Our latest series at Nursing Clio, “Maternity at War,” takes perhaps obvious inspiration from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Coverage of the war, which began over six months ago on February 24, 2022, has been peppered with stories of mothers. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, for example, used an attack on a maternity hospital to underscore the inhumanity of Russian power and the need for global support.
Historians have long noted the ways that nations often use the suffering, violation, and murder of women and children as a metaphor for the larger national suffering during wartime. But as I watched this conflict begin in real time, rather than through the distant gaze of the historian, the stories of pregnant women and mothers underscored to me the simultaneously horrific, banal, and surreal nature of war. I observed the mental shift among Ukranians, both in interviews and on social media, from a mindset of peace to the mindset of war, and the recognition that their world was fundamentally different, their lives no longer safe. In the midst of it all, pregnancies came to term, children had to be fed and protected, and motherhood continued in both familiar and totally unfamiliar ways.
The initial idea for this series came out of a desire to explore this space between the known and unknown of pregnancy and motherhood during wartime. On the one hand, the demands of pregnancy and childcare remain the same while, on the other hand, they require women to navigate a world turned upside down by conflict.
The series also reminds us that mothers so often, and so quickly, become metaphors and symbols, but it is important for historians to remember that those narratives are heightened, in some cases sanitized, and routinely detached from the messy realities of war. The invasion of Ukraine reminds us that mothers experience and participate in warfare in myriad ways, not only as fleeing civilians. Women make up roughly fifteen percent of the Ukrainian army, which is in part a legacy of women’s participation in the Soviet army during WWII. In March, a mother of two decided to fight in the war, telling NPR she did “this for my children and for my country.”
The war in Ukraine also disrupted motherhood in a relatively new way. Thanks to the modern technologies that make surrogacy possible, roughly 2,000 children born each year in Ukraine have foreign parents. This created what the New York Times Magazine called a “logistical and ethical mess” as surrogate parents desperately tried to remove surrogate mothers from the most dangerous cities even as those Ukrainian women wanted to remain with their families. The novel realities of surrogacy are juxtaposed by a much more ancient reality of war: rape. It is an upsetting reminder that pregnancy and motherhood can be used as tools of war. Women crossing into Poland who have experienced such sexual violence are being met with another stark reality: Poland’s extremely strict abortion laws.
Ultimately, the choices facing Ukrainian women at this moment are both unique and universal. This series aims to highlight the ways that women have navigated pregnancy and motherhood during wartime across a number of countries and in different eras while also considering how the state has imagined their motherhood. In the process, we hope to shed light on the myriad ways motherhood has shaped war, and war has shaped motherhood.