June 2, 2010

To say that Ukrainians love their children more than other people love theirs, is a naïve thing to say. But there, I’ve said it. All because I can’t help thinking that there is something to it.

Certainly in Soviet times a newborn represented something beyond the state; a promise of a better future. It gave meaning to adult lives in a country where a man or woman’s potential was achieved rarely, and where other distractions such as foreign travel, or entertainment such as films, literature, and cinema were restricted.

Today, I’d like to share with you three stories of childbirth that I can confirm are true. They provide some insight into life in Ukraine and Russia.

The first concerns a woman who left Ukraine to give birth in Moscow in the belief that the facilities are better there. She signed a contract for several thousand dollars with the doctor who would deliver the child and who would pull together the team necessary for the delivery. Everything looked very professional.

Whilst the woman was in labour, just before the epidural was administered, the anaesthetist shocked the labouring woman by telling her that she wanted more money if she was to remain in the room. The woman agreed and, thankfully, everything went smoothly, and the delivery was successful. As is often the case in Russia the baby was tightly swaddled and separated from the mother for 24-hours. The mother was told that this procedure would give her time to recover her strength.

The second example is of a friend who gave birth in Ukraine. She chose carefully the hospital where she wanted to deliver, and consulted with, and was accepted by the head doctor. There was no discussion of the cost of the service, but it was unambiguous that the mother was expected to pay the people involved in the process, and for any equipment used (which her family purchased from the pharmacy situated in the foyer of the hospital.)

When labour started, she checked into the hospital, and the next day gave birth to a beautiful baby boy. Mother and child were united moments after the baby was born. Before checking out, the mother paid all members of staff who had assisted in the process (including those who had cleaned the room) and she also paid for the room where she stayed for 48-hours.

The point that strikes me from these two anecdotes is a point I make in the chapter “Sex and the Soviets” in Among the Ukrainians: in Russia childbirth is seen primarily a population issue, whereas in Ukraine childbirth is a family issue. It’s a small but subtle difference. In the chapter I also look at how this influences the way in which women are seen in the two countries.

My third anecdote concerns a village family in Ukraine. The family’s younger daughter was 3-months pregnant, and so she got married with her boyfriend. When they learned the unborn child was a girl they were overjoyed. They wanted a girl very much. But it was more than that: the girl’s niece-the extended family shared the four room village house-was also pregnant with a girl.

As in second example, they found a doctor that would make the delivery, though their funds were more limited and, therefore, their choice of doctor was limited.

When labour contractions started the girl rushed to hospital, but it was soon evident that she was passing blood. The doctor ordered gas anaesthetic to be administered, whilst a Caesarean operation was performed. When the girl came round, she was told the baby had been born dead, and that she did not need to pay for the room, the doctors or any of the staff. She was given the baby wrapped in a blanket and she buried it in the village cemetery. She was given no explanation as to why the baby had died, and back in the village she received no counselling. Her niece’s healthy daughter is a daily reminder of a daughter she might have had.

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