September 20, 2022. It’s my father’s seventy-ninth birthday. I’m in a work meeting when my sister phones, panicking because Mum is struggling to breathe. Faced with crisis, we forget about our father; quite quickly, in fact. After all, he’d died in June 2005 and he didn’t need us that day.
Mum was eventually taken to Christchurch Hospital’s emergency department. When I got there that evening she seemed well. Her speech was a bit slurred but she was awake, alert, and talking. The plan was to move her into a ward that evening, which is where we expected to see her the next morning, but on arrival we found her surrounded by medical staff who advised us she was to be transferred to ICU immediately, and that the worst case scenario was palliative care. Mum wasn’t willing to accept that. Thanks to her stubbornness and the expert care of ICU staff, Mum was transferred to a ward a few days later and about a week after her admission she was able to return home.
Existing on the precipice of loss, even if it was just for a few days, forces you to reflect on what matters. Kia ora Whaea has encouraged me, at a critical juncture in my mother’s life, to reflect more deeply on her experience of motherhood. For us, Mum is our key to the past; to stories about people long dead and much missed. Losing her would be like not knowing ourselves anymore.
In 2019, I wrote about my grandmother’s life for a collection of essays called Past Caring? Women, Work and Emotion, which I also co-edited. I didn’t know my grandmother, Ngaire. She died aged forty-eight, when my mother was fourteen years old. I only know Ngaire—her feelings, emotions, and habits—through my mother’s stories, whose own memories are based on the short time she had with her. In that short essay I also touched on my mother’s care work, particularly her amazing knitted creations; a skill she learnt from Ngaire. This lineage of care, centred on skilled work undertaken between the other demands of motherhood, is often invisible in our histories.
Kia ora Whaea makes visible the physical burden of care, as well as its joys, the messiness of motherhood, and the deep emotions it evokes. It also trains attention on the experience of maternal mental health, something we touched on only lightly in Past Caring? Collectively, the artworks ask critical and highly relevant questions about the impact of colonialism on intergenerational knowledge about Māori birthing practices, support systems, and maternal health.
In recent decades, mental health has been more openly discussed. Shame and the stigma associated with institutionalisation, which itself has a long, fraught, and highly problematic history in this country, made motherhood and mental health a closed subject. Families lived with its consequences in silence. Ours was one of those families.
One of my most vivid childhood memories is from when I was about six years old. I remember a lot of people at our house and going to a hospital. At the hospital, Mum looked frightened and she kept asking if she would be safe. In my memory, going from the house to the hospital took a matter of moments, but in reality it probably took most of the day.
Mum seemed to be in hospital for months. Dad had to work, so we were looked after by our aunts. They took turns coming to the house to care for us, bringing their own children with them. I can’t imagine the extra burden that placed on them and I know my father was grateful for the help. Eventually Mum came home, bringing with her some heavy-duty medication and a diagnosis of postnatal psychosis. Her mental health remained fragile and there were more hospital admissions to come. Her experience of motherhood was deeply entwined with mental health and it shaped the rhythm of life at home: routine was important, for instance, giving her certainty, stability, and a sense of comfort.
Sharing stories about motherhood and mental health helps to lift a veil of secrecy and shame. Kia ora Whaea points out that colonialism remains one of the unspoken dimensions of Māori maternal mental health. Colonialism has disconnected people from land and identity. As Caitlin Rose Donnelly points out, mātauranga around pregnancy and birthing has been eroded as a result of colonialism. Reconnecting to language, traditional knowledge, and practices may, therefore, help reduce the experience of postnatal depression amongst Māori wahine.
Kia ora Whaea is, therefore, about mana wāhine. Like the pioneering Māori anthropologist, Mākereti Papakura, this collaboration reminds us of the inherent mana of women as life-givers and world creators.1
Nā Angela Wanhalla (Ngāi Te Ruahikihiki, Ngāi Tahu, Pākehā)