way. I’ll never forget how happy and contented I felt going to bed that night with my husband beside me and our new baby son right next to us, all snuffly in his bassinet (his nose was squashed). Our midwife swung by every day for the next week to check in on us all, and then intermittently after that.
My third baby was born in Middlemore, as she was in foetal distress throughout my labour with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. Middlemore was ghastly: noisy, sterile and busy, but I was transferred out first thing in the morning to Pukekohe Maternity Unit, where I stayed for a whole week as baby was such a fussy little feeder. The midwives and nurses there gave me the absolute gold standard in maternity care, feeding me like a queen, looking after bubs while I got extra sleep and wanting me to leave only when my daughter could feed without causing a Shakespearean drama. (Funny that she now works in theatre.)
Even then, I remember my mother-in-law remarking that we “modern mothers” all left hospital far too early compared to “her day.” She felt that we should all be convalescing after a birth for at least two weeks in order to heal up properly.
After each birth, the saintly ladies from the church we attended dropped meals off to us for another week or two and provided an endless stream of motherly advice and companionship.
In direct contrast to the excellent care I received, there are so many mothers out there who do not get anything like that sort of care in hospital, who are often horribly sore and bruised from stitches, cracked/bleeding nipples and god-knows-what else, but are bravely soldiering on without even the lifeline of a caring community, or sadly even a partner. My heart breaks for them. I honestly don’t know how they do it, but I understand how depressed and lonely many must feel given their isolation and the importance of the task ahead of them.
To be fighting for 48 hours of quality maternity care in a First World country, as Mothers Matter are doing so vigorously, seems like a very small ask from our healthcare system. What the heck happened to make this so damn hard?
If you would like to know more about Chloe Wright’s charity, Mothers Matter, and their mission please click the link here to read their mission statement.
RIP Chloe Wright.