Ukrainian Mothers

I had the distinct pleasure of being the keynote speaker at a Mother’s Day Banquet last week, honouring all those ladies without whom even our very existence would not have come to be. No doubt, we have much to be grateful for, yet very few give any thought as to what being a mother, and especially a Ukrainian mother, means, not only to us but to the community at large.

Of course my perspectives on this subject were shaped by my own experience, though I would imagine that most of my peers who were the kids of Ukrainian immigrants would echo most of my recollections and sentiments. The predominant characteristic of that parenting was the fact that, in Ukrainian homes, it was almost exclusively the mother’s responsibility. The dedication and love for us shown by our mothers was seldom matched on the father’s side.

Ukrainian fathers, conditioned as they were by old world macho and cliché views on gender roles, played primarily a disciplinary role in our upbringing. Which is not to say that our fathers didn’t love us as children. Most certainly they did, but they did not inherit the unconditional love gene that our mothers carried, and generally were not so uncritically accepting of us as our mothers were. There is also the theory, first voiced by the great philosopher Aristotle, who once said that mothers are fonder than fathers of their children because they are much more certain they are their own. Interesting observation, though not one that I would care to pursue further.

Our immigrant mothers had one major and significant challenge in their parenting that was not faced by Canadian mothers that had been born and raised here in Canada, and that was the influence of cultural displacement. Our mothers typically did not speak the native language here in Canada, be it English or French, and had been raised in an environment with different values, traditions, perceptions and culture. As their children grew up, went to Canadian schools and socialized with their non-Ukrainian playmates, they acquired beliefs, opinions and cultural mindsets that were totally different from that of their parents. This created stresses and conflicts within the family that were not easy to resolve. In many cases it led to dysfunctional families and life-long alienation. I am glad to say that though my life was not without its clashes with my parents, both they and I survived my road to adulthood without permanent damage. This was due in no small part, to the unconditional love that my mother had for all her children.

There is also one other important way that our Ukrainian mothers differed from most other Canadian mothers, and that is that a Ukrainian mother was not only the mother of her kids but also the mother of Ukrainian community life in Canada. I am sure that you are all aware of how in the past 125 years, Ukrainians in Canada have succeeded in building a vast infrastructure of churches, halls, cultural centers, and museums where our cultural, educational and organizational life is based. All those buildings were built as much with varenyky (perogies), patychky (shishkebobs) and holubtsi (cabbage rolls), as they were with bricks, wood and cement. All those Ukrainian schools, dance groups, choirs, cultural and educational events of all kinds would not have been possible if our mothers did not spend endless hours in steaming kitchens turning out literally millions and millions and millions of those varenyky. But it was not only the efforts in the kitchen – women and mothers did the lion’s share of the organizing, supporting, preparing and teaching that was necessary for the schools, the choirs, dance and drama groups, the concerts and all those cultural events that made the Ukrainian community so dynamic.

No doubt the work and efforts of us husbands and fathers contributed a lot too, but it was the dedicated labour of our mothers which was absolutely essential and indispensable to Ukrainian life here in Canada being as rich as what it was and still is, and for that we should all be immensely grateful.

I must be honest in admitting that I never came close to appreciating my mother’s hard work and effort when she was still alive. As kids and for most of our early adult life we kind of tend to take their sacrifice and toil for granted. As one wise man once said – the phrase “working mother” is redundant. It is only after we ourselves have gone through the trials and tribulations of parenting that we begin to understand how much work and sacrifice is involved.

As for us fathers, I have acquired one important piece of wisdom with regards to mothers. It is this – the most important thing a father can do for his children is to love their mother.