I said ‘I’m in labour’ but no one listened

19 Oct 2018

As a lead on the Birthing on Country Project, I have a chance to ensure no woman experiences what I endured.

I said ‘I’m in labour’ but no one listened.

“I don’t want to think I was harmed because I was an angry, black woman who refused to comply with the experts”

As a midwife I see myself as a voice for vulnerable women during childbirth, pregnancy, and motherhood. With all the uncertainty and unknowing women are led to believe health professionals are the experts. To some extent we are – as midwives we have studied the mechanisms of pregnancy on a woman’s body, tracking the changes and effects through stages of pregnancy and birth.

Becoming a mother myself, I looked to the experts for advice. Today I ask myself: In my birth experience, where was my voice? I don’t like thinking that racism exists, or that it affects women in healthcare at an important stage of their life. A series of events has showed me first-hand that it does.

I had witnessed racism against Aboriginal women in the corridors of the hospital I was doing a placement as a student. It was subtle things, comments and actions that non-Aboriginal people wouldn’t react to. A complaint to my university from a hospital educator that I “only wanted to look after Aboriginal women” was embarrassing and confusing, so much so that it forced me to large tertiary hospitals to complete my placement.

I said “I’m in labour” but no one was listening. A hospital rep told me that “because we weren’t sure of your dates and whether we would have to resuscitate your baby”, they ignored my cries for pain relief, with no acknowledgment I was labouring. I knew I was, because I had lost a baby at 13 weeks. This was no different. I had suffered immense pain and passed my tiny baby on the toilet. I knew in my head it was happening again.

The refusal to believe a woman’s situation. Is that racism?

At no time did I feel safe. There was a complete feeling that what I was experiencing was not real or as severe as what I made out, when really it felt as if I was going to die.

The hardest thing for me was the emotional scars suffered by my partner, as he stood near the window and witnessed every action but couldn’t find the strength to speak. I was grateful for him not saying anything. I knew he would be branded “a problem” or “aggressive” as an Aboriginal man.


I screamed at them in frustration, begging for pain relief. Eventually I was allowed to take nitrous oxide. It didn’t help. I firmly said, “I have pain, when it’s gone then you can touch me”. I was very strong in knowing this was my body. I would be examined when I chose to be and without pain. I was my own midwife, my own voice.

The doctor told me “I don’t think you have pain, I can’t feel anything” as the nitrous mouthpiece was being ripped from my mouth and pushed away, a metre out of my reach. I will never forget the words of the doctor after I pushed her hand away, “put that in her notes, refusal to be examined”.

As I begged the midwife for a drink of water, she remarked on several occasions “say please … say thank you”. Women who have given birth would know, the last thing you remember to do in labour is use manners. But there was no consolation or reassurance for me. I accepted this care and this attitude because I was vulnerable.

A midwife is a “professional who works in partnership with women to give the necessary support, care and advice during pregnancy, labour …”. This midwife’s attitude towards me was as if I were inhuman.

She knew that I was a midwife, an English speaking, university educated Aboriginal woman, yet I was victimised. If this can happen to me, imagine the situation for those Aboriginal women without support, English as a second and third language, sitting in a white-walled room, thousands of kilometres away from community, culture, and strong birthing knowledge.

It was only when my white friend arrived to support me that things started to turn. She was my midwife when I felt the hospital midwife never really cared.

It’s not enough that Indigenous mothers are dying from pregnancy and childbirth complications twice the rate than that of non-Indigenous women. We also have to belittle and misconstrue their concern, pain and worry.

As a lead on the Birthing on Country Project, I have a chance to ensure no woman experiences what I endured. My aim is to ensure culturally safe and appropriate care to all Aboriginal women. To enforce change we need Aboriginal communities governing, working collaboratively with health services; legislative change and ongoing funding to develop Birthing on Country models from the ground up. We need programs initiated by us. A systematic change to maternity care is coming, being led by strong Aboriginal women’s voices, the way it’s intended to be. Why shouldn’t we have a right to say what happens to our bodies?

This article is dedicated to Senna Bartlett.

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month.

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