I am a mom-refugee. Here is what it feels like
I crossed the border on a ferry with my 2-month-old daughter when Russia started a war against my country.
I am a Ukrainian refugee who is building a new life in Canada to give my daughter the opportunity for a safe and happy childhood.
I want to tell you how it feels to be a mom-refugee and what kinds of challenges I face every single day.
Luckily, I was prepared for the war.
I got back home from the hospital with my newborn on Christmas Eve. It was the most special Christmas ever, and I clearly remember the magic of New Year’s Eve, too. But I also remember hugging my baby as tight as I could, crying, and whispering my wish to have my daughter safe. Because in those first days at home, I checked the news and realized that Russian troops were close to the border and were ready for full-scale war.
It was hard to believe that a war like that was possible, but I prepared an emergency pack with survival equipment, clothes, and many diapers. My family and friends were shocked by this, but I was the mom of a newborn. I had to be ready for anything.
Two months later, on February 2022, I read a news story in which Joe Biden was quoted as saying the war was going to start in 24 to 48 hours. I still couldn’t believe it.
I woke up around 5 a.m. to breastfeed my daughter. As she was nursing, I heard an explosion. I jumped up from the bed and shouted, “The war has started!” I felt a mix of fear and anger. I was so afraid that it was too late to save my baby.
Most people in Ukraine were paralyzed with fear at that time. But we jumped into the car and drove to the border of the closest NATO country, Romania. It felt like the worst nightmare, the worst film, but it was real.
We crossed the border on the ferry and drove to Poland, where we have relatives. Poland was so welcoming, and there were many, many volunteers and charity organizations. People gave Ukrainians literally everything — furniture, food, clothes.
We received huge bags with clothes for kids of different ages — they were for my daughter. These bags just killed me. They symbolized the mess that we were in, that turbulence. Obviously, there was nothing wrong with those bags. But they made me feel like my motherhood was collapsing.
In Ukraine, we had our own flat (in fact, we still have it) that was renovated for the baby. We had lovely nursery furniture. We had a nanny who was going to help me balance my career and motherhood. But in one moment, I lost what we had built.
At some point that spring, I found myself with a strong wish to buy beautiful dresses for my daughter. It didn’t make sense. She was four months old, and we knew we wouldn’t stay in Poland, but I needed those dresses to confirm I was alive, I was a mother, and my baby was safe.
I have heard so many same stories of Ukrainian women who found themselves crying in shops near beautiful dresses. Because those dresses reminded us of our ruined lives. At that point, none of us could believe we would have an occasion to wear beautiful dresses: we no longer had anything to celebrate.
The biggest challenge of being a mom-refugee is not to let the Russians steal and destroy my dreams, my vision of motherhood – to protect my unique experience of being a mom for the first time.
That’s why I didn’t accept a free crib here in Canada and spent months looking for a new one to buy for our daughter. Actually, the crib was one more illustration of ruined dreams. Back in Kyiv, we bought and assembled a lovely white baby crib a few months before our daughter was born. She slept there for less than two months. Remotely we gave this crib to our friends who were expecting a baby after we left. Their baby also spent just a few months in it. The situation became even more dangerous, so they decided to move to protect their baby.
Back in Kyiv we had a nanny, as I didn’t want to take a leave. Since I worked from home, a nanny was the perfect option. My plan was that my daughter would start daycare around age three — this is when we usually do this in Ukraine. In Canada, kids are going to daycare even before age one. Although I respect other people’s choice to do this, it’s in conflict with my vision of motherhood and my understanding of babies’ development. It was super challenging and meant making sacrifices, but I protected this vision, and I am sticking with it, even now as a refugee in Canada. Because the Russians are trying not only to destroy Ukraine as a country but also individual Ukrainians’ lives, our dreams, and our future. I refuse to let that happen.
Being a mom and a refugee means making sacrifices every day. It means making difficult choices. Basically, you have to decide whether you are staying at home to fight or moving to another country where your kid can have a ‘normal life.’ Both options make you feel bad.
If you choose to be a mom first and move to another country to protect your child, you feel like a traitor. And if you choose to stay and help the army, you feel you are a bad mom because your child isn’t safe. Every mom has to decide this by herself, and there is no ‘right’ answer.
For those who decide to stay abroad, there is a whole new set of questions. Is it ok to go to a café with your kids? What about a water park? Or a vacation? Is it ok to have these aspects of normal life when your people are dying, when Russians are attacking the cities where your loved ones live? Should we be listening to music? Smiling? Having sex? Making friends? These might seem like minor concerns compared to facing the danger of war, but sometimes they make ‘normal’ feel very far away.
I haven’t seen my friends and most of my family for 18 months. My granny has seen her great-granddaughter just once. And I don’t know when they will meet again. I don’t know when I will once again have my community and finally feel like I am not an alien. But this is all nothing compared to the fact that my daughter laughs, runs, and sleeps peacefully at night.
But again, the goal is not simply to survive. The goal is to live a full life, to enjoy every moment of motherhood, and basically to remember it. Because I barely remember spring 2022 — just random moments. I’m grateful for the opportunity to reclaim my dreams, even if it isn’t easy.
#StandWithUkraine and invite mom refugees for a coffee. They need this. We need this.