This month, MIDIRS stops to chat to Sue Lennox, a founding member of the New Zealand College of Midwives and who in 2012 was elected President.
Sue has been a practising midwife for four decades and has worked as a Lead Maternity Carer (LMC)/community midwife and as a core/hospital midwife, in team and solo practice, with women birthing in large and small hospitals and at home. Over the years, particularly while experiencing the maternity system first-hand (one home birth and one 34 week caesarean) she also worked as an antenatal educator, initiated the country’s first planned ‘early discharge’ scheme, and worked as a community midwife for women after stillbirth.
In 2002 Sue was awarded the Hutt Valley District Health Board’s inaugural Primary Care Excellence Award for midwifery. In recent years she has maintained a small LMC practice while focusing more on supporting midwife colleagues as a mentor, clinical supervisor and midwifery educator.MIDIRS: So Sue, you have a huge amount of experience of working with women and their families as well as supporting midwife colleagues as a mentor and educator. Tell us a little bit about your background.
I was born in Tasmania, the eldest of five children born into an almost stereotype middle-class family of the 50s. My parents, as was characteristic of the time, lived out traditional roles with my mother an extremely competent woman (RN) and my father (chartered accountant) a good man and a good provider. Both parents cared deeply for their children but their expectations were fairly gendered. They were probably a little surprised when I left Tasmania to go to Melbourne and become a nurse but were certainly quite bemused by my becoming a feminist, joining a women’s electoral lobby in the 70s, becoming involved in abortion law reform and travelling overland to Britain on my own. These independent activities were a part of women breaking the gender mould in what is now known as the second wave of feminism.
Though I trained in hospitals as a nurse and then a midwife my parents were quite relieved when I returned to Tasmania to start an education degree in the mid-70s, but the following year I cross credited my course to New Zealand to join my long-term boyfriend in Palmerston North. I worked as a midwife whilst I studied at university both in Tasmania and New Zealand. It was at a special interest group for midwives in Palmerston North that I heard about and subsequently contacted Joan Donley – the doyenne of the renaissance of New Zealand midwifery. I arranged to visit her and that was when I attended home births and saw a process, relationships and outcomes unlike anything I had previously experienced. The experience touched me deeply both personally and professionally. This experience sealed my future passion for working to support women to give birth on their own terms and in doing so create the perfect environment for loving and nourishing a baby.
MIDIRS: How long have you been in the maternity field?
Forty two years.
MIDIRS: What made you decide to become a midwife?
My primary drive to become a midwife was stimulated by the desire to travel. I believed midwifery would augment my nursing qualification and make me more employable. Instead, I mostly worked in intensive and coronary care units when I travelled. However my decision to make midwifery my vocation occurred five years after my graduation whilst attending home births with Joan Donley in New Zealand. I saw very low intervention by the midwife and very high emotional and physical support of women by their families and many beautiful physiological births. After the birth the women and babies thrived. Before that I had only ever attended hospital births that were intervened with almost routinely. Working in the community along with women and their families made perfect sense to me. This was the first time I had experienced a sense of deep engagement with my work.
MIDIRS: Which areas of maternity care or research interest you the most?
This is the hardest question to answer because I can become enthusiastic about any conversation to do with maternity whether big picture analysis, ‘with women’ exchanges, reading or participating in research – they are all very thrilling.
Yesterday three of us met to discuss the qualitative findings from a study into the experience of new graduates over the first four years of the Midwifery First Year in Practice programme. This topic interests me hugely because of my doctoral research about mentoring new graduates in their first year of practice. I have an abiding curiosity around professional development support relationships and adult learning. I think no matter how good the system of care we need to question what models best encourage equity of access, continuity of care (or carers), normal physiology, and sustainable practice. Midwives need to care for themselves as a first step; continuity of care works best for everyone when midwives have back up and support from others. Midwives also need a neutral place to have conversations about their work where they can reflect on their work.
I think one of the most difficult conversations is trying to help people who are not intimately involved with midwifery to understand the importance of supporting physiology but also to realise that this understanding is an essential precursor to referring on appropriately.
MIDIRS: Can you tell us a little bit more about your work as President of the New Zealand College of Midwives?
The President is spokesperson for the College and chairs the National Committee meetings. This Committee is the College’s representative governing body which meets three or four times a year to set policy and discuss and make decisions about the issues affecting the profession nationally. Members represent midwives, consumers, Maori and Pacific and students.
Since I was elected last year I have been invited to visit many of the College’s ten autonomous regions and have enjoyed meeting midwives and visiting many of the hospital and primary birthing units around New Zealand. I find these visits are invaluable to gain a sense of the variety of environments and issues which affect midwives wherever they work.
At present for example, we have a significant funding shortfall for the role of Lead Maternity Carer which provides the workforce for our universally acclaimed midwife-led maternity system. This is of concern for midwives all around the country. For many midwives being able to talk about the issues with the president can develop knowledge and spread the responsibility for lobbying wider. Other issues are more local and being able to sit around a table and talk at the local level is important for both me and the membership. Meeting the regional chairs, who play an enormous voluntary role in representing their region, is an added bonus of the visits.
The Chief Executive and I contact one another and stay in touch frequently according to the issues at hand. There are times when as the President, I formally represent the New Zealand College of Midwives, for example at the official launch of a government paper, welcoming international guests at a forum, or attend inter-professional meetings. One standout event of tremendous pride was presiding over the opening of our reconstructed National Office in Christchurch in September 2012, which was one of the first businesses to be rebuilt after the earthquakes. The work, but it doesn’t feel like work, is expansive, interesting and humbling as well as challenging. If I have any vision at all it is to be transparent and encourage a collective voice.
MIDIRS: Which of MIDIRS services do you find of most benefit in your role of midwife?
I think for a busy midwife, Essentially MIDIRS is an amazing resource which I enjoy the feel and look of as well as reading it cover to cover. I follow up the review of the research articles and the articles which are fantastically interesting and ask questions midwives in practice want to discuss and mull over.
MIDIRS: When you are away from work, how do you spend your time relaxing?
Relaxing generally for me means leaving the computer and going walking, dancing, gardening or meeting friends for coffee or meals. We have fabulous hills and beaches close by and the most relaxing is walking in the hills usually three to five times a week. I also have a garden which I enjoy planting and growing flowers, green vegetables and fruit; apples, figs and feijoas. NIA dance has been a passion of mine for about five years and is based on finding joy in movement by dancing in bare feet. I generally dance NIA twice a week so the intensive I attended recently rather tested my staying power given the scheduled 12 hour days for seven days.
MIDIRS: And finally, if you could give one word of advice to newly graduated midwives, what would it be?
Keep asking questions, look for role models, but trust your wisdom – you know more than you realise.
About the New Zealand College of Midwives
The New Zealand College of Midwives was incorporated as a membership organisation in 1989. We are a bi-cultural organisation accepting that Maori were the first people or tangata whenua of Aotearoa/New Zealand. Our membership comprises both registered and student midwives, and consumers. This partnership between midwives and consumers has been pivotal to our success as a professional organisation. Consumers actively participate at national and regional levels. The College sets its own standards, code of practice and ethics and uses these to review midwives every two years. The College also provides ongoing educational activities for registered midwives, such as those provided to new graduates and their mentors, and others such as technical skills and documentation. The College supports research whether it is by individual midwife researchers, larger projects or showcasing midwifery scholarship in the New Zealand College of Midwives Journal. It provides a midwifery voice to government, governmental agencies, professional and other organisations with the aim of maintaining and developing a strong autonomous midwifery profession in New Zealand. Ultimately though, our concern for the quality of our practice and education is about the service we provide to women and their families.