How better support for perinatal mental health could transform the future for communities in Aotearoa New Zealand
Holly Walker interviewed Elizabeth Harte as a Q&A within the Āhurutia Te Rito | It takes a village report to share about traditional Māori parenting ways, including the importance of the kāinga (village) to our tūpuna.
This report analyses what contributes to perinatal distress in Aotearoa New Zealand and identifies opportunities and policy levers to better support new parents and their babies. You can download the full report, or just the summary, from the Helen Clark Foundation website.
Below, see the extract of Elizabeth’s Q&A from the report.
WHAT KIND OF TŪPUNA DO I WANT TO BE?
Q&A WITH ELIZABETH EMERE HARTE OF TŪPUNA PARENTING
Elizabeth Emere Harte (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Porou) is the co-founder of Tūpuna Parenting, a movement to reclaim traditional Māori parenting ways and share this knowledge with whānau and the people who work with them. With Whānau Āwhina Plunket, she is currently working to train Plunket’s kaiāwhina workforce in Māori parenting knowledge and practice. Her professional background was as a software developer and roboticist, before moving into leadership and planning roles. She learnt about tūpuna parenting from her Mum, Helen Mountain Harte, a leading scholar on traditional Māori birthing and parenting practices. Elizabeth and Helen founded Pēpi Penapena (Cherish Babies) together in 2018, before Helen sadly passed away in 2019. In 2020, Elizabeth’s cousin, Dr Hirini Kaa, joined Pēpi Penapena as Chair, and they founded the Tūpuna Parenting movement in 2021. Elizabeth’s other mahi is as māmā to three young tamariki, whom she treasures and adores.
Tēnā koe e Liz. Let’s start with some whakawhanaungatanga. Ko wai koe? What should we know about you and your whānau?
Tēna koutou katoa. He uri tēnei nō Ngāpuhi, nō Ngāti Porou. Ko Walter Clapham Mountain raua ko Emere Makere Waiwaha Kaa ōku tūpuna. Ko Michael raua ko Helen Mountain Harte ōku mātua. Ko Elizabeth Emere Harte tōku ingoa.
In your working life, you’ve gone from being a software developer and roboticist to helping Māori parents and the people who support them learn to decolonise their parenting. That’s quite a journey! How did it come about?
I was always very interested in computers and technology as a kid, and did well with maths, so getting into computer science was an obvious career path for me. But as my career evolved, I became less interested in the technology and more interested in supporting my team and helping them succeed. Then I got into product strategy, planning, and user experience design, focusing on what the customer needed – the people-oriented stuff.
The big perspective shift came, of course, once I had my first pēpi in 2016. Suddenly, the tūpuna parenting work my Mum had been doing for almost 20 years was important and completely relevant. In 2018, Mum and I decided to start working together to share tūpuna parenting ways online. Our skills were a great mesh for this kaupapa. I learnt so much about tūpuna parenting ways from Mum during that year before she passed away, and I am so proud to be continuing her work.
What do we know about how Māori parented in pre-colonial times, and how have these practices continued or changed in the two hundred or so years since? What does it mean to talk about decolonising parenting?
Tūpuna Māori had these beautiful and fundamental beliefs about pēpi and tamariki. They believed pēpi were born tapu, sacred and protected, and were born with mana. They believed all pēpi inherited tapu and mana from their whakapapa and from the atua (spirit world).
By being tapu, this meant our tūpuna would protect pēpi and tamariki from all harm, including yelling, insults, and smacking. With their mana, this meant our tūpuna would respect pēpi and tamariki right from birth. It was embarrassing for our tūpuna if pēpi cried for any reason, and they would listen and respond to their tamariki, even at large hui. They wanted pēpi and tamariki to be bold, brave, and independent when they were young, so they would have these qualities when they grew up.
European parenting at the time was a stark contrast. Women and children were effectively the property of their husbands and fathers. Children were to be seen and not heard, and physical punishment was used by parents and teachers to ‘teach children a lesson’, as were insults and humiliation.
Colonisation undid much of Māori culture, including our parenting and whānau relationships. When we talk about decolonising parenting, we’re talking about reclaiming our whakapapa, re-indigenising our parenting ways, and reflecting on our whānau relationships in a way that’s informed by our tūpuna.
What are the stories from your own whānau that inform how you think about these things?
This kaupapa is grounded in mātauranga (Māori knowledge) and central to that is mātauranga-a-whānau (whānau knowledge). Our whānau pūrākau (oral histories) are an insight into how our tūpuna did things, looking into the past using the voices of our elders. Tapu and mana are such intangible values to describe that sometimes they are best described through lived experience.
For example, our whānau all bury the whenua (placenta) and pito (cord stump) of our pēpi at ‘home’, wherever that may be. Some of my cousins have buried theirs down in Rangitukia, mine are at Te Rawhiti, and Nanny and Grandpa’s were in Kaikohe and Kawakawa where their pēpi were born.
Another whānau story is about my Mum’s parents, Emere Makere Waiwaha Kaa (1901–1996), and Walter Clapham Mountain (1908–2000). They had three tamariki, and they never smacked them or raised their voices in anger – and they were raising their whānau in the 1940s, when getting a hiding was pretty common. But they knew their whānau was tapu, and they protected them in many ways.
My third whānau story goes back another generation, and is about my great grandfather, Nanny’s Dad, Panikena Kaa (1872–1948). He used to bury their whenua and pito of their whānau under a particular tree behind the house, all 16 or so. One day after a big storm, the tree fell down the bank and died. To him this tree was so tapu, so sacred, that he held a three-day tangi for the tree and grieved its loss. He showed the tree the respect it deserved as a tapu place, a tapu object. And our pēpi and tamariki should also be respected, acknowledging their tapu every day in many ways.
These stories are lessons from our past, and we’re pulling them into our future. They make me think about ‘what kind of tūpuna do I want to be’ for my whānau and whakapapa? What stories do I want to be remembered for? What lessons do I want to share through my actions? This guides the kaupapa as it guides how I live my life.
This report is about parents’ mental health during and after pregnancy, and how our public policies can support and protect this. Of course, we need to look at much more than just the presence or absence of a diagnosis. How would you define wellbeing for whānau with new pēpi, or who are getting ready to welcome new pēpi?
Whānau wellbeing all depends on the definition of whānau. For Māori, it is important to remember that whānau is not just the nuclear whānau but also the wider whānau and even the community that supports them. That’s perhaps the crux from tūpuna Māori: it was the whānau who helped with a new pēpi.
For example, when a pēpi was born, māmā wouldn’t cook or work until the pito fell off, so they could have dedicated time with pēpi. The whānau would do the work and look after any other tamariki during this time. In te reo Māori, ‘whaea’ means both mother and aunty, and ‘matua’ means both father and uncle. This is significant because it’s another example of whānau support. The whole whānau shared in the upbringing of pēpi and tamariki, so when you called out ‘Whaea’ you were interchangeably speaking to either your Mum or your Aunty. Both would nurture you and provide you with care.
Early explorers also noted if māmā couldn’t exclusively breastfeed for some reason, other whānau might breastfeed their pēpi too. So the question is, really, what does wellbeing look like for whānau? From a tūpuna standpoint, it’s about acknowledging the tapu and the mana of your pēpi and everyone in the whānau. This means the whole whānau are teaching and raising a person, a rangatira (chief) of tomorrow. It’s not just the parents – grandparents, aunties, uncles, and siblings all help raise the next generation together.
HOW WILL YOU MEASURE THE SUCCESS OF YOUR MAHI? WHAT DO YOU HOPE FOR?
The dream is that we break that awful Once Were Warriors stereotype that has created a bias against our people and tarnished the memories of our tūpuna. Everyone knows our tūpuna were great
warriors – women and men – and some know they were explorers, farmers, philosophers, and much more too. But not everyone remembers that those warriors were raised gently and respectfully,
without smacking or shouting, and that they in turn raised their pēpi and tamariki gently too. By not punishing tamariki when they were young, they encouraged bravery and independence. Our tūpuna
absolutely believed that.
The dream is that all whānau know that pēpi are born tapu and with mana, and that this meant our tūpuna didn’t smack or shout at their whānau. Then those whānau members can become the inspiring tūpuna their mokopuna will remember fondly. They’ll become the Nan and Koro in the whānau pūrākau, remembered for passing on tūpuna parenting ways and raising their whānau gently. Wouldn’t that be the most beautiful thing? It’ll take time, but I know we’ll get there.