Mother’s Day: An Excerpt from “Collective Care”

In honour of Mother’s Day this Sunday, we’re sharing an excerpt from Collective Care: Indigenous Motherhood, Family, and HIV/AIDS. This engaging ethnography explores how Indigenous women and their communities practice collective care to sustain traditional lifeways in the face of Saskatchewan’s HIV epidemic.


Excerpt from Chapter 3: Motherhood

Isabel is a grandmother from a northern Cree community who moved to Saskatoon seventeen years ago to be with her extended family. She cherishes caring for her seven-year-old grandson Mark. Isabel had gained guardianship of Mark through the recommendation of CFS while Mark’s mother (and Isabel’s daughter), Shauna, was undergoing HCV treatment. The harsh side effects of the treatment in combination with anti-retroviral therapy for HIV were proving to be unbearable for Shauna. For relief, she had returned to injecting opioid drugs. To ensure Mark’s safety, he had been placed with Isabel and her husband. Isabel had embraced the opportunity: “It’s just who we are. It’s what we do…. It’s not much different than it ever was. Us doing all we can for all the kids, even the grown-up ones like Shauna.”

Mornings at Isabel’s house are hectic. Everyone gets up early. Isabel prepares breakfast and lunches, making a fresh batch of bannock (a traditional bread common in many Indigenous communities) to pack in Mark’s lunch so that he has “a taste of home” while he is away at school. Isabel’s husband hurriedly prepares for work, and her brother and cousins usually come through her kitchen from their nearby homes for morning comradery. “It’s busy but it’s home.” Isabel explained that sending Mark off to school is a “real event.” Her cousin, Serena, who lives across the crescent, comes over to join them; “there’s a whole group of us watching Mark head off to school, wishing him well, hoping that the day goes real good for our boy.”

Our conversation about Isabel’s morning took place in the reception area at AIDS Saskatoon while I was folding the monthly newsletter. Isabel took the chair beside me and picked up the conversation from our interview the day before. As with most anthropological research, the interviews in this project ranged from formal question-and-answer formats to informal conversations that arose spontaneously and unfolded with no scripted or guiding questions. I recorded all these interviews. Like the other research participants, Isabel wanted her contributions recorded. She kept checking to ensure that the recorder’s battery was sufficiently charged and often tapped the recorder, saying, “This is real important!”

As Isabel helped to fold the newsletters and described Mark’s daily departure for school, she leaned into me, pressing her shoulder against mine. I would never have noticed such a gesture in any other circumstance, but this time I did. As warm as my relationship with Isabel had become, she and I were not “huggy” (as she called it). She confided to me on several occasions that she would avoid overly affectionate staff members and visitors to The 601: “All that touching and hugging that the White folks like. It’s not for me!” When Isabel purposefully leaned into me as we chatted, the gesture was a way for her to recall and physically represent the family solidarity behind Mark’s daily departure.

Just over two weeks later, I was once again sitting with Isabel, this time in the upstairs living room at AIDS Saskatoon where there is much more privacy. The relaxed tone of our earlier conversation was gone. She was crying and upset. Because of Isabel’s HIV positive status and her own history of drug use, regular visits from CFS were required to ensure that Mark was safe in her care. Earlier that week, on a cold winter afternoon, the visit came without warning. Knowing that she would be late from work that day, Isabel had confirmed that Serena would be at her house when Mark returned from school. After arriving home that afternoon, Mark found his uncle and several friends drinking in the back room, and he knew to head over to Serena’s place. “When the social workers came to check up on us, Mark was on Serena’s stoop kicking at her screen door because she had it latched,” Isabel explained.

They called me, saying “You left him all alone” and “he had no place to go.” But none of that was true. My cousin was there, she was just slow to get to the door. But, no. They said he was outside alone, unsupervised, and they said that’s, like, neglect. So they just took him away…. When I go to meet with them the next day, they wouldn’t even talk to me in private. They stood out in the waiting room … and right in front of everybody, and the place was real packed too, so right there they told me that they was going to do another home assessment and until that got done and approved, Mark has got to stay in emergency foster care.

Isabel was very nervous about the home assessment because the first one had focused centrally on her HIV status. For the next month, Isabel was wracked with worry about Mark, concerned that he would forget that his family was rooting for him every day, that he would miss the “taste of home” in his lunches, that he would be lonely and afraid. The worry wore on her. Isabel was not eating well, rarely finishing even the modest portions she would take on soul food days. She was not sleeping much. She was suffering, and her friends at The 601 knew it. “She’s going through a real tough one,” her friend Theresa told me, adding, with a frustrated sigh, “Them’s the hills we gotta climb.”

After the home reassessment was finally completed, Isabel came into The 601 just before it closed. She begged the staff to let her stay after hours, just for a while. Her words were slurred and her eyes were bloodshot. Isabel had started drinking as soon as the home visit was completed and, after several hours, she headed to The 601 for solace and support. She saw me and described how her fears about the focus on her HIV status were confirmed:

They go asking me “When did you get HIV?” “How did you get it?” “What are you doing about it?” It was the third degree. They asked about my daughter, how often she uses [drugs]. About my cousin, how often she uses. About me, how often I use. They just assumed we are all still using. Well, I’m not. But they just assumed it. And then when I tried to tell them that Mark wasn’t left alone that afternoon, that he had my cousin and his uncle there, they just started quizzing me about who had HIV. It didn’t make no sense to me so I started crying. They were painting me all wrong. Like a bad drug mother. I’m a good kohkum [grandmother]. I’m not like how they were painting it.

The encounter with the CFS staff had upset Isabel to the point that she drank heavily that afternoon, breaking years of sobriety. However, Isabel was more than upset. She was also confused. She told me repeatedly that she did not understand how the social workers could conclude that Mark was “left alone” when family members were home. As we left The 601 and I walked Isabel home, she listed off where each relative lived in proximity to her house. Serena, as we know, lived across the crescent; brother Kyle lived right next door; brother Martin lived with cousin Dennis in the nearby cul-de-sac; and dear friend Theresa, an “auntie” to Mark, lived just up the street. Mark’s mother, Shauna, would often stay with another friend only a block away. Even though Shauna was not legally permitted to see Mark without supervision, Isabel believed that the rule could surely be broken in the event that Mark needed emergency assistance. And, of course, Isabel concluded as we said goodbye, “There’s The 601, not far away. So how could Mark be alone?” The allegation of neglect in such a context of social and family connections was truly baffling to her.

It might be difficult for some of us to understand why Isabel was so confused. After all, she was the “mother on record,” as one of the CFS social workers had called her. Was it not her obligation to be the one to greet Mark when he arrived home from school? Does responsibility for Mark not fall primarily to her and her alone? Questions such as these seem natural to many of us. The underlying premise of these kinds of questions, however, is no more natural than Isabel’s understanding of motherhood and child care as collective endeavours that involve shared responsibility. Both sets of understandings constitute different models of motherhood born of cultural and political histories. Anthropologists and other social scientists strive to identify and examine the cultural and historical forces that give rise to what is often considered natural. One of our most important goals is to understand how these cultural and historical forces affect the daily lives of those exposed to and entangled by them. This chapter discusses these forces; I ultimately argue that, for the AIDS Saskatoon mothers who participated in this research, any model of motherhood that does not account for the collaborative context of child care undermines their efforts to care for their families and themselves.


Click here to read another excerpt, this time from the Introduction of the book.

Find out more about Collective Care: Indigenous Motherhood, Family, and HIV/AIDS.


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