How Becoming a Parent Helped Me Value Indigenous Approaches to Motherhood

A Native American mother shares her story of raising her babies via an Indigenous approach to motherhood, including baby wearing, extended breastfeeding, and reclaiming her cultural traditions.

Leah Altman
Photo: Courtesy of Leah Altman

When I first saw my boss give a presentation while nursing her newborn, I was anxious. What would people think? Horror of all horrors—what if the thick Pendleton blanket she was using slipped, exposing her bare breast to the room full of our staff and board members?

This happened about 10 years ago. Even though I worked for a Native American community nonprofit focused on youth and families, my boss' act of Indigenous motherhood was radical. She was the executive director of the organization, and no one else in our organization had yet approached the topic of developing a babies-at-work policy. She brought her newborn son to work with her most days, parking him in her office, nursing on demand, and wearing him in a baby sling across her chest throughout the day.

I was in my mid-20s, far from even considering having a baby. My boyfriend and I had just started dating; little did I know he would soon become my husband.

My cousin's wife, Layla, however, was anxious to become a mother. At family gatherings, my mom and grandma would slyly pull her to a corner and gently inquire if they were expecting yet. I remember, at one family dinner, Layla spouted off the benefits of attachment parenting. Although I knew nothing about parenting or babies, I had opinions.

"I just think it's unhealthy to wear your baby on you," I said, squinching up my face. "They need to learn to be independent." Layla responded that there was evidence to suggest otherwise. I shrugged it off. It wasn't like I was planning to have a baby anytime soon.

Years later, Layla was the one putting her son to bed using the cry-it-out method, while I bounced my daughter to sleep in a carrier on my chest. How the tables had turned!

By that time in my life, babies-at-work policies were the norm. I was working for another Indigenous organization, a grassroots community environmental advocacy organization, and our executive director put me and two other new parents (an Indigenous father and a white mother-to-be) in charge of developing a parental leave policy and a babies-at-work policy. Our biggest challenge was that we wanted to promote and normalize a parent's desire to bring their new baby to work; however, the issue then became tasking parents with the expectation that they do it all—work a full-time, demanding nonprofit advocacy job while taking care of a newborn baby.

We asked ourselves, was it really fair to lower expectations for new parents, compared to their non-parent counterparts? But was it possible to do as good of a job if you were also multitasking with a baby next to your desk?

The answer was that there wasn't a straight answer. Every person's situation was different, and it took cooperation from all of our staff in order to successfully implement both policies. We were able to make it work for everyone. But we also didn't have staff members who were bothered by an occasional crying child or by new mothers nursing during staff meetings. We were lucky to be able to navigate each situation and each family's needs as challenges arose and to have a mostly Indigenous staff who supported an environment filled with babies and new parents.

I always laugh when I think of that time when I judged parents who implemented "attachment parenting" styles. At that time, I didn't see the connection between Indigenous values and what is commonly described as "attachment parenting."

Since then, I've carried both of my children on my body as babies for most of their days. My first daughter was diagnosed with "failure to thrive" shortly after her birth, so after doing some research, I bought two shirts made for baby-carrying and skin-to-skin contact. I fought long and hard to work through our challenges with nursing, becoming sleep deprived and always anxious about her nutrition. After six months, we finally hit our groove, and she nursed until she was almost 2.

My second daughter came out hungry! She latched right away and quit nursing weeks ago, just before her third birthday. While I do occasionally miss the long hours of cuddling and holding my sweet babies, smelling their delicious skin and sharing our warmth, I am grateful for the physical independence after weaning.

Beyond the baby years, Indigenous motherhood for me now looks like reclaiming my tribe's cultural arts and traditions to share with my daughters. I'm taking a beading class and learning how to make regalia so that my daughters can dance at powwows and other cultural gatherings. I collect Native jewelry and ceremony outfits for when they are older. I sing them Lakota and Navajo songs at bedtime and buy and read Native children's books. And I can't wait until they are old enough to bead with me.

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