Childbirth is often described as a “transformational experience” … and the same can be said about becoming a midwife, according to Kai Hodgkin.
Kai was among the first graduating cohort of the University of Canberra’s (UC) direct entry Bachelor of Midwifery, and her career has come full circle.
Kai is a Lecturer in Midwifery at UC, and her knowledge and passion are evident in everything she does. Combining an old tool with new technology, she uses a small wooden stethoscope called a ‘pinard’ to listen to the sound of a foetal heartbeat inside a simulation manikin – a regular teaching scenario to equip students with the skills they need to practise as a midwife.
The practical learning environment at UC is combined with clinical placements, where students help to provide care during pregnancy, labour and birth.
“Midwifery is a career that is full of love, fire and passion – a career that can be incredibly hard, but I really believe that the things that are most worth doing in life are often the hardest,” Kai says.
Kai’s passion for midwifery ignited during her work with non-government organisations in the health sector.
She had worked in policy and projects teams with mental health organisation headspace, the Australian General Practice Network and the Alcohol and Drug Council of Australia, after graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from the Australian National University (ANU).
“Part of my work was doing assessments of the needs of health professionals, and the more time I spent with them, the more inspired I was by them,” Kai says.
This cemented a desire to pursue further study, with an initial interest in nursing and the specialty area of palliative care.
“I came to Open Day here at UC and after I met the midwifery team, I thought: ‘these are my people!’” Kai says.
“I started reading everything I could about midwifery and discovered that I loved the idea that midwifery is very person-centred. It's not so much focused on a body, a system or a process like a lot of other parts of healthcare.”
During her studies, Kai fell pregnant and gave birth to her son. In her final year, she became pregnant again and decided to pursue Honours. She was accepted into the program and moved to Indonesia, where she gave birth to her daughter and completed the Honours program. A year later, she was back in Canberra, starting her graduate placement.
Kai’s experience during pregnancy, labour and birth overseas, led her to start a PhD at ANU looking at birth outcomes in Indonesia.
“Being a consumer in a healthcare system I didn't know much about, made me realise that ‘you don't know, what you don't know’,” she says.
“I remember being told that anaesthetic wouldn’t be used to suture tearing from childbirth and I never would have thought to ask about that, as that would be standard practice in Australia. Turns out, it is often used.
“It’s so hard to navigate, because how do you ask the right questions or advocate for yourself or ask for what you want when you don't even know what the choices are?”
When the family returned to Canberra, Kai spent the next six years working on her PhD part time, was part of the midwifery team at (what is now) The North Canberra Hospital, and was involved in pregnancy care for women from diverse backgrounds.
“Along the way, I also started doing some casual academic work at the ANU medical school, working with first year students who were learning to be doctors and I really enjoyed the conversations, the questions they would ask, the interrogation of the evidence and that application to clinical practice,” she says.
“It made me think that I'd love to be teaching midwifery and in early 2021, a Practice Support Midwife position came up, to work with UC midwifery students in a hospital setting, and I was offered the job.”
The role led to the opportunity to be a unit convenor, and Kai was then offered a permanent position during the COVID-19 lockdown, when she found herself teaching from her lounge room.
“We had to take home a whole heap of manikins to use for online demonstrations and my kids were also learning from home,” Kai says.
“I remember them coming in during a class where I was explaining birth complications with one of the manikins and my son looked at it and went ‘ew!’ and walked away and my daughter said ‘cool!’ – so they had two very different types of education during their home schooling!”
When face-to-face learning resumed, it became evident to Kai that her role was more than being an educator, returning to the idea that students go through a ‘transformational experience’.
“There can be a big emotional and pastoral care component to my work, which means that in a way, I get to keep being a midwife – because I feel like I’m midwifing my students through their degree,” she says.
“There are often big experiences and difficulties to unpack from their clinical placements and the wellbeing of our students is so important to carry through to how they look after themselves during their careers.”
This has been another big year for Kai – after dealing with a few delays, she is about to submit her PhD and has recently been appointed Chair of the Australian College of Midwives ACT Branch.
Moving away from clinical practice into academia has allowed her to play a key advocacy role in midwifery. She had convened a group that campaigned and petitioned for a freestanding birth centre in the ACT, which resulted in Greens MLA Jo Clay moving a motion in the ACT Legislative Assembly in February, which was passed unanimously.
“I love that working at UC has given me the academic freedom and ability to advocate for more changes to the health care system than I could from within,” she says.
“As a midwife, I could make a difference to the individuals I cared for, but it’s very hard to make changes to the system.”
Another challenge is the workforce shortages in Canberra, across the country and around the world. Kai explains that while there were people who left the profession during the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been many midwives who have reached retirement, resulting in less experienced midwives being shifted into senior roles.
“We've got a really young workforce, not necessarily young in age, but young in terms of experience. When I was studying, I was often taught by midwives who had been in the profession for 20 years – now there are midwives in those positions who have only been around for five years,” she says.
As an educator and advocate, Kai wants to encourage more people into the profession, at all stages of their lives, describing it as a ‘significant and important career’. She says there are opportunities all over Australia and overseas, with a chance to work in different health care settings. The ACT Government is also offering financial support to eligible students who are accepted into the course at UC.
“If you want a degree that's going to help you understand yourself and others, help you learn about the world, to better support others and connect with people, midwifery is the place to be,” Kai says.
“Midwifery care in the community is growing. We know when care is accessible and it's near where people live or at their homes, when it's focused on them and their needs, and what their local community and local family looks like, that's the best care we can provide.
“It gives people the best chance of having a safe pregnancy and birth and a really positive experience, which is what we want for every single woman, every single baby – so the future for midwifery is looking bright!”
Words by Emma Larouche, photo by Tyler Cherry.