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Opinion: Having a child during wartime is terrifying, but it’s still worth it

June 21, 2024 9:25 PM 5 min read
Svitlana Kopyshchyk, 24, holds newborn baby boy Marko moments after he was born at the Lutsk Maternity hospital in Lutsk, Ukraine, on Aug. 9, 2023. (Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)
June 21, 2024 9:25 PM 5 min read
Kate Tsurkan
Kate Tsurkan
Culture reporter at the Kyiv Independent
This audio is created with AI assistance

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My child was just a few days old when they heard the air raid siren for the first time. We were still in the maternity hospital, and I was enjoying a moment of much-needed rest. I glanced over nervously into their crib to see if the sound would wake them from their sleep, but it didn’t even register with them. They slept right through it.

We live in western Ukraine, which is much safer than other parts of the country. Our oblast, like every other, deals with constant scheduled blackouts because of the Russian attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. You can count on one hand the number of times our oblast has been targeted by missile and drone attacks in the past two and a half years—the air raid siren is a nuisance more than anything else here. Yet, no child should have to hear it, even without the accompanying sounds of explosions.

I had to sign a waiver during my hospital admission acknowledging that I was not obligated to go to the shelter during an air raid siren if I didn’t want to and that I understood all the potential risks in not doing so. While my thoughts were preoccupied with the imminent birth of my child and the several days that had already passed since their due date, I did hesitate briefly before signing the waiver.

I couldn't help but wonder if my child somehow sensed the world they were being born into and wanted to stay in the womb as long as possible.

For now, my child lives in blissful ignorance. They have no real understanding of war, occupation, air raid sirens, missiles, drones, or the existence of a country called the Russian Federation that wants to tear them away from their home, send them off to some brainwashed Russian family, or, if that fails, just kill them.

Ukraine’s Prosecutor General reported in early June that over 800 children have been killed since Russia’s war against Ukraine started in 2014, with at least 551 of those deaths having occurred since the start of the full-scale war. Over 19,000 Ukrainian children are known to have been abducted by Russia, according to a government database. When the war ends, these numbers are likely to become much higher.

A baby sleeps in a baby carriage next to his parents in the village of Pokashchiv in Lutsk Oblast, Ukraine, on Aug. 15, 2023. (Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

The weight of this reality looms over every new parent in Ukraine. How soon and how much should you expose your child to it? Will such decisions mean the difference between life and death?

Meanwhile, the children who woke up to a new reality at the start of the full-scale war on Feb. 24, 2022, have had little time to process their lost innocence. They attend makeshift schools in underground subway systems to continue their education despite ongoing shelling. They learn to move around with prosthetics after losing limbs in Russian attacks. They visit the graves of their fathers…

The worst feeling in the world is to look at your child and worry that a normal childhood will be a luxury for them. It’s the constant fear that you’ll never truly be able to protect them no matter what you do. The fear that they’ll lose either or both parents. The fear that someday they’ll recognize the sounds of air defense and start crying. The fear that such sounds will become so commonplace that you find yourself angrily reminding them about the threat they signify. The fear that day-to-day life could become so dangerously unlivable that you’ll have to flee the country…

There are too many fears to list, and you have to tune them out so as not to drown in them. Despite all these fears, you have to keep on living. You have to keep on living with the understanding that this war will shape your family’s entire life in some form or another.

I often find myself trying to envision my child's future, much like any parent would. There are playful family debates as to whether they’re destined for a career involved in making cutting-edge scientific discoveries or performing in show business. In the end, we just want them to be happy and healthy. Most importantly, we want them to live with a peaceful sky overhead.

No matter how vivid your imagination, there are aspects of the future that can’t be understood until you live through them. Generational divides always exist between parents and their children, even though we all embark on what starts out as a similar path toward adulthood.

A man and his wife hold their newborn baby with their French bulldog puppy in their bedroom in Svitlana's parents home in the village of Pokashchiv in Lutsk Oblast, Ukraine, on Aug.15, 2023. (Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

My child’s education will likely someday include classes about operating drones or performing first aid. Obligatory military service will likely be much more normalized, too—as much a right of passage as studying for their driver’s license. It’s impossible to think otherwise, to comfort oneself with the illusion that, once the war ends, civilian life will look as it did before the start of the full-scale invasion.

How will classes in history, language, and literature in school change? Will my child and other Ukrainian schoolchildren appreciate the rules of Ukrainian grammar on a deeper level knowing that in occupied territories teachers were deliberately targeted by Russian troops? Will the words of Ukrainian authors, like the 19th-century national poet Taras Shevchenko, resonate with their generation, knowing that Russia has, for hundreds of years, only wanted to see Ukrainian books burn? Will the sacrifices of each Ukrainian before them, who believed in and fought for their country's independence, inspire them to become an active citizen and make their country better?

The future in Ukraine is even more uncertain because of Russia’s war. While there’s a lot to be thankful for and a lot to look forward to, there’s a lot to worry about, too. A lot to mourn.

In addition to thinking of factors like finances, lifestyle, and education, parents in wartime Ukraine also have to take into account things like the situation on the front line, the toll that daily Russian attacks have on mental health, the extent to which their city is directly targeted, the hits taken by the economy, and the degree of threat that can change at a moment’s notice.

This all makes having a child during wartime kind of terrifying, not to mention a highly individual decision. But for me and so many others, it’s still worth it.

To know that family bonds will guide you through a world that has always been unforgiving and cruel. To know that you’re leaving behind a legacy. To know that despite Russia’s efforts to spread death, you choose to spread compassion and hope.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in the op-ed section are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the views of the Kyiv Independent.

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