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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Motherhood Gets Another Try in New Russia

I gave birth to my first child when I was 24 years old. I already had a university degree and a year of work in a publishing house behind me. I was a junior editor -- the polite name for a secretary -- and earned 130 rubles a month. So my career was not an issue at the time. Moreover, I knew that after 1 1/2 years of maternity leave, I could return to my place of work.


As a rule, the atmosphere in the various Soviet medical institutions for future mothers was gloomy and malevolent. Pregnancy was not a time of joy but of tiresome analyses, constant waiting your turn at the prenatal clinics and observing various prohibitions.


The progress of a mother's pregnancy was kept secret from her. During the last month of my term, I was hospitalized because of the possibility of a premature birth. Ultrasounds were performed while doctors exchanged incomprehensible figures over my head. You could only guess what was happening with my child. And there was no question of finding out whether it was a girl or boy.


An acquaintance of mine had a girl on the day Brezhnev died. "I was lying in the corridor after the delivery. There was no room in the ward," she told me. "The radio was broadcasting only funeral music. I was happy. After all, I had just given birth to a daughter. I asked the nurse to turn down the sound. 'The country is mourning,' the nurse snapped, and turned the radio up as loud as it would go."


Much has been written about Soviet maternity homes. I will only say that what tormented me more than the physical pain and inconvenience was the impossibility of controlling the fate of myself and my child.


Moreover, when the baby was born, little changed.


The first thing my mother-in-law told me was: "Your life has now ended." I went through my first two years of motherhood feeling that my life had ended. I remember pulling my son around on a sled in March and thinking I would be carrying him this way my entire life: in the same courtyard, in the same coat, from autumn until spring, and that my life would never be any different.


In those days we had never heard of disposable diapers. We were fortunate: When my son was three months old, he was given rubber underpants in which paper diapers could be placed. Life was easier. But the doctor told us: "I only allow rubber underpants for the children of student parents. They don't have the time to wash diapers." It turned out we didn't have the right to an easier life.


Of course, you couldn't take your child with you anywhere other than the clinic. There are viruses everywhere. And it is better that you don't have guests. After a year of such a life, I began to fall into a true state of depression.


Nevertheless, I made a career as a literary translator, finished graduate school and became a journalist and theater critic. And so it happened that my son grew up along with me.


Young mothers today don't live the way mothers lived 10 years ago. There are all kinds of conveniences that have made life easier. The introduction of disposable diapers was, of course, a revolutionary event. I don't think anyone today would dare say they are the privilege of students.


I remember the first time I saw a young father carrying his child in a baby sling -- in Russia they are called kangaroo pouches -- as he looked at a painting in the Louvre. Until recently, such sights were unimaginable in Russia. Now, fortunately, kangaroo pouches are being used more and more. People seemed reconciled to seeing parents take their babies with them in public. And mothers have ceased feeling like hermits.


Private maternity homes have appeared recently where mothers have their own rooms, husbands are allowed to be present during delivery, and the medical staff is attentive. These are costly amenities that few can afford. Most women still give birth to their children in ordinary Soviet-style establishments where things have changed little or become worse.


Finally, the very process of expecting a baby has begun to be a joy. There are stores with clothes for the future mother -- denim overalls have replaced depressing formless dresses.


Minding the child is no longer as hard as it used to be. Before, it never entered anyone's head to hire a nanny for a child who was still nursing. Where could you find a nanny whom you could trust with the child and apartment? Second, people were afraid to take responsibility for such small children. Now there are agencies where you can obtain nannies for children of any age -- for $2 per hour.


This progress has reached, however, only a very narrow slice of the population. Most people remain under the same Soviet conditions, only in more difficult material circumstances. Those who are in financial straits decide not to have children. Many of my friends who had a child when they were young and would like a second fear destroying the precarious material well-being they have attained.


At the start of the '90s, birth rates fell drastically and maternity homes became almost empty. They later began to grow again, at least in Moscow. This was partly because of women who had put off having a child until the past year or two. Some feared giving birth during years of growing crime, threats of civil war, material instability and uncertainty (many families simply fell apart). Others adopted Western ways of behavior: They put off having children until they attained some standing in society.


And I wanted finally to feel the joys of maternity about which I have heard much but that I practically did not experience with my first baby.


I had my second child -- a daughter -- when I was 35. According to Western notions, I am an typical young mother, if you leave aside that I already have an 11-year-old son. So you could say I carried out a social experiment on myself. Two children were born according to two models -- a Western and Soviet one.


What interested me most about my second birth was the possibility of controlling my own fate. This time I could choose the maternity home and doctor I wanted, and even the method of delivery. As a result, it was not a frightening trial but an interesting adventure.


I was given ultrasound several times at the clinic and each time was shown the child on the screen. Her sex could be determined only two weeks before the delivery, but I knew it was a girl.


Now I don't have any leaves of absence since I do not work for a state institution. I have tried as much as possible not to change my way of life, and went on three business trips during my pregnancy. Now that my daughter is almost 3 months old I am gradually starting to work.


My second experiment has only begun, however. "It's still early to draw conclusions," said Mao Tse-tung, when he was asked what he thought of the French Revolution.





Irina Glushchenko is an independent journalist who writes for Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Dom Aktyora. She contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.