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Being a young mother in Ukraine


The fact of my unplanned pregnancy revealed itself at the most unfavourable moment. I was a 19-year old employee at a giant multinational nuclear-power control company, taking purposeful steps to a hopefully brilliant career (after graduating from an exclusive British public school, I was confident I could easily climb the social ladder); a part-time fashion model, a bubbly addition to any cheery company  you name it! However, there was something that I defiantly did not see myself in  those cozy little groups of mothers with baby-carriages, talking about soups and nappies, all of them dull and remote from major joys of life which I was about to cherish.

The pregnancy test came out vaguely positive (the second, crucial stripe was bleak, almost invisible). To be sure, I went to have another, more sophisticated check-up, ultrasound. And there it was. The doctors face was almost shining with the tender luminance of that new life he saw in me.

What are you going to do? he asked, as I lay there, helpless and in disbelief.

I will not have the child, I answered calmly.

And on my way to the abortion clinic I suddenly realized that that thing in me is a living creature who had nothing to do with my current social and personal situation. The baby, whom I am about to kill is less important than work, studies and high heels and fashionable dresses? And for the rest of my life I will keep wondering what colour would have been his (or her?) first cup, first sweat shirt and which words could have come out from this little creatures tiny mouth?

With tears in my eyes I rushed back home as fast as my trembling legs could take me.

The shocking news of my pregnancy was taken very coldly (to say the least) by the majority of my friends and relatives. You must be crazy they said, while I wanted to scream to the entire world that my belly is growing and cant fit into my favourite jeans any more, that not to be sick in the morning you must simply eat as early as you wake up and that going to the toilet several times per night is OK. What everyone else wanted to talk to me about was my university which I was ready to abandon for a two-year maternity leave, my fiance, who was 20 years my senior and did not quite fit the role of an ideal father and my work, which I had to quit because I had an audacious plan to start my own business (just a week before I had the ultrasound).

The last exam session I had when I was between the 16-th and 18-th week of pregnancy. I had absolutely no problems with any of the subjects, plus the awakening interest for borshch (a Ukrainian national soup) and other meals helped me establish friendly relations with the female part of the teaching staff, who eagerly shared their recipes and useful cooking tips.

I received my drivers licence a week later.

My wedding was plain and unofficial  I was 6 months into my pregnancy though, my belly looking as tender as ever, gently poking through the blue silk of my summer dress. We did not have a party, nor did I feel that anything had changed, but I was a married woman by now.

The hard times began in August, when the heat of the city finally got me and I felt myself a feeble and helpless cripple. My husband was at work from 8 a.m. till 8 p.m. and routine things and chores like going to the market place and cooking lunches turned out to be a real problem. With what envy I stared at other mothers to be, who were pampered by their numerous relatives and friends. It happened that my mom was almost 500 miles away from me and my dad was working day and night and both grand mothers were too old and needed care themselves. And I was hungry. Being hungry whilst you are pregnant has nothing to do with an ordinary everyday hunger. It leaps on you, twists you, it adds a black tint to what you see and makes you dizzy. I would go to the market place, counting kopecks, choosing vegetables as a connoisseur would choose a Bordeaux for his wine collection; then I would walk back, making frequent stops, taking a breath and panting, wondering how in my earlier days I could cover this distance in 15 minutes.

I washed the floors, vacuum-cleaned and pealed potatoes bitterly crying in self-pity.

I needed daytime sleep. I wanted care and attention and my husbands fear of losing his freedom and depression grew proportionally to my belly, which could not fit into any remaining loose clothing I had, so a near-by second hand store was inspected for some big-sized jeans and dresses, all of them practically new and for very moderate prices.

The medical care in Ukraine is supposedly free, however the quality is arguable. I will just mention 3-hour-long waiting lines in front of the doctors office where in the unconditioned heat a crowd of angry pregnant women are sitting on hard benches. But the doctor who was in charge of my pregnancy did her work well and always had a good piece of advice for me. When I was past 36 weeks of pregnancy I came to a routine check-up with a complaint for strong pains in the back. The doctor saw a threat of premature birth and send me to a hospital.

Being in a close circle with pregnant girls was a paradise for me. We all talked about babies, shared our fears and wonders and joyfully commented our feelings whenever these invisible masters of our lives would start kicking and stirring. And we all were in a state of constant expectation. Day and night we dreamt about the moment when we would finally see our soon-to-be-born babes whom we thought we loved.

The day of November 2 2001 is one of my dearest and happiest memories.

I heard enough horror stories about post-soviet hospitals, nasty nurses, complete neglect and no respect for women in labour. I never believed any of these stories and entered the maternity ward with a huge smile on my face and a bundle of jokes and funny stories for everyone. I remember sitting with an ancient, huge, metal alarm-clock (made back in the soviet times, with a loud tick-tack) surrounded by a group of pregnant girls, all counting the intervals between my contractions. They were not at all painful and I was all the time laughing. If we knew it was THAT easy, we would have never worried in the past 9 months  one of the women said. The doctor had to come for me three times  I kept refusing to go saying, Im not ready yet! to fetch to the delivery room. I was given a terrible looking shirt, all in unwashable brown stains and ripped all the way down to my bellybutton. All of my possessions were sealed in plastic bags and given to the nurses. I was not allowed neither a book nor a mobile phone, and even no socks. Later I learned that for money it is possible to have a separate room, with a TV set, air conditioning and even a husband to cheer you up during the labour.

In my case, however, it was all very official and gloomy. I was not given any anaesthetics and was left all to myself lying on an ordinary bed in a small room which had a device that monitored the heartbeat of my baby and measured the strength of contractions. I was all by myself and still cheerful, humming McCartneys Hope of Deliverance until the pain got to be too bad. When the time came I was walked to another room, which looked like an operation hall.

My son was handed over to me almost immediately after he was born. We were both taken to a new ward where two more mothers with their newly born babies stayed. In compliance with a silly local superstition I had absolutely no childrens things with me and had to wait for more than 12 hours for my husband to arrive with a bag full of nappies, tissues, socks, hats and other things I badly needed. I was terribly hungry, thirsty, dirty, and had absolutely no one to help me. But I felt strong and happy.

We could not afford a baby-sitter, so from 8 a.m. till 8 p.m. at home were just me and Sasha, my newly born son. None of my friends and relatives are able to comprehend how on earth did I manage to write two books, learn HTML, DHTML, CGI and Java (and create 3 professional websites) to earn my living by teaching English and to remain a caring and loving mother at the same time.

The first trick I learned was on the first day in hospital. Still from Soviet times comes a tradition to feed the newlyborn at fixed hours, in order to develop discipline and order. I thought it was badly wrong to wake up the sleeping child to nurse him and then to stand patiently his crying when there is still an hour to go till feeding time. Thus we built a perfect routine, he could spend hours near my breast and I would be reading textbooks and writing novels. He rarely cried and I am proud to say that we never had the sleepless nights by which all of my friends tried to scare me while I was pregnant. I found it natural to have the baby always with me, and if I had to travel from one end of the city to another I would simply put Sasha into a sling over my shoulder where he would sleep most of the way, and ignoring the shocked stares of the crowd, I would do whatever I planned to. If he started crying I would find a bench and breast feed him (people were shocked even more).

In Ukraine, there is a strange wide spread conviction that with a baby under 3 years old you should never go further than the local store, keep the apartment as sterile as it is in a hospital and spend most of your time ironing bed sheets, sterilising bottles and cooking kashas (the Ukrainian word for all kinds of gruels and porridge-like dishes). Ignoring doctors advice, I fed my son with breast milk till he was 18 months old and did not treat him to any normal food untill he was almost 9 months old.

When he was 7 months we travelled in a car almost 500 miles, all the way to the Black Sea. We lived in tents right on the beach and swam in unhygienic water which was far below the recommended 37 C. And the fact that in his first year the baby never had even a cold proves that all I did was right.

Back at home, Sasha was always kept naked. The overdressed children, of whom I saw so many on the streets and in the parks always made me upset, as well as the typical parental command: stop running  youll sweat and catch a cold! So from the very first day the baby was lying on a small blanket spread on the floor, with a piece of cloth on top of it, which I would change the moment it got wet. I guess it was more fun for him than to stay in bed all the time. Plus there was a real economy of nappies, clothing and washing powder. And we never had any problems with irritated skin and never used any baby oils or creams. Everything was very natural.

Sleeping with babies is considered wrong and unhygienic in post-soviet countries. But I cant imagine something more natural than that! And I never had to get up at night to nurse him. The baby could find the breast and feed himself even without waking me up! I was told that it would be impossible to teach him to sleep by himself but after being weaned at the age of 18 months, he himself preferred to sleep separately.

By the time Sasha was 3 months old, I started working at the computer for at least 6 hours per day. He would be lying in the same room somewhere on the floor and he practically never distracted me. I learned how to avoid many extra problems by simply not creating them. When at the age of 6 months he started actively crawling around and showed great interest in anything that surrounded him I removed all items that might be dangerous and never objected to him playing with saucepans, meat grinders, old computer keyboards and phone sets.

Every day we would go out for a walk and stay out for at least 2 hours (even when it was minus 20). These walks plus the absence of a lift in our house (I had to drag the baby carriage up and down 4 floors or 9 flights of stairs) turned out to be a really good exercise and it took me just a month to return to my usual weight of 58 kilos and a waste of 60 centimetres.

As far as meals and sleep are concerned I have never forced him to eat or sleep when he did not want to. That also saved me a lot of time and effort. I like cooking and for some reason it never takes me more that 40 minutes and the equivalent of 10 US dollars to make a big delicious lunch.

The best way to read baby books and tell stories is during 15 minutes breaks that I make every hour while working at the computer. I lie down on the floor, read books to Sasha, let him have a look at the pictures, tell him stories and play with him. After some time, Sasha gets tired and distracted and I quietly return to work.

We often go shopping together, drop into bars and restaurants and Sasha is a nice companion, he never misbehaves and I think this is because from the very first days I treat him as an equal and when he does something wrong I never yell at him or beat him but simply say: This is bad, dont do this anymore.

Now I realize that being a mother is the best experience I have had so far. I have learned how to be strong, independent and caring. My baby not only never got in my way, but actually helped to get organized and to believe in myself. I know that no matter what I do  there will be always someone who needs and loves me.


By Olga Panasyeva

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