By Maakarita Paku
Tis the season of the mists
kinikini mai i tōku kiri
prickling my skin
Hoki mai Kohurangi e
Welcome back oh Misty maiden
Tihia ō matimati ki ōku makawe
Rustle your fingers through my hair
kei whiriwhiri ōku whenu
so that each strand may be woven together
Ko te aho tapu ahau
I am the sacred thread
Umbilicus of Mother’s essence, Father’s essence
Te pito o te whenua
of the solar plexus, the centre of the universe
Ko Tuangahuru e
I am the harvest
Nō waku tūpuna, nō waku tūpuna
brought forth by my ancestors
The intention of writing about materoto (miscarriage) is to encourage women towards processes relevant to them that aid in coping with the trauma of this type of loss and the associated issues around their well-being. For Māori women who are not familiar with tikanga or its place in their own circumstances of materoto, the most valuable and appropriate resources are within our whanau, and I encourage you all to seek out that knowledge the best way you can. Death is as sacred as birth and in this context is why materoto has a special place of treatment in Māori society. Like the passage of birth, the return of whenua (placenta) and pito (umbilical cord), we acknowledge the passage of death as part of the cycles of our creation according to the stories handed down by our ancestors. Some of this knowledge comes from our oral histories, performing arts, traditional and contemporary visual arts. Not often spoken about in an open way nor willingly, we are not commonly taught about materoto the way it used to be. The legal definitions prescribed as to what validates a real, live foetus prior to 20 weeks is insensitive from a Māori cultural perspective. This type of attitude is intrusive western ideology.
Due to the gestational duration of the pregnancy especially in the first trimester, it can be an awkward subject that both conflicts with beliefs, value systems and views that vary widely from gender to gender amongst diverse communities. In recent years I advocated for a woman in her workplace who was given the run around because her ‘miscarriage’ was NOT considered a bereavement. He was trying to justify what a human foetus isn’t to a bunch of women who within our quorum have birthed 24 children. I challenged the male supervisor arguing the inhumane and cultural insensitivity of his actions to deny her bereavement leave. He backed down very quickly, swallowing his words with embarrassment. Cultural safety across all communities still has a lot of growing to do.
For some women a pregnancy that hasn’t progressed past the first trimester can occur without any medical complications. For others it is a very difficult experience to come to terms with for varying reasons. Short and long term outcomes are dependent on the support women have access to, where we may otherwise become isolated and vulnerable. However, from a Māori view, one important aspect of our well-being is identity, inherent to our existence and expressed through whakapapa (genealogy). The traditional knowledge base of where our histories of the past and present form, are crucial to the strength of our children and their future generations.
Focus for many whānau (family), hapū (family groups) and iwi (tribal affiliations) of the 21st century is in nurturing the emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual well-being of our people where we are working at rectifying the daunting mortality rates of each generation that has been in decline since first contact. The tikanga (protocols/customs) we follow and reclaim are the frameworks and tools that assist us. For example, tikanga beholden to whānau and hapū, where some still follow their own traditions ensuring safe closure for the mother, her child and whānau because of materoto. Tikanga is often conducted before, during and/or after hospitalisation, in the home or elsewhere. Sometimes lead by an elder, close member of the whānau such as a parent or sibling. In my own situation, women I am close to hold a sacred space for me until my mother (a retired midwife) arrived to guide me through the journey and tangihanga (funeral). For our little whānau and especially our young sons at the time, it was a new and unique experience of understanding where their roles in upholding tikanga materoto are now instilled in them. They were 5 and 4 then. Even today they recall their memories of the days that followed as whānau pani (grieving family).
Rituals such as incantations, songs and blessings allow for the processes of grieving, healing, and renewal to strengthen the woman and her whānau. In my own experience, the tikanga taught by my whānau during this time equipped me with a positive outlook and preparation guidelines to accept that in due course, conceiving another child would be a natural process. It didn’t involve superstition of any sort, rather a period of internalisation, a resting time to commune.
There are similar routines and practices that we can adapt to with materoto in our recovery as we do in pregnancy through to the third trimester. Some are just acts of common sense or of a more ceremonial nature. Paying attention to the intake of various traditional foods, vitamins, and medicines along with being active where appropriate and gradually increasing mobility, restores and rebuilds the whole being of the mother.
Forms of mirimiri, romiromi and penapena (massage techniques) are some of the ancient forms of medicine, specific knowledge keepers around the Pacific region are expert at in administering in the treatment of materoto.
Unfortunately, these days access to pure grown traditional food is not as available as it used to be. With the impact of pollution, climate change and the introduction of processed food over generations, the natural nutrition we would usually consume is very expensive and many women rely on the hospitality provided by hunting gathering whānau members. There is no guarantee now that the seafood we eat is infection free and pregnant or lactating women are strongly advised to refrain from consumption. In at least the last 20 years introduced bacteria’s and viruses infect our food or the environments they are grown or stored in, affecting our ability to protect and nourish our immunity systems in the consumption of kaimoana (seafood). For example, my great great grandmothers of Manawatāwhi (Three King’s Islands) of The Far North only ever ate raw food throughout their lifetime consisting of seafood, sea birds and plant life. These foods weren’t just delicacies but necessary for the growth and development of an unborn child. Because of their diet, their immunity was very strong and robust. My Ngāti Kurī (iwi of the Muriwhenua confederation) elders have shared with us that dried shark meat was their main vitamin and medicinal food source that kept infection and starvation at bay, consumed on a daily basis.
At the time of my first experience with materoto I was encouraged by an aunty to observe tikanga in order to protect and care for the state of my fertility. One of the first fears that came to me after undergoing surgery for what was termed as an ‘involuntary abortion’ by doctors, was the question of whether we’d be able to conceive another child. I questioned everything I might have done wrong to seek answers for myself. From discussions with other women, it is a common and natural feeling after the out of control shock and trauma the body experiences knowing what the final outcome will be. Some yearn straight away to have another baby and I was one that wanted that confirmation, however, chose to wait until I had healed myself and was strong enough.
Autumn and Winter in Aotearoa are the seasonal months when we retreat to wānanga (traditional school of learning). Some celebrate this period as Mataariki (Pleiades constellation rising) the traditional Māori New Year from May to July. It is when we reflect, honour, and seek the learning womenfolk require for the changes of life. As the days become shorter and the nights much longer, the mists roll in and rise during this period where knowledge and understanding is sustained, clarified by elder kin. We stay indoors, gathering around the fire spending those long nights teaching our young of the tribulations that come and go within our female element.
As portals channelling the journey of walking on in birth for our children, we also hold vessel when they walk on in spirit. We are left behind to weep for them, to heal our bodies, our pain, our spirits, and our swollen breasts which have to succumb to the absent latch. My whare tangata (womb) continued to grieve for some time. My immediate whānau came to us and took care of us until we were able to cope with getting back to our family routines. I’d suffered a lot of blood loss and we have a family blood memory of anaemia. To this day when people ask how many children we have, the answer is always 8. Our little bundle rests at the feet of my grandmother and mother on the East Coast in Uawa. He carries an ancestral name so that our surviving children can connect his lineage to theirs when reciting whakapapa.