All images provided courtesy of Dusk Devi & Pacific Runway
Motherhood has been an ongoing process of loss and release, leading me to vulnerability, courage, and joy writes our founder, Arieta Tora Rika.
I knew something was off one morning when I sat up on my bed and felt the room spinning around me. My husband and I had stopped trying, but I wasn’t out of the habit of rummaging through the bottom bedside drawer for a pregnancy test at the slightest sign of morning sickness or a late period. Pee on the stick. Wait for two minutes. I knew the drill. I calmly placed the pregnancy test down on the bathroom sink as I washed my hands. Only a minute had passed, and I couldn’t help myself. I turned the test over. Two lines. Oh my God.
As much as I loathed the severe morning sickness that followed for the entirety of my pregnancy, it was a reassurance that baby was still in there. After experiencing several miscarriages, I welcomed the loss I felt when it came to my body – the growing bump and stretching skin was again, reassurance that my baby was going to be okay, and that this time it was for real.
After 72 hours of labour, on the 31st of July 2019, my beautiful first-born daughter Faith was laid on my chest. Our love knocked me over and cracked me open. I was blissfully consumed and utterly unprepared for the vulnerability that came with the unconditional love between mother and child. Immediately, I wanted to feed her, clothe her, and soothe her newborn cries. Yet I could barely take care of myself, following an epidural, stitches that ‘went halfway’ and exhaustion like I’d never experienced before. My immediate recovery became a marathon from moment to moment. That first night in hospital I could not stand on my own, so I asked a nurse to place my baby in my arms. I was happy, yet fearful, and managed to sleep all of 20 minutes, as I made sure I did not let my baby slip out from under me.
From then on, the fear of my physical vulnerability continually swept over me, particularly at night. My baby had silent reflux, and so we didn’t get much sleep in those early weeks, giving me the perfect excuse to stay awake all night. Yet there were nights when she settled and slept, and I lay there, terrified. I was fearful of a car crashing into the front of our house, or burglars breaking in and how I would be totally incapable of running away or fighting them off to protect us when my husband was out working during the night.
During our first post-natal check-up, a nurse from the hospital came home to see us. Despite my limited ability to move around due to swelling, stitches, back pain, and mastitis, I only had one sheepish question. I patiently waited until after she checked baby for colour, weight and health. “Do you think my baby knows me?” I later discovered that this was a red flag. I knew that a sign of postnatal depression was a mother struggling to bond with baby, yet I did not expect it to show up in me in reverse – I worried that my baby wasn’t bonding with me.
As is Fijian custom, I was lovingly cared for during this time of recovery. My cousin-sister (vei tacini) Koila travelled on a visitor’s visa from Fiji with her three-year-old daughter (noqu yaca), to take care of me. A few years prior, Koila was in a similar position. I had travelled to Fiji to support Koila through the birth of my yaca, and now she was coming to Australia to do the same. Koila’s mother is the matriarch of the family, a Tongan woman married into a Fijian family. Nau encouraged Koila to focus on one task above all: do your best to make sure your sister does not experience na tadoka ni vasucu (postnatal mental or physical illness).
During labour, Koila helped me push through the entire 72 hours, while also giving my husband advice on how to best comfort and encourage me. Then, every day after I gave birth, she cooked my breakfast (Bubu’s porridge, boiled eggs, kumala, pawpaw, and a big mug of cocoa), lunch and dinner (boiled fish and it’s broth for a drink, with greens and kumala). She’d often fill up a tub my older sister bought me, with warm water and salt, and kept me company as I sat in it to help with the healing of my stitches. She would brush and dry my hair, and help me get dressed for the day. An angel on earth, Koila took over all of my household chores too.
Koila gave me the right balance of space and guidance as I learnt how to care for a newborn while giving my husband tips and tricks along the way. Our mothers, sisters, and even my inlaws were all comforted with Koila’s presence, knowing our closeness and seeing what an incredible labour of love Koila was pouring into my recovery. After three months of this, I felt a little shaky, yet fairly confident that I could manage on my own with the help of my husband and our support unit, made up by our immediate family members and closest friends.
After Koila left, I was a mess – I felt like I was a failure. The day she flew back to Fiji, I was bathing my baby and spotted a leak after a pipe slipped off the tub. I turned to fix it without realising that I had left Faith to lie in the tub unsupported. Panicked, I quickly turned back to her, only to see Faith smiling playfully at the new sensation of water reaching just above her ears, yet not covering her face. After I dressed and put her down for a nap, I went to the bathroom and cried hard, worrying if I was cut out for this and if I had the right to be a mother.
In the weeks that followed, I battled severe loneliness and struggled to connect with my husband. Despite knowing I had a strong and supportive group of family and friends, I wondered why I hadn’t heard from people in my extended circle. I became angry that I had to go through my days without Koila alongside me, just like it was when we were kids. I thought, with a cousin-sister by my side, who needs friends? Embarrassed to be thinking of all of this, I bottled my emotions and tried to solider through each day, finding comfort in the small and intimate interactions with my beautiful, bubbly, and growing child.
Yet still, there was a huge sense of loss. The pace and busyness of my life had changed so drastically. Gone were the endless tasks that I’d used to help me feel needed, important, and accomplished. Now, my days were spent watching and caring for my baby with little time to spare for anything else. During the quiet moments, I began to reflect and ask myself this question: Who am I, when all that I have the ability to ‘do’ is stripped away? While the answer was confronting, motherhood seemed to have gifted me with a kindness for myself that I had not had before. Gently, I began to rebuild my sense of self, and my self-esteem.
Then, about month after Koila had returned to Fiji, the earth fell beneath me and I took an unexpected tumble down a deep and dark pathway that I prayed I’d never go down. My father suddenly and peacefully passed away at home in Fiji.
My Ta and I shared a beautiful and special bond, and his passing at such a tender and vulnerable time of my life felt like a cruel and unnecessary blow. This was the most difficult release – the release of the physical presence of my father during a time when I was learning to be a mother.
At first, I expected to go through the five stages of grief, yet I did not feel denial, anger, bargaining or depression. I felt at peace knowing that my Ta knew I loved him and that I knew that he loved me too. I had no real regrets, just a deep and painful ache for him – his voice, his laughter, his warmth, and his love.
As I processed this loss – the biggest in my life to date – I began to realise that my grief was not just emotional. It showed up in physical and mental ways too. My body was swollen in the first few weeks, I struggled to sleep at night, I’d burst into tears without warning, I could barely read or write, and I could not tell the time. My little baby was the driving motivation to get through each day. She seemed mostly unaware of my grief, much to my relief. With her, I felt a sense of achievement as we reached each milestone – turning over, sitting up, crawling, teething, eating solids, and sleeping through the night. She had such a familiar way of being – a quick thinker, mover, and feeler. After a few weeks, I saw my Ta’s kind eyes in hers, and I realised that so much of her is from him. Faith reminds me of the past while giving me hope for the future.
I have since learnt to release my expectations of grief. It’s been easier to flow with it, to allow it to come and pass through me as often as it likes. I heard someone say, that grief is just love with no-where to go. With this in mind, I decided to channel my grief through creativity. I’ve invested in local, female, Indigenous artists to bring our love to life, and I’ve spent a lot of time writing poetry and short stories of these experiences in a journal for Faith. This has helped me heal, and to release my father’s physical presence while lovingly keeping his memory alive.
A few weeks after laying my Ta to rest, I came across a website with information about post-natal anxiety, depression, and psychosis. The symptoms of all three sounded like notes out of my diary. Insomnia, heightened fear, constant worry, sudden drops in mood, lack of focus, the inability to grasp the feeling of time, and of course feeling as if you are not able to lift yourself from the heavy weight of sadness. I often wonder how much of the psychological rollercoaster of the last year has been this, and how much has been grief. Maybe it’s a bit of everything, all rolled into one huge life experience. The processing of it all is still ongoing.
With all of this loss and release, my being has experienced intense doses of vulnerability. The famous Brené Brown said, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
This has been true for me. These losses led me to vulnerability, and vulnerability led me to new depths of courage. As Brené predicts, courage has led me to connection and joy.
I have had the courage and support from my husband to take care of myself, particularly in regards to my mental and physical health. I made the difficult decision to leave a highly demanding job to pursue work that I find more meaningful, which has already had a significant and positive impact on my health. I have invested in my creative interests and the work that I am truly passionate about. I am more intentional with my self-care habits by watching my screentime, food glorious food, how I move and rest my body, my spiritual practices, and importantly, making sure I incorporate time for fun, play and to unwind with my little family. By making these changes, I am already reaping the rewards – I am healthier, happier, and more focused and fully present in all areas of my life.
For all of this, and more – I am thankful.
This Mother’s Day, I encourage you to reflect on what motherhood has meant for you – either through your own experiences or through the experiences between you and your mother(s). We learn both what to do, and what not to do, through what we have seen from the mothers in our life. Mothers often sacrifice much to carry, birth, and nurture our children, and our spirits and bodies are forever altered for it, in rich and beautiful ways. In the busyness of life, we can often forget to talk about all of this. There is a depth to our story that did not exist before motherhood, and what makes that so beautiful is that the journey is different for each one of us. It is a story worth telling, and one worth listening to. May this Mother’s Day bring you room to share some of these stories with those that you love – even if you are telling it to people who are little, and do not care to listen… just yet.
Loloma bibi, ‘ofa lahi atu – Arieta.