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Centre for Stories

Dr Zoe Bradfield

'But it's more than that. It's also this philosophical underpinning of our profession whereby we're called to build this relationship and this working alliance with women and their families in order to empower them to get what they want out of this most fundamental of human experiences, which is creating more humans, giving birth, right?'

This is our opportunity to celebrate the individual and unique stories and achievements of Curtin University’s Women in STEMM. Together, let’s share in their pursuit of excellence, and listen to the important lessons they teach everyone, no matter your gender.Dr Zoe Brafield is Vice President of the Australian College of Midwives, a lecturer at the School of Nursing at Curtin University, and a feminist empowering midwives, mothers and families.

Copyright © 2020 Zoe Bradfield

This story and corresponding images have been licensed to the Centre for Stories by the Storyteller. For reproduction and distribution of this story/image please contact the Centre for Stories.

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So, my name’s Zoe Bradfield. I was born in Perth. Eldest of three children. And when I was four, we moved overseas. My Dad had a couple of diplomatic posts and we grew up in Fiji and some other countries and had an idyllic childhood, really lovely time. And my parents decided when it hit, or approaching, our high school age that we should return to Perth. And so, we did that. We came back to Perth and started high school and I went through high school. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I’d certainly grown up hearing these stories of strong women in my family, both my grandmothers, really strong women and their predecessors before them as well. You know, they were entrepreneurs and business women in a time where, you know, socially it wasn’t really the done thing for women to do. My Mum and her sisters described themselves as strong women, and it’s certainly how I experienced them. And so, I found myself a bit lost in this. Where do I fit in this story of strong women? I knew that I had a strength from them, but in terms of the direction of where it should go and what it should look like. I really had no idea. So, look I continued on in high school and Mum did her diligence and she went out to the community and said, ‘What is it that Zeo’s gonna do? And, you know, what can she do?’ And I hadn’t known anyone that had actually completed university. 

There was no one in my family that had done that. And so, I had nothing to hook into, you know. But Mum came back and suggested that I should do nursing. And in the absence of any other brilliant ideas, I agreed and I you know, enrolled in a nursing degree. And so, I started my nursing degree. And probably related to the fact that it was, you know, is okay. I was learning about the human body and there were some interesting things, but there were other parts of it that I just didn’t really find fascinating. I probably didn’t apply myself to my studies as well as I should have. And I was pretty ambivalent about it, to be honest. I remember halfway through my degree, we’re at a barbecue one weekend. And, as you do, this older guy who was a friend of the family, you know, he’s having a conversation with me. And he was a guy that I had respected and looked up to kind of like an uncle figure. And he said to me, ‘Now, listen, I hear that you’re enrolled in university and that you’re doing nursing.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah that’s right. Yeah, I’m doing nursing’. And he said, ‘What’s all this nonsense? You should just stop it straight away. You should just find yourself a husband and you should get married and settle down and have children. And don’t worry about this nursing university business.’ 

So, I was floored. I was quite arrested by, you know, just how cheeky he was to say that to me. I was about 18 at this stage. And so, the year would have been about ’94. So, and I just I couldn’t believe that he would he would say that to me. And I’ll tell what I wasn’t a very good student before that conversation, but boy, did it make me focus afterwards. And I went on and I finished the back end of my degree with flying colours, got really good marks, finished nursing. And there was something in that conversation that stirred in me almost like an injustice, if you like, of, you know, how dare you say that to me. And at the time, I didn’t really know why it made me so uncomfortable and angry, but it did. And so, towards the end of my nursing degree, I met my partner, who is now my husband. And we got married shortly after I became a nurse. 

And I entered into my first-year nursing at Royal Perth Hospital. Nice pretty white uniform, white stockings, white shoes, the whole kit and caboodle. And you know what? You know, I was an okay nurse. I you know, I was kind. I was, you know, I did my tasks diligently. I was efficient. You know, I was even clinically really good. But I didn’t love it. You know, there was it didn’t grab me and say, yes, this is what you’re meant to do the rest of your life. And so, I guess there was still a part of me that was wondering, if you like, you know, around how am I going to find what is this thing that I meant to do? And we’d been married for about a year and I was 23 at this stage. So, when I look back, still very, very young, but my husband had an opportunity to move to the country for his job. So, we decided that that’s what we would do. And I was able to pick up work at the local hospital. And I remember the trip down to this small South West town, you know, about three hours South East of Perth, population of 5000. There was a Woolies and a Target which was quite advanced for those times. But that was about it. 

And I cried all the way down the highway. I think I had about five minutes where I didn’t cry. And I think, you know, like I was so young and I was leaving this community that were, you know, a really big part of my identity. But we were off on this new adventure. So I got work as a nurse at the hospital and I did some emergency department nursing and I remember there were some occasions when I was in the emergency department that I might be called to go and help the midwives on the ward. Now, the midwifery unit was this place in the hospital where nurses you just didn’t go unless you were invited. Right. Because the midwives, though, were these really amazing, confident, but slightly scary women that really kind of fascinated me. And so, I’d always love it when I was asked to come down as a nurse and hold stuff or put up a drip or whatever it might be. And I remember, you know, several occasions witnessing these midwives engaging in this really robust dialogue, respectful, professional, but really robust dialogue, where they would be advocating for women who wanted a certain thing but were being recommended by the institution or the hierarchy or whatever it might be to have another thing. And they would go to town. They would absolutely put everything into this advocacy for women.  

So, I remember, you know, witnessing the midwives engaging in this really robust dialogue with the doctors where the women had identified that they wanted one thing and the doctors were recommending another, where the midwives would go toe to toe with these doctors. And that was something that I hadn’t seen before in the profession of nursing. It was a very dominant, medically dominant model where, you know, you would do what the doctors said and you certainly wouldn’t question that. There was something about the way that midwives did that confidently, respectfully, but with amazing strength and advocacy for the women that they were representing that I’d not seen before and was so intoxicating. And shortly after, I’d been at the hospital for about 12 months and the opportunity came up for nurses who wanted to become midwives to undertake further education. And I put both of my hands up at the same time. Yes, please. That’s for me. And so, I was lucky enough to be chosen out of the pool that put their hand up. And so, I basically began 12 months of education. So, I drove up and down the highway, up to uni, did some of my clinical in Perth and then some back down where I was and some down in Albany. And the end of the 12 months I became a midwife and I couldn’t have known it then. But obviously what I now know was that I was entering this life altering trajectory that is not just a job where you can go and you can obviously earn money, but also it is what I’m on this planet to do. And so, midwife means with woman, right? That’s the literal translation of the ancient English made with wife woman. 

And but it’s more than that. It’s more than just the translation of the ancient English. It’s also this philosophical underpinning of our profession whereby we’re called to build this relationship and this working alliance with women and their families in order to empower them to get what they want out of this most fundamental of human experiences, which is creating more humans, giving birth, right? So, and I walked into this space that grew me up really, really quickly and also showed me and I guess gave some direction to the strength that I knew that I had within me. And I knew I had the potential to access but didn’t know where to direct it. And, you know, now I’m really fortunate to have I’ve worked many, many years with women and their families to empower them to basically offer the emancipation of evidence, informed information, and facilitate them to make informed decisions that genuinely alter the trajectory of their own life patterns. Yeah? and that’s just one of the things that I that I love about midwifery is that we engage and we get invited into some really sacred places really, really quickly and really quick. And a really quick trust is built with these families and it’s really important that we do good things with this.  

And I think we see worldwide you know, there’s a reason why the World Health Organization says if you want to improve the outcomes of any community before you do anything else, give them a midwife. And it’s because of their ability, midwives’ ability to form this relational connection with humans and to genuinely seek to empower and improve the outcomes for those humans and their families. And the way that we make more humans, the way that we are pregnant and give birth is a fundamental human act. And doing that in a relational style rather than in this hierarchical, institutional, paternalistic model is an alternative that that midwifery offers. And I’m really, really lucky to have been part of many stories. You know, I remember being part of a story with a family who had chosen to migrate to Australia. Both of them were really accomplished professionals in their own country. Their qualifications weren’t recognised here in Australia. And so, they had to do jobs. In order to earn money that were not using their full potential. It’s very commonly held story for many migrants and they had a six year old son with them and they had moved for a better life for him. And here they were with this brand-new baby. And this baby was one day old. 

Another little boy that they had given birth to. And here was this Dad who was from a culture where he was never to hold the baby, a crying baby, never changed the nappy. Never do any of this stuff. And I was able to, in a space of six hours, was the time that I spent with them to just gently but also carefully show them that this was a new way that was required for them, that he was going to have to be brave and step into new spaces, that he and his wife would have to be challenged to do new things that culturally they wouldn’t have ever had to have done. And it wasn’t fair for them because they were entitled in their own culture to have so much extra help. And they didn’t have it here now, but to show them that if they were willing to be brave enough and turn to each other and support each other, that they could build this new way, this new life. And so in the same way that this couple were brave enough to move from their own country, choose a new life, and to leave secure professions and to come to a new country, that they could also use that bravery in this new parenting journey that was going to require new things for them and to step outside of what was culturally normal for them. 

And that’s just one example of the really important and profound spaces that we get invited to in into as midwives. And so, you know. Now I see and I recognize this telos, you know, this Greek philosophical construct of what it is I’m on this planet to do this midwifery business. I see it. And now I’m a midwifery lecturer. So, I grow midwives myself. And so, I make midwives that are enabled and charged with that call to not just be technically proficient practitioners, which they must be, but also to provide woman centered care that empowers women and their families in this life changing experience of becoming a parent. I also, you know, offer professional leadership, and I’m really fortunate to have the opportunity to give back from what I’ve been given by midwifery, to give back in the leadership that I offer. I’m the Vice President of the Australian College of Midwives. And so, I’m able to offer leadership and guidance at a governance level to lead our profession to ensure that we can continue to do these into the future, to offer this business of being with women and their families. 

And I see a sense of, you know, the stirring that happened in me that day when I had that conversation at the barbecue that, you know, I need more direction and this is going to spur me on. And, you know, other instances where you’ve experienced the obstacles that they can help to refine you, that can help to show where you’re meant to go. And I guess the stories, you don’t always have to know where you’re going to go. You will end up where you’re meant to be. And yeah, I’m, that’s why I do midwifery is that I get to be with women and empower them and their families every day. 

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