Researcher calls for change to dominant view of 'good mothering'

By Rosanna Galvin

Mother and daughter

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children are nearly 10 times more likely than non-Indigenous children to be in out-of-home care with overrepresentation existing at every stage of Australia’s child protection system.

According to UniSA PhD graduate Dr Amy Parkes, it’s a broken system reinforced by Western concepts of motherhood that disregard Aboriginal mothering practices such as multiple mothering, where care of children is shared in the wider community.

In her thesis, which recently won the Ian Davey Prize at UniSA, Dr Parkes challenges how Aboriginal motherhood has been socially constructed in Australia.

Her research explains how Aboriginal motherhood from within a patriarchal and colonialist framework has been constructed as both ‘other’ and inferior – and that the narrative needs to change.

“The practice of removing Aboriginal children from their mothers by child protection authorities is an ongoing concern, with Aboriginal mothers in Australian society subjected to disproportionate levels of state surveillance and control,” Dr Parkes says.

“This is the result of public policies, colonialist discourses and racist media depictions which have created negative stereotypes about Aboriginal mothers as ‘unfit’, dysfunctional and lacking in ability.

“These false portrayals ignore the diversity and complexities of Aboriginal mothering experiences and practices, which often involve a broader sense of understanding about community responsibility to care for others.”

Dr Parkes’ thesis is the result of research she started in her honours degree, where she explored the dreams and aspirations of young Aboriginal Australian people who moved in, out and through remote, regional and urban locations.

What she discovered was that young Aboriginal people thought about aspirations for the future in ways that prioritisied family, valuing interdependence over independence – notions of successful transitions to adulthood that were different from her own experiences as a white female growing up in suburban Adelaide.

With encouragement from her cultural advisor, Ngarrindjeri leader Syd Sparrow, Dr Parkes embarked on a PhD to explore understandings of Aboriginal motherhood, collaborating with a group of Aboriginal women for more than four years to conduct her research.

She says one of her most significant findings was the way in which Aboriginal practices of mothering support both the mother and child. Caregiving is not just one directional from mother to child – it is multidirectional between children, mothers, grandmothers and communities.

“In Australian society, mothers who leave their children are usually represented as neglectful mothers,” Dr Parkes says.

“In contrast, the practice of multiple mothering was common for Aboriginal mothers and provided them with much needed time away to heal from grief, trauma and loss.  Time away was seen as valuable – free from shame or stigma.

“This challenges the dominant constructions in Australia of intensive mothering, destabilising conventional notions of good and bad mothering.

“In many Aboriginal communities, a good mother was one who cares for others and for herself in reciprocal ways.

“In Australia society, only white middle-class interpretations of the ‘good mother’ are seen as valid but in reality, motherhood is complex and what being a ‘good mother’ means can vary depending on culture and context.”

Dr Parkes’ research also highlighted the influence colonisation has had on the development of Aboriginal mothering practices. She says the practice of multiple mothering in some ways supported mothers to heal from trauma, grief and loss following colonisation.

“Motherhood was expressed as bringing the mothers in the study the love and connectedness that was stripped from them through being removed from their lands, communities and families,” she says.

“They talked about the difficulties they had endured as children and how this had shaped their urge to protect and nurture their own children.

“This sits in contrast to negative constructions of a singular ‘unfit’ Aboriginal motherhood, as the experience of mothering for the women in this study was one of strength, resilience and resistance.”

While Dr Parkes acknowledges the challenges that exist to reform the child protection system, she hopes her research will contribute to a better understanding of Aboriginal mothering practices, ultimately leading to policy change that considers a broader understanding of what it means to be a good mother.

“We need to understand that the implications of dominant ideas of attachment and protection that shape deficit constructions of Aboriginal motherhood may produce excessive removal of children,” she says.

“It is essential for mothering ‘assessments’ to include more complex considerations of individual experiences and diverse meanings within Aboriginal motherhoods.”

Dr Parkes was the joint winner of this year’s Ian Davey Research Thesis Prize with Dr Hayley Schultz’s pharmaceutical science research also recognised by the panel. The prize acknowledges the most outstanding research thesis by a UniSA higher degree research student.

You can read more about Dr Schultz’s drug delivery research to transform prostate cancer treatment on the UniSA Media Centre.