My name is Natarsha Napanagka Bamblett; Napanagka is my skin name connected to my Walpiri tribe, as my grandmother was born in Tennant Creek, a part of the Walpiri nation. She was a part of the stolen generation, so that’s why we’ve been integrated down here in Victoria. I also have Yorta Yorta heritage (I was born and raised on Yorta Yorta country in Shepperton), as well as Wiradjuri and Kurnai.
I’ve got Scottish lines in my ancestry, from my grandfather. My kids have different cultures also in the mix: my first son has Italian and my second son has Lebanese. So we’ve got a bit of a cultural fusion in the family that makes us as diverse as our own identity.
A child raising a child
I was a teenager when I had my first son; my partner at the time was younger than me. I was still living under my parents’ roof. This huge life event took place and instantly granted me this responsibility, this expectation of maturity and that I should somehow just know what I’m doing. And then on the other hand, medical professionals were saying, ‘what do you know? You know nothing.’ So I was really hard on myself for not knowing, trying to live up to their expectation, having this feeling of, ‘maybe I’m not good enough, maybe I’m not capable, maybe I don’t know what is required.’ And then society’s expectation of, ‘oh you’re okay you’re a mum, you should just know’ – and they just leave you. I was a child raising a child. It was a really confusing part of my life.
I was so disconnected from my body. I had been diagnosed with gestational diabetes at 5 weeks, so at 35 weeks they said I had to go back for an extra glucose test, because a scan had picked up that my son’s tummy was measuring bigger and they were concerned about it. But I had a different person doing the scan every week, a different doctor, a different midwife or nurse, and there was a lack of communication between the people I saw. I was constantly explaining myself – it started to feel like I was not just explaining, but having to prove that I could make decisions for myself.
I was induced, they put me on a drip three times, they did every intervention, inserted a catheter, the balloon, the sweeps, they broke my waters and had me on a variety of medications. I did the maximum of everything. After 14 hours labour, a doctor made the decision to get the baby out, using forceps, because meconium was present. But after having an epidural (that didn’t work until the third time), they changed their mind to an emergency caesarean. So within 20 minutes he was out and that was it. I remember waking up with about 7 or 8 people at the end of my bed. There was nothing natural about it, and that was the hardest thing for me to process over the years, that it was so forced, and I didn’t feel empowered in that situation. I had no idea what was going on with my body. I couldn’t make an informed decision in my portal of birthing; I wasn’t even asked, I was told. The whole thing was a blur. For a long time I carried this guilt like I’d failed. And that filters into the way we show up as parents.
There was a lot of disconnection in people communicating with me. I remember feeling completely depleted and exhausted, and so afraid of doing something wrong in the eyes of somebody in the healthcare system (a nurse, a doctor) that would lead to a concern of welfare, that my child could be removed – like my grandmother was removed, only two generations before me. That was something I’d carried my whole pregnancy, a feeling of dispossession that was real, and I didn’t even trust myself to have my child in my care. As I tried to get my first night of rest after that long labour and birth, I’d asked the nurse – not any nurse; a nurse of colour, another brown woman who I felt safe enough with – I said, ‘Can you watch my baby while I get the first few hours of sleep and ready for his first feed?’ I didn’t want to do anything wrong. But everything that happened made me feel that I was wrong.
Kids teach you a lot about yourself. Over the past eight years of parenting my first son, I’ve had time to really feel into what I wanted this time around, and how I wanted it to be different. I got to choose that experience for me this time, even though it turned out different to my original plan.
Older and wiser
I was a lot more prepared even before we conceived my second child. I consciously made the decision to have a baby and I had power in that. I was mentally and emotionally in a position to say, ‘this is what I want, and when it happens, I’m ready for that.’ We conceived at a beautiful time for both of us; this is my partner’s first child, and even being with a partner in a matured relationship was so empowering. Right from the get-go I knew what I wanted and what I didn’t want. I didn’t want to be handled between different people every check-up; I wanted continuity of care. I paid private midwives and I planned to have a home birth (because of the experience I had last time birthing in the system) and I had lots of cultural elements and ceremonies set in place.
I went in for a scan at 41 weeks and two days, and my midwife found that my baby was in breech position – but she shared with me the options, and was supportive throughout the whole process. Even though I was emotional (I had just felt something was going to be different), it makes me happy knowing that my intuition was right, that I was in tune with my baby and my body. I was just a little saddened that I was going to have this experience in the system again. I knew I carried a lot of fear; that was the emotion that came through when I first found out.
I had to make the decision that day. Within hours they put me in to get a full scan. I was still seeing the same people that I’d been seeing from the beginning. I got given all the relevant information and assured that ‘this is your choice. Whatever you choose, we support you.’ They outlined all the possibilities and potential complications, so I was able to sit with all this information and make the informed decision, with my partner, to have a caesarean delivery.
I had conversations with the midwife about the cultural elements I had planned for a home birth; she said, ‘Bring in all that you want to make you feel supported.’ The biggest thing for me was the coolamon, so I brought in a coolamon with possum skin that I had been given. There was communication between the night midwife to the staff doing the morning shift that this was how I wanted to have it, and when we got into the room after me being stitched up, the coolamon was there. After my baby was born, he went with my partner (and the midwife who was with the baby the whole time) where my partner did skin-to-skin, then into the coolamon – and he spent the first two weeks of his life in it. The midwives advocated very strongly for me; people were listening to me.
I had a really empowering experience and for me it was one that I needed. I had the confidence to ask questions that I didn’t ask with my first child. It was healing to my fears; to those judgments that I placed on myself, and how medical staff saw me in the system. It was really nice to know that I was heard, I was seen, I was respected and supported. There’s still more healing to do from it, and I hope my future births will continue to heal those things.
Acknowledging and overcoming unconscious bias
Being a teenage black woman, as sad as it is to say, I was seen as the most disadvantaged person in the country. If a person in the system, who has the power to impact my life – in medical care in particular – if they have this view of me, how are they going to treat me? And where does that leave my children? In my experience, there was hostility, there was judgement, there was stereotyping and stigmas like, ‘Do you know the dad? Are you with the dad?’ Assumptions around how I became pregnant, that I use substances, that I drink, that I smoke – it wasn’t if I did; it was how much? When I went to the doctors to confirm my pregnancy, assumptions were made: ‘here’s the brochures for your options on termination.’ When you are viewed – and constantly reminded that you’re viewed – by society through this lens, you can only imagine what picture that paints when you look at yourself in the mirror, and what you believe of yourself.
Unfortunately, that is in great part due to the past 230 years of government policies, and how First Nations people are portrayed by the media. There is a lack of understanding that where a lot of Indigenous people are today is because of the traumatic impacts of colonisation. That lack of understanding creates ignorance in people – they aren’t even aware of their unconscious bias.
This is what’s led me to the work I do with my business, Queen Acknowledgements: people aren’t even aware that they have these stereotypes imprinted on them from something they’ve seen, something they’ve heard, that becomes a part of how they interact in every future situation. So instead of wronging them and shaming them for it, I’m there to educate and show people, 1) how they’re doing things: the conditioning they already have, and 2) how we can change it moving forward. We all have a responsibility. You don’t have to apologise. You don’t have to feel shameful (if you do then that’s okay too), but I’m not here to hold you accountable for somebody else’s actions, a particular history of past generations. But we do have a responsibility for how we show up today, to change what’s being done moving forward.
Often, non-Indigenous people are nervous about saying something wrong, offending someone, and I think the worst thing to do is to not say anything at all. Holding compassion for yourself and others when we get it wrong, that’s what’s missing. Understand that we are all human and we share the human experience of making mistakes, feeling embarrassed.
I come from a culture where women are the glue, the rocks; there’s no hierarchy and patriarchy; we’re so much more respected, and the respect goes all ways. I think we’ve lost the true meaning of respect in the translation of what that word is: respect is ‘re’ meaning ‘again’, and ‘spect’ – seeing. It’s to see someone again and again. We think that respect is earned and there’s a power to it. With Indigenous people, we didn’t even have ‘please and thank you’ in our vocabulary. As we shared, we gave, we received, without any expectation of it meaning anything, or holding a power of ‘I’ve got one over you’, or then I owe you, I need to pay back. Everything was ours to share, was ours to give – so respect is that we get to see and give and do this time and time again.
The power of Country
When I was pregnant with my second son, I went up to Yolngu country, where the Garma festival is held at Gulkula [a sacred ceremonial site]. We were adopted into the family, the kinship there and they shared a little bit with me about birthing, which is very sacred women’s business and ceremony. As I was leaving they said, ‘you need to come back home, to bring this baby back to this Country.’ There they would do a traditional smoking ceremony with the child, where they use smoke to cleanse the baby’s energy and any of the trauma associated with birthing. These are some of the practises that are used, and have been used for thousands of generations of women birthing babies – traditional ways and medicines, and the earth, the Country being part of the healing process.
My Wawa taught me that how they know the turtles are ready to lay their eggs was by the inland trees: these trees are 10–20 metres tall, really thin, and when they blossom a flower right on top of the tree, that gives the sign that the turtles are coming in to shore to lay their eggs, and they have this small window of time where they can go and collect them. Everything is speaking and communicating with each other, if you can listen, not just with your ears, but your whole self. This is why Indigenous people have survived for so long; we know how to care for the land because we watched Mother Nature care for itself. We practise imitating it, with the animals, singing to it, deep listening. If you want to learn how to deep listen, go and sit on the Country. Because it doesn’t speak to you in the way you want or expect communication to be – it speaks in a different way and you have to listen. You have to be in stillness for it to move you. That’s the culture of where I come from.
I was gifted some traditional medicinal balm from up Yolngu country to use on my baby and myself; they go out and collect the leaf fresh on the day, it’s not something that you can store (like how we create things that have a long shelf life). That is the beauty of being on Country because you’re on the Country’s time. Everything has a time and a process, and that creates the patience of life and death, the cycles of it. Your pregnancy has its own season: when women find out they’re pregnant, they go and connect to the earth at this time and they’ll get what they need, whether it’s medicines that they make for when the baby’s here, or they collect and make a coolamon for when they are ready to carry the baby, food, water.
The power of being on Country, of birthing on Country, can be incredibly significant. It can be supportive and healing; it can take away a lot of the complications of birth and the aftermath. When we’re not born in that environment, for some, it takes a lifetime for us to regain that connection. And that’s where a lot of health problems and poor decisions start: the individual trying to seek that understanding and connection with their Aboriginal identity, when they can be so far from Country, place, culture, language, history, family. It’s the most incredible trauma, and unfortunately we’re still not doing the preventative work [to allow this cultural connection]. I’ve seen first-hand what the trauma of that impact does to the individual and how it affects others around them. I’ve seen it kill people.
Think of our body as the body of a river – if it’s not flowing, if it’s not connected, it’s blocked, then we have complications and so much medical intervention. It’s because of the interferences along the way before we even get there. But I have such hope and faith in the oldest living culture in the world. I have hope in the knowledge that still is being shared and revitalised, the language and the ways that are being taught, the continuing of the culture.
A dream would be to birth on Country. And that’s not just a dream for me, that’s for the entire Victorian state and system: to come together to support Indigenous women to birth on their Country. Having the facilities and resources so women can do this their way. To take the technology, the research and combine it with the proven ways of tradition and the resources that our Country holds, to see Western medicine and traditional Indigenous medicine come together to complement one another, and bring Aboriginal ways of birthing into the lives of all birthing women, to experience that love, support and nurture.
A message for women’s health professionals
I would say the most powerful thing that you can do is create a connection. Get to know your patient; get to know your doctor. The best way to support is to ask, and the best way to get supported is to ask. This is the way forward: not to assume, but to ask. When you ask, it gives the person the power to feel informed, to make the decisions, and to give them the control of their experience, regardless of how it turns out.
I understand that we are, as First Nations people, lacking representation on both sides [patients and doctors]. We need to see more Indigenous voices and faces, to feel safe and heard and advocated for.
As a doctor you’re there to guide us. You’re there to share what you know and support in that medical space, so that the person has as supportive an experience as possible, however the birth goes. Support the desires of the woman, what they want for themselves and for their baby. I believe the way the mother will bond with the baby begins with the birthing experience, and if they feel held and supported, they’re going to feel empowered to hold and support their baby.
In this way, you hold and support the future of whole First Nations communities.
As well as growing her business, Queen Acknowledgements, to work more closely with and advocate for birthing mothers, Nartarsha is also filming a documentary of her family’s journey as they travel with her grandmother from the place she was raised, back to the Tennant Creek home she was stolen from. To find out more about this project and contribute to the crowd-funding campaign, visit Funding Napurrula’s Homecoming on GoFundMe.
Follow Queen Acknowledgements on:
- Website: www.queenacknowledgements.com/
- Instagram: www.instagram.com/queenacknowledgements/
- Facebook: www.facebook.com/queenacknowledgements/
O&G Magazine thanks Mieka Vigilante (RANZCOG Publications and Media team) for conducting this interview and writing the article.
Our feature articles represent the views of our authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG), who publish O&G Magazine. While we make every effort to ensure that the information we share is accurate, we welcome any comments, suggestions or correction of errors in our comments section below, or by emailing the editor at [email protected]. Those pictured have provided consent for their name and image to be included.