Real Life

Midwife Aroha Harris-Tutaki calls for more Māori midwives

The maternity carer wants more pregnant mums to have the traditional Māori birth experience
Midwife Aroha Harris-Tutaki smilingPhotos: Kellie Blizard

She’s been present at hundreds of births, but the first time Māori midwife Aroha Harris-Tutaki witnessed a wahine in labour, she was 15 years old. It was her friend’s sister and as a teenager, she was in awe.

“I remember feeling amazed by the strength of this māmā,” she recalls. “When you’re in the realm of someone bringing forth life, it’s pretty amazing.” 

Inspired by the experience, Aroha considered a career as a midwife. However, a careers advisor swiftly told her that she didn’t have enough life experience.

After her grandfather, who had raised her, died when Aroha was aged 10, she struggled with mainstream education and left school five years later.

“I knocked on what was then Māori Affairs door and asked them to help me become something. One of the options was hairdressing. I ended up working in that career for 27 years,” says Aroha, 49. She then went on to own her own salon for 11 years.

But through almost three decades of a busy career and having two children, Bronson, now 28, and Jada, 24, the pull to become a midwife never fully left.

With husband Rob and their kids (from left) Bronson, Jada and Milan.

Little did she know, but it would be a surprise third pregnancy which empowered her to follow her initial intuition. 11 years after her second child was born, she welcomed baby Milan.

“It was a real blessing being pregnant with my baby Milan [now 12]. It reminded me, ‘You once wanted to be a midwife.’ I went home, announced to my hoa rangatira [partner] Rob that I was hapū [pregnant], and was selling the salon and wanted to go and get this degree.

“After 27 years out of education and dropping out of school, it was pretty scary. But I’ve always been determined and where there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Aroha has now been a lead maternity carer – “we call ourselves kahu pōkai, a Māori word for midwife” – for seven years and is the only provider in all of South Auckland offering kaupapa Māori midwifery care specifically steeped in tikanga (customs and cultural practices).

“I always aim to lead with tikanga and aroha [love] first,” she explains. “So if it’s an initial meeting, rather than straight into ‘height, weight and do you smoke?’, it’s about whakawhanaungatanga [Māori process of establishing relationships through ancestry] and connecting.

“It’s really important because we’re going to start a long journey together. I’m there to serve them and I’m absolutely so honoured to be with them as they bring forth their whakapapa [family lineage].”

Before welcoming new bubs into the world, Aroha was juggling a young family and hairdressing.

While Aroha herself had positive pregnancies and birth experiences, she didn’t know of any Māori midwives at that time or even that it was an option.

So when she was recently asked to be a producer for a new documentary, It Takes a Kāinga, she was honoured to accept. The doco explores pregnancy, birth, postpartum and mental health during this time specifically through a Māori lens.

“People often don’t realise the leading cause of maternal death is suicide. We [Māori] represent too much of that,” says Aroha.

According to the 2021 report from the Perinatal and Maternal Mortality Review Committee, wāhine Māori are 3.35 times more likely to die by suicide.

It’s a heartbreaking statistic, but Aroha insists there’s real hope when you empower Māori in reclaiming traditional birth practices. It Takes a Kāinga highlights this.

“When people arrive to me for the first time, they generally come pretty timid. I love seeing our whānau slowly rise into their mana,” she says.

“A big focus and passion for me is our tāne [men]. Over time, they’ve been somewhat removed and arrive like a spectator bringing their partner to an appointment. But the important role they play is so special. I love talking to pāpā about his hands being the first on his pēpi [baby], his face and voice the first for pēpi to see and hear.

“It shouldn’t be my hands or anyone else except whānau on their pēpi. Unless, of course, I need to step in and that’s where my training kicks in. I’m there to guide and keep them safe.”

Looking to the future, Aroha dreams of Māori birth practises becoming more normalised and accessible. She would also love to encourage more youth to pursue a calling into midwifery, making it more sustainable for all.

“I can imagine doing this forever. However, I’m the only one providing kaupapa Māori care for all of South Auckland. If I break a leg, I can’t do it,” she says.

“We need to create more āhuru mōwai [safe havens], grow the Māori midwifery workforce. Then, we can provide more spaces that include our tāne from the get-go to create a community for our whanau.”

It Takes a Kāinga is available now on YouTube.

Read about Seven Sharp reporter Te Rauhiringa’s beautiful birth carefully planned to honour Māori tradition.

Help is here

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO).

Always call 111 in an emergency.

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