War has nothing in common with a normal life.
Living Through War: A Mother’s Account
Early in the morning, 24.02.2022, my normal life was suddenly replaced by an ugly, bitter mixture of perplexity, anxiety and fear. We spent the first days waiting for it to stop, naively hoping to get back to the life we used to live before. The feeling of this new reality was utterly unbearable.
On the first days of March, Russian troops came extremely close to Kyiv, and there was a risk of being uncircled. So, my husband Alex and I decided to leave our hometown and take our 3-years old daughter Mia to the Western region of Ukraine – it was calm there. Running away from the war, like many other families, we spent a month in a village near Ukrainian borders with Moldova and Romania and got back to Kyiv when Russians were pushed away.
People were losing their lives, homes, and families – and actually, they still are. I feel fortunate to be a Ukrainian whose home and family are safe and sound. So, in April, we came back to Kyiv. But we were welcomed with the facts and feelings indicating that it was time to reinvent our life.
On the first days of the Russian invasion, Alex and I lost our jobs. We used to work in the cinema industry: I had small part-time jobs as a make-up artist and on-set costumer and spent most of my time with our daughter, and Alex was a sound designer. Unfortunately, wartime doesn’t need soap operas and TV shows. Our savings were melting, and we had to find new sources of income. Millions of people became unemployed, and (just like us) they were ready to take up any job to feed their families. I applied for cleaner, cashier, and dishwasher – with no response. Many people got to online work, mastering new professions. That’s when I learned about UpWork, dusted off my linguistic diplomas, and became a freelance translator. Ale? took up the study of IT, taking occasional part-time jobs.
This is how what the actual state of things looked like: our past was gone, and our present was raw and vague.
At first, I was excited to get the job, because I finally started to earn the living for the family. Each day, while I was working, Alex spent time with our daughter and took up part of the domestic chores. Then we switched roles: he was getting to his IT studies, which required a load of time and concentration, and I took Mia for a walk and cooked dinner. Our life began to take a stable form.
It didn’t last long: in October Russian missile attacks started to purposefully destroy the Ukrainian power grid. At first sudden, and then constant blackouts and power cuts triggered a new source of stress for Ukrainians. Ordinary matters, requiring the use of electrical appliances, became not as simple as they used to be. This chapter of my life provided me with the challenge to finish my translation projects before the power supply was cut. I remember the days when my answer to a job offer sounded like “Sorry, we’re having a missile attack right now, so I can’t take your project, because the power cut is coming up, and I have no idea when the system is going to be back up”. My employers from the Netherlands, Argentina, the United States, and other countries always used to express their sincere concern about this situation and its possible risks, and I appreciate it. But on the top of my emotions on those days – among fear and anxiety – was anger: I just had straightened out my war-twisted life, and again it began to fall apart. Over time, power outages became planned, they occurred according to schedules, and finally, we got used to it. How to find out that Ukrainians have mastered new stressful and pretty absurd circumstances? We start joking about it.
The quiet autumn and winter days were marked with the expectation of a final missile attack that would bring a major blackout to our cities. We were getting prepared for the cold (bought warm clothes to wear at home in case the central heating would be turned off), lack of water supply and empty shelves in stores (made a reserve of water and food), counting the days until the arrival of spring.
Fortunately, the major blackout didn’t happen. The spring has come, bringing the realization that we survived the year of this full-scale war.
These were some of the challenges of the adult world we have faced.
Despite all war disasters, children are growing up still as fast as before the war. While the parents are doing their best to provide their children with the basic things, kids still want to play and cry for their compelling reasons. The adult world requires quick reactions and the ability to adjust to survive. ?hild’s world requires the presen?e of sustainable parents. This idea brings me to the reflection: when the adult world is being destroyed, when the parents are choking with deep, hard, controversial emotions, children still need us caring, loving, and stable. To me – it’s about the fantastic ambivalence and the paradox of being a parent, which becomes extremely challenging during wartime. I’ll try to explain: I have to stay sustainable and emotionally responsive because I’m a mother of a little girl – even when the world I used to live in stops existing in one single day. And on the other hand – I could have lost my mind or gotten into a deep depressive coma caused by this damn war that crippled the lives of millions. But the feeling that my little girl needs me gives me the strength and motivation to cope with the endless disasters of war – and this is how she becomes my support and my antidepressant pill. Because when great stress comes over, love is one of the true values a person can rely on.
I was putting my daughter to bed the other day, and after telling me some extremely important facts about a Pony called Rainbow Dash, she suddenly started to remember the situations when she heard the sounds of explosions. She finished her speech with the phrase “And then I got used to it”. She got used to it. She finds her own ways to realize, what’s going on. Because no matter how hard I’m trying to cover her with my confidence that it’s okay, she feels that it’s not.
She knows that the sound of an air raid alarm means the danger of a missile attack: some houses probably are going to be destroyed (“with a big boom”); perhaps there’s going to be water and electricity cut; the stores are going to be closed (she won’t get her sweets and we’re not going to buy milk); we should leave the playground and get to a safer place (the game with her friends is going to be interrupted), and the tramway is not going to bring us to her grandmother until the danger passes. She knows that she can’t learn to dive in the sea or go to the mountains with her dad, because civil planes that used to take families on vacation don’t fly in Ukrainian skies anymore. Sometimes Mia comes to me and for no reason says “I want this war to stop. I don’t like it!” She was waiting for New Year’s fireworks and was very upset when I told her that there will be none this year. She has to accept this reality, she tries to.
*Early morning the day I was writing these words, we woke up from a sound of a very powerful explosion – it was another terrorist missile attack. We say, we got used to it, but actually, we’re not*
Trying to accept the fact that now mama needs to work a lot, took her a lot of time and hours of crying. Mama is at home, but she’s often busy, sometimes stressed, or too tired to relax and just get into a game. Every evening mama is putting her to bed and gets back to work. Mama is trying to do her best, but sometimes still feels guilty for her almost permanent burnout.
Kids need to play and want to socialize, and the parents need time to work – that’s what kindergartens are invented for. This is how it works in normal (non-war) life. The whole year each time I heard the sound of an air raid I felt happy that my child was by my side. This is a reason why some Ukrainian moms prefer to keep their children at home: they’re guided by a deep and pretty simple intuitive feeling, which says “Keeping your child close to you is safer”. I used to be one of those mothers a year ago. But now Alex got a new job (which is good news), and for a couple of months I’ve been trying to combine my work and child care for a 4-years girl, and I must say that this experiment has failed. I tried to find some balance, but it looks more like burnout (which is bad news). Mia was 3 when the invasion started, now she’s 4, and she needs a peer company. I can see that waiting for me to finish my project to take her outside to the playground for an hour doesn’t satisfy her needs. I feel confused, because I can’t spend as much time with her as I used to, and because I can’t let her go to the outer world without me.
Systematic Russian missile attacks have proven that there is no completely safe place in Ukraine anymore. Millions of women and children left their Ukrainian homes to find shelter in other countries, and many of them have no place to come back. I’m lucky to still have my home, so I could chose if I want to stay with my child in Ukraine or if I want to leave my homeland. I’m one of those mothers who decided to stay. Somehow this new and dramatically odd reality feels to me better than a possible stressful and long process of getting used to a completely unknown life in a new country as a refugee. My roots are deep in Ukrainian earth – yes, it’s burnt, but it’s alive – and living in a place I belong to gives me an inexplicable and non-logical feeling of safety. And the things giving sustainability to me are definitely good for my child.
In my humble opinion, despite the feminist social changes, women still stay more family-centered. This everyday home routine and child care play a grounding role for many Ukrainian moms (especially for those whose children are still small). And the realization that you’re doing the right thing is very important in our tottering reality. I think that Ukrainian fathers feel more confused in this regard: they desperately want to support their families properly, but many of them have lost their jobs, and, due to the lack of any stability and vague future perspectives, they feel confused and prone to depression. This feeling of powerlessness and perplexity is paralyzing, and none of us has chosen it.
My psychotherapist says that now many families are going through a relationship crisis. The permanent stress brings up many deeply personal issues, reveals weaknesses, and makes us feel extremely vulnerable. If you want to survive and preserve mental health, you have to review the values you rely on, to look for sustainable points of support. War has smashed millions of plans for millions of people, and this experience rages inside each of us, even (and especially) when the answer to the question “How are you?” is “Thanks, I’m fine”.
And I’m still getting used to the fact that the concepts of “war” and “missile attack”, and questions like “Why do the Russians bomb our cities?” invaded my daughter’s childhood. I feel damn angry and pretty confused answering that question to a 4-years old girl because all the words and explanations of reasons for war sound dumb and irrational. I can’t properly explain to my child what’s going on in our country because answering this question makes me stop and think it all over, and I still fail to do it.
We didn’t choose this reality, none of us. From the outside, it may look like an endless survival, and there’s certainly some truth in that. But I don’t use that word. I live and I’m doing my best. I doubt, laugh, work and cry. I give hugs and kisses, pour cereals each morning, and wait for the summer to come: Alex can learn Mia to dive on the lake, so she doesn’t have to wait for this war to stop.
War has nothing to do with normal life, but I’m not going to have another life, and my daughter isn’t going to have another, more peaceful childhood. This is all I have, and my only stable plan for the future is not to forget to enjoy my only life.
A message from More4kids:
Lena, thank you for sharing your powerful and personal story about the challenges of being a working mom during the unjustified war in Ukraine. Your honesty and bravery are truly inspiring. Your personal story sheds light on the difficulties that many families face during war and will undoubtedly provide comfort and support to others going through similar experiences. I hope and pray for you and your families safety. Your continued struggle and the struggle of your family does not go unnoticed, and we will always support brave moms like you, dads like Alex, and children like Mia.
May the Ukrainian Flag always fly strong!