Indigenous Motherhood – Andrea Landry
This is the most personal blog post I have ever written.
It shares my experiences of losing my mother while becoming a mother. It shares my experiences of grief, postpartum depression, the mixture of both, the insanities I felt, and most importantly, the love I held onto despite it all.
It was during two transformative stages in a person’s life where kinship roles were expressed as complete devotion and a source of unrelenting love, support, and service.
The first one being during the critical times of postnatal and postpartum (I include both postnatal and postpartum to ensure an inclusivity of the needs of both the infant and the mother, as within indigenous kinship systems, the infants experience upon arrival is just as important as the woman’s experience of becoming a new mother) and the second one being when a loved one passed on and during the time of grief.
Historically, indigenous midwives and medicine women created a safe haven for baby and mama, each nation having different practices, which all consisted of the same outcomes. Feelings of safety, love, and protection for both infant and mother, as well as ensuring that rest and nutrition were primary in postnatal and postpartum care. This type of care included motherhood teachings before pregnancy occurred, and throughout the duration. It included warm medicinal teas and drinks. Medicines for the womb and the woman’s sacred area, in order for them to heal after childbirth. It included an extensive plan with tikinagan teachings and umbilical cord teachings. All of which led to a happy, rested, and prepared mother and infant.
I heard through my mother in law that there used to be women called “wailers” long ago. They were women who would attend funerals long ago, who weren’t related to the family, who would sob and cry during the funeral so that family would be open to that painful sobbing and also release as well. They would also take care of the family afterwards with meals and other things. They were the ones who provided a safe space of vulnerability and security during times of grief and heavy sorrow within families. They were the ones who aided families on their journeys of navigating through days of insurmountable grief.
Today, things have significantly shifted.
Primarily due to the attempted annihilation of kinship systems. But there are other reasons that people do not help, nor carry these very integral teachings, during these times as well.
It could be because the knowledge is hidden, and no one cares to ask the old ones anymore, rather depending on a medical system that forces indigenous women to birth indigenous babies in unnatural ways through unnatural means leading to unnatural births filled with trauma. It could be because people are carrying heavy loads of their own traumas, unable to do something as simple as cleaning a home for a new mother and new baby. It’s perhaps due to the consumerism/capitalistic life of having to have a job to pay bills and not being able to leave work to offer support, mind you it’s the support that new mothers and new infants so gravely need.
It’s also due to the fact that people often avoid difficult situations, like times of grief, in fear of their own traumas and grief being triggered. It’s the fact that many people do not want to do their own work around grief so being around someone who is grieving brings up all kinds of shit for them- so instead, they avoid, avoid, avoid. This leaves people who need so much support, alone to their own devices, navigating their way through grief with a limited, to no, support system.
These all in turn, leave new mamas, and those who are grieving, without a nation, a village, a family, or even a basic support system, to find their way through it all.
But, the answer most people will get when asking for help during postnatal and postpartum (and unraveling all parts of motherhood that comes with it,) and/or after losing a loved one is:
“Sorry I am busy.”
It’s such a simple phrase. But reading it or hearing it as a new mama, and even as a new infant (because yes, new infants begin to experience attachment right from the get go, and can pick up on which people will aid in their survival and development) can make things feel even more exhausting.
Reading, or hearing it, after losing someone you love, can be heartbreaking.
And reading, or hearing it, while experiencing both, on some days, can be completely life shattering.
Until you decide not to take it personal and pray to get through whatever it is you are going through, and let go of all expectations of others. But some days, that can feel too difficult.
My mother died from a brain aneurysm. It exploded and killed her within a few short hours in a small hospital with limited resources (because really, which hospitals near reserves can actually save lives in situations like that?) The last thing she said to me on the phone that evening, shortly after it burst, was “I’m throwing up, I’ll call you back.”
She never called back. I must have called her 100 times. And then the neurosurgeon called. He told me she was brain dead.
“I am not supposed to say my patients have 0% chance of survival, but I am going to say it now, your mother has a
0% chance of survival.
Just like that. She was gone. We held a celebration of life for her (no funeral, no burial, she never wanted any of that.) I guess that part worked out for me.
And I was heartbroken. I was 5 months pregnant. With her first grandbaby. When I told her I was pregnant three months previous she cried on the phone for 30 minutes straight. When she heard baby’s heartbeat when I was four months along during a Christmas visit, my doctor looked at me and said “your mother is the happiest I have ever seen anyone over a baby heartbeat!” I cried.
5 months pregnant, ready and excited to becoming a new mama, and all of sudden I had to grieve the loss my own mama. My best friend. My life maker. The love of my life.
During the birth, a very traumatic one filled with pain, turmoil, emergencies, and more, I yelled over and over again, in tears “I just want my mom!” I sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. My heart broke again, as reality set in.
I would never witness my mama being a nokamis.
I never wanted my mother so badly in my life until that moment. And she couldn’t be there.
Then, she came. Our daughter was born. Not breathing. But then she let out her cry a few moments later. And my heart healed for a while. Nothing else mattered but her. I had never felt so much love in my whole entire life. I sobbed, and sobbed, and sobbed.
We came home after four days. It was so challenging taking care of my own healing process and a new born, mind you my partner helped out lots.
But then came the weeks where he would leave for work.
And the grief and reality of not receiving the postnatal and postpartum, along with the grief support, we needed hit us hard.
The days on end of caring for a new infant, with a house that was a mess due to the fact that every waking second went to caring for the new baby, and the other seconds going to rest, and the inability to have the energy to cook nutritious meals that will help sustain myself and, in turn, the baby, really took a toll on me as a new mama.
One day I was standing in the kitchen getting a drink of water before taking a nap while my daughter napped, and a wave of nausea hit. Everything went black and I passed out. Luckily I caught myself, and luckily, my daughter was safe and wrapped, in our bed. I came to and forgot when I had last had a real meal. Being a new mama meant having no time to cook nutritious meals. And my body needed it. I laid on the kitchen floor and cried, wondering who I could ask for help. I felt so alone.
There were the days of no visitors, or the only 20 minute visitors. The days of no one coming to listen to you while you struggle with moments of new motherhood or grief, or both. No one to take the baby for 20 minutes so I could process the grief that was bubbling in my belly. I cried in front of my infant, but I feared my grief sobs would frighten her (or wake her, or even carry residue in my milk haha!) so I held those heavy sobs in until I had some time on my own. Which was rare as a breastfeeding mother. No one really told me “it must be really hard to be a new mom while you’re grieving. I love you. You are amazing.” And I sank into my grief.
There were the days of feeling like I to “hold it all together” because I was a strong, indigenous woman, rather than allowing myself to be vulnerable. It lead to to feelings of depression and all the terrible thoughts that come with it.
There were the days of having thoughts of leaving baby to cry in the other room, or even in the porch or car, while I just laid down and got a few moments of rest, just a few extra moments. The moments of ignoring everything else. Of sleeping for days on end. Even the thoughts of not waking up.
Then the guilt that came with that. It ate me up for even having those damn thoughts, for having the kind of thoughts you know women have during postpartum depression. But also feeling ok with it, knowing that these thoughts happen for a lot of new mamas. But then the whole process of knowing that new mamas rarely have the support or space to open up and communicate to one another about their experiences of post partum depression- the shame about it all is so thick and heavy.
Then came the sadness, because there was no support system to help me through it. No kinship systems to stabilize me, to reground and regroup me. There were no other mothers I could talk to who had lost a mother who would tell me “you will get through this, and in a year, everything will feel completely different.”
There were days of extreme exhaustion. Days of sick baby, sick mama, no sleep all night, but having to make sure I did my best to support sick baby and myself as a sick mama. The days where I wanted to scream “can I just nap for three hours straight please?!” But no one is around to listen. The solitude. One day I sent out some texts, seeing if anyone could give me support. My friends disappeared by then. I had my sisters but they were busy with work. “Hey.” I sent out. A few replied. But I didn’t have the courage to write “I think I need help.” Instead I kept conversations minimal. And once my baby slept. I sobbed.
There were days of having 20 mins to cry in the tub as baby napped on the bed. The days of making a post of “I miss my mama,” but really meaning “I need my mama here more that anything else in the world right now because I am having a damn hard time and she is the only one who will listen the way I want to be listened to.” Then baby wakes up crying to nurse. So you climb out of the tub, wrap yourself in a towel, tears still flowing as your milk flows, and promising your baby you will protect her from her grief as your heart cracks open again.
I often looked at the idea of what new motherhood is supposed to look like. The joy, the laughter, the fun. And yes! It existed, it was present throughout the day. But even during those days, the unshowered for three days, sad, lonesome, grieving, version of me, saw myself in the mirror, and thought “I need a shower, a hot meal, and a support system before I go crazy.”
Because sometimes when the baby would wake up every hour at night for two months straight I would cry in bed, rocking and nursing her back to sleep for the 1000th time craving a full nights rest.
And it seems the less sleep I got, the harder it was to deal with the grief. It became this ugly cycle of falling into this hole of grief and also trying my best to get sleep but I couldn’t, so I just remained in this hole of grief and sadness. Sometimes my brain would think “if I just stay sleeping and never wake up then I will finally feel rested.” It can happen when you’re not even a new mama. It can happen when you’re simply grieving. Because when you’re grieving- you need your sleep.
The idea of how a support system was to look during grief and/or new motherhood was filled with people coming to the door with home cooked meals, visits when you needed/wanted, someone taking care of all the things you want taken care of but can’t because you’re so damn exhausted, people to say to you “you’re doing a really good job right now.”
But it rarely happened.
I remember my partner would tell me “you’re doing great babe.” My loving, incredible, hardworking partner would tell me that every chance he could, and it would make me cry. Hearing that would wash away my feelings of insanity. He was, and continues to be, my strongest support system. Because even while away at work, he did his absolute best. And he did a damn good job.
It wasn’t up to him to “cure me” or “fix me” or “make me feel better.” That was all 100% my own responsibility. His support was the stepping stone that lead to me realizing that I am in charge of my own emotions, feelings, grief work, and working through what appeared to be post-partum depression. It could have just been the grief too though. Or both.
There were some days, I just wanted my mama to tell me she loved me. To hear her voice say that to me would have changed everything, so I thought. My body physically craved her touch.
Isn’t it crazy how grief does that? How strongly the body craves a person’s touch when they pass on. It’s like this physical feeling in the skin.
The hardest part though? Was reliving my mother’s death in my head over and over again. From hearing her last words, to all the what if’s, the “if only I had lived with her then I would have been able to help to,” to the “I should have told her I loved her more.” Those words in my head often made me feel like I was going to go over the edge.
But the truth always existed.
And the funny thing about truth is that the truth will always keep you going, even during the most difficult times of your life. The truth kept me going when my mama used to abuse us as kids. The truth kept me going when I was raped. The truth kept me going when I decided to get sober and get healthy.
The truth kept me going when I lost my mama when I was becoming a new mama.
It was the small moments with the truth of love. The collection of all the small moments with every ounce of love that I had within me, that pushed me through the awful feelings of depression and sadness and craziness during the times of postnatal, postpartum, grief.
In moments of caring for a new infant, with a house that is a mess due to the fact that every waking second goes to caring for the new baby was when the isolation would shift. It was the moments of cuddling this tiny human who relied on me for survival with every ounce of her being. It was the moments of falling into, and becoming, the deep, unfathomable love I had for her. It was in the moments of witnessing that love fill up our home as I held her in my arms.
It was in the days of no visitors, or the only 20 minute visitors, the days of heartbreaking grief and trying to keep it together so I can take care of a baby, that I gained this superhuman strength to keep on going, to follow the love, to give it my all. It was in that new baby smell, the cuddles. Even the cries.
In the days of having thoughts of leaving baby to cry in the other room, or even in the porch or car, it was the moments of crying through the pain, of feeling my grief until it felt like my insides were going to collapse, where the stamina to keep going was once again uncovered, and with eyes sore from tears, I would continue on, caring for my girl.
The guilt that came with the bad thoughts? The guilt that ate me up for even having those damn thoughts? They would dissolve as soon as I remembered the tools I could use to work through the traumas holding me back from doing the best that I could. And the gratitude for having these tools worked it’s way into my tired body, giving me the strength to let go of the guilt instead focus on all that I did do for my mother, all that I did for myself, and all that I continue to do for my daughter.
The sadness because there was no support system to help me through it? It made me focus on the power of choice. I had a choice to be a victim in my circumstance, a victim to grief, a victim to motherhood even, or I had a choice to be more than that. I had a choice to be the love of all the matriarchs and medicine women and mothers who struggled before me, and those who struggled after me. I chose the love. And I chose to see that sometimes a support system can be small, and sometimes all we can do is work with what we have. And with that I chose gratitude for what I was receiving.
The days of extreme exhaustion were the days I breathed through, focusing on literally a breath at a time. They were the days that I didn’t think I would make it through. Including the nights, because we all know mamas don’t get to rest at night. And each time I awoke to nurse my baby, I would breathe. Again, and again, and again. And talk to my mama in whispers “please help me.”
The days of having 20 mins to cry in the tub as baby napped on the bed made all the difference in the hours that I felt like I would give up. Because I know that releasing that grief is everything. It is what kept me, and continues to keep me, sane. It is what protected me from falling into a bottomless pit that has no way out. Instead it gave me the ladders I needed in those days to climb out, with my baby latched on, and to sing the songs my mama taught me.
The days and weeks and months that really tested my resiliency and strength, allowed me to prove to myself that although I did get stuck in victimhood some days, although I felt like I was going crazy some weeks, and although I did feel like I was falling deeper and deeper into a bottomless pit for months, it was the truth, love, and letting go that ultimately got me through it all. It was accepting that I was struggling. It was saying it out loud “I am struggling and I am scared,” even if it meant saying it out loud to my mama who wasn’t even there.
And it was also focusing on the balance of all of the beauty in motherhood, of the love embedded and intertwined within the extreme heartbreak in grief. The days on end of baby giggles and breastfeeding, the cuddles, the small clothes, the soft snores beside me, the smell, that baby smell. It was in remembering my mama’s laughter, her smile, her sense of humor. It was in remembering her and imagining how she would have been as a nokamis. It was in smelling her clothes I kept in a bag in my drawer.
It was in the love, the joy, the forgiveness, the bliss, the courage, the strength, the resiliency.
It was with a knowing that if millions of mothers all over the world could do, then I could do it too.
And ultimately, it was with the knowing that I could do anything in life, no matter how damn hard it was.
Because that is exactly how my mama raised me.
And that is how I will raise my daughter.
Andrea Landry is Anishinaabe from Pawgwasheeng (Pays Plat First Nation) but currently resides on Treaty Six territory in Poundmaker Cree Nation. She holds a Masters in Communications and Social Justice from the University of Windsor. She teaches Indigenous Studies and for the University of Saskatchewan, and formerly was heavily engaged with international Indigenous politics at the UN level, travelling the globe to find justice in community level issues. Yet her real passion lies in her work in the areas of grief and recovery, suicide prevention, family systems, and community healing. Her life right now is focused on the path of motherhood and healthy parenting as she raises her new baby, River-Jaxsen, alongside her partner. She is also available for speaking engagements and for workshops on a variety of topics for young people and adults.
Andrea Landry believes that the route to healing from colonialism comes from the heart work that most people avoid in our communities and through how one chooses to raise their children. Through forgiveness, overcoming colonial systems being seen as a means for solutions, and prioritizing indigenous ways of being over colonial ways of being, Andrea believes our communities can become as healthy as they were prior to colonization. For our nations to thrive, we must thrive as parents, families, and communities.