We can change the world by supporting Indigenous mothers

On Sunday night, Bill and I watched our youngest daughter dance with her friends. It’s something parents everywhere delight in.

What made this night special for us was that we were watching our girl dance in the bunggul at the Garma festival, with her friend Bamatja who she first met two years ago up in East Arnhem.

At a time when so many people at Garma were legitimately hurting, were rightfully angry about the shocking images broadcast on Four Corners last week, the bunggul was a joyous moment. It’s one of the high points of a four-day celebration of the world’s oldest living culture and the brilliant women whose stories and songlines are at the centre of it.

With the red dirt of East Arnhem still caked to our daughter’s boots (and now, seemingly in every corner of our house), I wanted to write a few words on the extraordinary contribution Indigenous childcare workers make to the most valuable asset in our economy and our daily lives – motherhood.

Nurses, midwives, health workers and early years educators, supporting new mothers and training communities.

Helping to close the infant mortality gap, educating young mothers about the dangers of drinking or smoking during their pregnancy. Being there in those first 1,000 days, providing the best beginning when so much development in the young brain occurs. Taking some of the pressure off women who suddenly discover what it is to hold a new life in their hands.

In our house, growing up, we had a saying: “When Mum is OK, the world is OK.”

It’s one I’ve been very happy to pass on to my kids – and my husband.

Like all those bits of home-spun wisdom, it endures because it’s built on truth. When kids feel loved, when they go to school every day knowing their parents believe in them, they learn with purpose and pride.

When mothers and children are safe, from preventable diseases and from the cancer of family violence, communities are safer and stronger places.

Yes, this is a motherhood statement – a statement in support of motherhood and the unique, undervalued, underestimated, unmeasured impact it has on every corner of our country.

It’s a story embodied by two women, from two different generations, in one family: Connie and Alison Bush.

In 1920, before Connie could walk, she and her mother were taken to the Roper River Mission and onto Groote Eylandt. There, on the Emerald River, in work clothes made from sugar bags and flour sacks, she was taught to sew and mend. When the Flying Doctor Service found themselves needing more assistance, Connie was brought in for basic first aid training.

Connie Bush was a star. She was one of those people who supplements a natural gift with her own endless appetite for hard work. Connie was one of the first Indigenous members of the Australian Women’s Advisory Council – and it was through this, in 1978, she met my mum, they became friends and Connie came into our lives.

Connie’s daughter Alison and her twin sister Jenny were born in Sydney’s North Shore Hospital, after their mum had been evacuated from the north during the bombing raids in 1942.

From a very young age, both girls wanted to be nurses. In an era when Aboriginal people were still not counted in the census, Alison Bush faced and overcame all kinds of institutional prejudice in her studies of midwifery and infant welfare.

But none of it fazed her. Indeed, she understood that it was this very prejudice that made Aboriginal women so reluctant to seek medical help, particularly during pregnancy and childbirth.

That’s why, in addition to delivering more than 1,000 babies in her working life, Alison also delivered a national skills program for Indigenous health workers, and spent a decade travelling the country to implement it.

Two incredible women, two extraordinary examples of how we can change the world by supporting mothers.

Closing the Gap demands we face hard truths and confront sobering facts. But we should never forget to celebrate the good stories, the champions of progress and the people who inspire us – as mothers, as women, as Australians.

This article was originally published in The Guardian.

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