Both in witnessing and in experiencing childbirth, midwife, health researcher and mother of two Ella Kurz has always seen it as more than a baby’s debut into the world – “Suddenly, a brand new life is here, and how amazing and wonderful is that! – but as a student midwife, I also saw many women who emerged from the experience, magnificent, radiant and transformed,” Ella says.
“You know that they’ve just gone through this huge and challenging thing, but they look really well. And even in the labour room, I would often see them go silent, sort of go ‘into’ themselves – and they seemed so powerful, like they were growing and changing in the moment.
“But there are other women who have such negative experiences, and they come out of it looking so emotionally crushed and deflated. And that is really, really hard, not least because you now have this small person who is depending on you to look after them.
“Surely it’s the right of every mother to have an empowering birth experience – one which helps set you up for a positive parenting trajectory.”
The concept of birth as an opportunity to be a transformative experience has long made an indelible impression on Ella – when she decided to embark on her PhD journey, it became the basis of her thesis, Parturescence: a post qualitative inquiry into women’s opportunities for transcendence and transformation through birth.
“Where this [birth as a site for women’s transcendence and transformation] goes unacknowledged,” she writes, “women’s possibilities are reduced.”
It’s a deeply personal subject for a PhD thesis – and in keeping with Ella’s own combination of inherent warmth, empowering empathy and insightful enquiry.
“I think people often feel that researchers must be completely separate from what we are trying to learn about – but that’s simply impossible, as far as I’m concerned,” Ella says. “The world’s too connected for that. Every researcher is influenced by their surroundings, by what they've learned and their experiences– so that, in turn, influences their work.”
Parturescence has obviously resonated, awarded the Stephen Parker Medal for Outstanding Doctoral Thesis for 2021. The medal is awarded in honour of Professor Stephen Parker, UC’s Vice-Chancellor from 2007 to 2016.
Ella created the term ‘parturescence’ to capture what she felt no other word truly could. “’Partu’ comes from ‘parturition’, a word which means child-bearing, and the second half, ‘escence’ is from the Latin for become, or becoming,” she says. “I focused on finding the language we could use to talk about transformation and transcendence, because the concept of an empowered birth is quite a complex one.”
Attaining her PhD is just one more step in a journey that sometimes seems to Ella to have been mapped from childhood.
“Even as a kid, I always looked forward to the time that I would have kids of my own – even then, it seemed to me like such an amazing part of the human experience,” Ella says.
“I was 13 when one of my cousins was born – we visited soon after, and I remember my aunt telling us about how positive her birth experience had been. These things stayed with me, and they were really formative.”
After finishing school in Canberra, Ella went on an exchange program in Germany, and did some travelling.
“I really like languages, and thought the idea of travelling sounded wonderful – and that I would get a job that would see me travelling around the world. But then when I did travel, I got really homesick! And I thought … you know what, I’m going home and I’m going to be a midwife.”
In that instant, she says, all those formative experiences coalesced – there was no doubt or second-guessing. Ella came home, enrolled in a Bachelor of Midwifery course at UC, went on to do her Honours, and graduated in 2013.
“Being a midwife is all about facilitating wellness, empowerment and a positive start to life,” she says. “It’s a very personal experience, because you journey with each woman – seeing her at every pregnancy appointment, being on call for when she goes into labour, being there for her whole labour, and then seeing her post-natally as well. I think I was always particularly drawn to this aspect of it – developing that really strong relationship.”
After a while though, Ella felt a few strands of that hitherto-unexperienced doubt creeping in.
“I guess I was idealistic about how I wanted to provide maternity care to women, and I often felt it was quite impossible within an under-resourced maternity care system,” she says. “It could be a little deflating – heartwrenching, to be honest.
“So when I moved into the research space, it seemed like a way that I could maybe help address some of the systemic things that need to be changed.”
“I did my PhD part-time over seven years, while working and raising my kids. And I loved every minute of it – with two babies, every time I worked on my PhD it was like a little sliver of ‘me time’ I had been able to carve out! I’m very grateful to my supportive supervisors, Professor Deborah Davis, Dr Jenny Browne and Dr Jan Taylor.”
While doing her PhD, Ella co-edited What We Carry, an anthology of poetry on child-bearing. It brings together 60 poets from across Australia, a chorus of voices on experiences including infertility, conception, termination, loss, pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period.
Her personal life is a reflection of Ella’s professional philosophy – she was the first mother to participate in the ACT’s publicly-funded home birth trial; at the birth, she was supported by her husband, mother and two midwives. “I was able to have the kind of birth experience I wanted, surrounded by people who were supportive and respectful for me – and I think everyone has a right to that.”
Ella is now working with the Brighter Beginnings research team at UC’s Faculty of Health, under her former supervisor Deborah.
“It’s a new and very collaborative research group drawn from across the faculty, so we have people from nursing, sports and exercise, optometry, pharmacy – to name a few,” she says – like-minded, passionate researchers who believe that a child’s best start in life goes hand-in-hand with a mother’s transformative experience.
Words by Suzanne Lazaroo, photo by Tyler Cherry.
This March, the University of Canberra would like to congratulate the graduating classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022.
We are so glad we can celebrate your journey – you have grown in so many ways, and risen to meet challenges with grace and creativity.
Many of you are already impacting your chosen fields, while others embark on the postgraduate study path.
We are so proud of you all, and we can't wait to see what you will do next.