Babies have Plunket, but who supports mothers?

Mother-of-two Anna Reed, who graduates from Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington this week, has battled a pain condition while completing her Master of Health over the past two years.

The former teacher quit her job when she was pregnant with her now six-year-old, due to developing a chronic pain condition. Her poor health led to her becoming intimate with Aotearoa New Zealand’s health system.

“I saw all parts of it—the good, the bad, the ugly. I had everything from supportive clinicians who went above and beyond, to experiencing discrimination. I learned how poorly understood women’s bodies are, too,” says Anna. “I had so many experiences of male doctors telling me that I wasn’t really in pain and what my body should be doing. And this was at such a hard time alongside becoming a parent and all the changes that come with that.”

She began her Master’s degree with the Wellington Faculty of Health when her children were two and four. Her own experience, which also included severe postnatal depression, led to her recognising the need for a coordinated maternal wellbeing strategy that ensures every mother gets the help they need.

“For probably the biggest life change you can have, I was surprised there wasn’t a lot of strategy or thought there. Everything is centred on babies. And obviously babies are so important, but we need to empower the people who raise them so they can be the best version of themselves. Until our voices are heard, no change can be made.”

In her research, Anna was eager to address the gaps she had herself experienced. She worked on some data gathered by her supervisor Dr Eva Neely. Dr Neely ran 18 workshops across Aotearoa, at which 268 participants shared their vision of a mother-centred maternal health promotion strategy. Participants included midwives, childbirth educators, student midwives, nurses, doctors, lactation consultants, mothers, and more.

“There were hundreds of amazing ideas. What I found in the data was that whilst everyone working in that space was passionately working towards doing better for mothers, they also found that not only were there gaps, there was also immense miscommunication between those providing the available support.”

The research, driven by Te Tiriti o Waitangi, drew on health promotion values and models to frame and direct the strategic research towards greater equity, holistic health needs, and socio-ecological factors.

“Whilst we used a Western model for the data generation, our findings emphasised the need to develop these ideas in partnership with Māori and Māori health promotion models, and guided by our intersectional feminist lens,” says Dr Neely.

Anna adds, “The data told us that we need care in the communities people are living in, and we need to surround them with support. We need to develop mothering/parenting skills, and [help parents] discern the difference between what information is good and helpful, and what isn’t. And we need mother-centred care and funding. Babies have Plunket, but who supports the mother?”

Anna also explains that it is common knowledge among new mums that Plunket can’t be relied upon for a judgement-free response when it comes to certain practices like bottle feeding or co-sleeping. “But people need support in however they parent. You need to meet mothers where they are at.”

A recent report by Holly Walker from the Helen Clark Foundation focuses on struggling parents and perinatal distress and the consequences of such distress. “This is excellent, and we need to talk about it more,” says Anna. “This work also focuses on the need to keep people well and supported in their communities and [help] them to avoid getting to the point of requiring extra assistance, similar to what we found in our data.”

“We know our mental health system is stretched to the limit. We need to be doing more, earlier, for everyone.”

Anna acknowledges it was tricky to balance raising two kids and completing her Master’s—but the flexibility forced by COVID-19 has been helpful. “I think in 2022 we’re a lot more flexible about when we do things and acknowledging that a lot of us have families.”

While she studied, she worked as a tutor in the Faculty of Health. Anna now works at Tū Ora Compass Health as a Disability Lead, but eventually wants to complete her PhD focusing on the experience of parents with disabilities of all kinds.

The research concludes that we need to take a comprehensive health promotion approach and develop a collective ‘mothering village’ with strong networks. Anna says, “It is a good time to make change. We’ve never been so focused on our wellbeing as we are now, thanks to COVID-19.”