When last year, on May the 26th, I happened to be on the Warsaw metro, I saw many people, of various ages – both children and adults – travelling with flowers or gifts for their mothers. And no doubt it will be no different this year. Mothers in cities as well as small villages across the entire Poland will receive cards, flowers, gifts, hugs and kisses from their kids. They will attend performances in preschools, schools and cultural centres dedicated to them. It will be Mother's Day. Celebrated in Poland during the most beautiful month of the year, when everything is in bloom and seems to be teeming with life. A month which – so symbolically – is devoted to Mary, the most important Mother in the Catholic tradition of our country.
Over the years, for Poles, nurturing family ties has remained one of the key values. Their significance was made clear in a survey conducted at the turn of 2014 for the Mother's and Father's Foundation (Fundacja Mamy i Taty). According to its results, the family "despite necessary sacrifices, provides a feeling of security, makes life meaningful, brings happiness and helps to build relationships."
And Poles are certain of this, despite the fact that they are finding it ever more difficult to set up a family and the decision to have children is harder to make than before. According to Eurostat data, the age at which women are having their first child is rising. In the early 1990s in Poland it was 23, and by 2013 it increased to 26.7 years. As a comparison, in Hungary that figure is 27.7 years with the European average at 28.7. Inevitably the Polish society, together with the rest of Europe is aging. According to data, the decision to have a child is more difficult in prosperous Europe than in poorer regions of the world. However, lets also look at the bright side of the changes which occurred in recent decades. Advances in medicine have resulted in a significant increase to the average human life expectancy and a decrease in child deaths. Today, women for whom until recently motherhood was beyond their wildest dreams, can have children. Progress in psychology has contributed to the mother – child relationship being a more conscious and creative experience. The proliferation of information and knowledge sharing opportunities on a global scale has meant that contemporary mothers view their roles differently than their mothers or grandmothers.
So what is the modern Polish mother like? How does she experience motherhood? What does family mean for her? I decided to ask those who know best – the mothers themselves. The following agreed to share their thoughts with me: Joanna Solan – a mother of four daughters and a manager in an international corporation, Magdalena Sikorska – a disabled mother, Ewa – an adoptive mother and Joanna Jarząb – a mother of an adult only son.
A WORKING GIRL
Joanna Solan gets up at 6.00 am and makes breakfast for all the six people in her family. For them meals taken together are very important, so they will sit down and eat as a family. After breakfast, on her way to work she drives her 13-year old Gabriela and 10-year old Ula to school, whilst Radek, her husband, takes Kasia and Ola, the 6-year old twins to preschool. Upon arriving at the office, Joanna starts with putting on make-up, as at home, due to the tight schedule, she has no time for it. She spends between eight to ten hours at work. The older daughters make their way home from school by themselves, and the father, who does not have a nine-to-five job, brings home the younger offspring. When Joanna gets home, she doesn't even change out of her work clothes, so as not to waste the time which her daughters need. Often, once she crosses her threshold, all four of them talk to her at the same time about happy and sad things which happened on that day. Firstly, she spends time with the twins, as they go to sleep first on account of being the youngest: "I play games with them, we go for walks or draw together. I try to find out what their day was like. Sometimes children need time, or the right moment to open up and talk about things that are important to them." Then comes the time for a family supper. After the meal, the father takes over Kasia and Ola so that Joanna can spend some time with the middle daughter: "I read stories to her and she draws. Even though she can read by herself, she likes to spend time with me like that. It helps her to quieten down." When Ula is getting ready to go to bed, Joanna tries to interact with her eldest daughter, despite the fact that she does not spend time with her is such a strictly defined manner as with the younger children: "She is already at an age where she has her own world in her room, with the doors tightly shut, but our individual relationship thrives when I drive her to various activities or when we go clothes shopping together. Sometimes Gabrysia comes to me out of her own accord, just to talk." At the end of the day there is still a little bit of time left for the husband. However, there is definitely not enough of that and that is why, once a year, Joanna and Radek go somewhere for a week by themselves. Their weekends are also well organised. The obligatory "hour for the family" on Sundays, with activities for the whole family, even though it is no easy feat to find something which the 13-year old and the 6-year olds enjoy. Ever since the twins were born, Grażyna, Joanna's mother has been helping a lot, regularly coming from Olsztyn to visit her daughter. She cooks, takes the children for walks and looks after them when they are ill.
Joanna Solan fot Marta Dzbeńska-Karpińska
"Motherhood is one of the most amazing things which have happened to me. Getting to know your children, discovering their talents, sharing their happy and sad moments are wonderful experiences. On the one hand I consider it to be a gift, a challenge and a great responsibility, and on the other hand it is a kind of an art, as being a mum requires one to be creative and to constantly come up with new solutions.
When my children reached preschool age, I returned to work. I know what I am capable of and I want to pursue my professional career, but it is challenging for me, as I know that for a woman with four children, working full time distorts the priorities. I rush, trying to spend time with my family, time which is often in short supply, and from year to year fatigue brought about by the circumstances deepens. That is the negative side, but I also see the positives. It seems to me that I am very well organised simply because I have no other choice. Because I have so little time, my daughters have to be self-reliant and help with chores which, under different circumstances I would do myself.
In my opinion, if having a larger family comes from the heart, then it brings a certain blessing and fulfilment.
MOTHERHOOD DESPITE OF BARRIERS
Since early childhood, Magdalena Sikorska has been suffering from spinal muscular atrophy type two (SMA II) – a progressive genetic disorder, as a result of which, as a child, she became wheelchair-bound. Professionally she works as a computer graphic designer, and socially she is a spokesperson for disabled people in the Gostyń commune. As a disabled person she was never prepared for the role of a partner, wife or a mother: "Truth be told I did not allow myself to think that I could fall in love, that I could be a mother. When I met my future husband, everything just seemed to click. We did not meet with matrimony in mind, but we fell in love. Later, unexpectedly – though I realise this sounds strange in the twenty first century – it turned out that I was pregnant." The pregnancy was not only surprising but also scary. They were facing questions as to whether Magdalena will be able to carry the pregnancy to term and whether a surgical delivery – the only possible solution in her case – would not further impair the functioning of her body. The local gynaecologist which they went to see at first was unable to answer that question: "That fear and the fact that Felek's appearance was so unexpected meant that we began looking for the best doctors, who would be able to help us. And it seems to me that we found them. Their knowledge contributed to a successful parturition. Because even though the course of the pregnancy itself was entirely normal, the delivery, which took place through a C-section at a specialised clinic in Warsaw, could have ended in disaster if performed anywhere else.
Adam took advantage of the opportunity afforded by the job he had at the time and took a year off in order to look after his new-born son and his wife, who needs assistance with everyday tasks, such as getting into the wheelchair, washing and getting dressed. They managed on their own, essentially without much help from their families who live quite far away. A year down the line the couple sought the assistance of carers, who looked after Felek. Magdalena is quick to emphasise that they were extremely lucky here and met some wonderful people.
Magdalena Sikorska ze zbiorów własnych
"Not only did motherhood surprise me, it terrified me. But now, after eight years, I can say that it is the most beautiful thing that has happened to me in my life. Today I know, that I could not have made any other decision than the one to see the pregnancy through. Motherhood is wonderful. It brings deep happiness. I do not know what kind of a mum I am, as Felek sometimes says that he hates me (when I forbid him from doing something), and sometimes that I am the best mum in the world.
I cannot hide my disability, but I am trying to get Felek used to it. Sometimes we joke about it. Felek really likes my wheelchair, he thinks it’s a great vehicle. He still does not see the wheelchair as a stigma. Nevertheless I sometimes see that he yearns for normality and would want me to be more able. We would be able to spend time together differently then. When it turned out that there is a drug for SMA and Felek found out that I am going to do some tests to see if it is suitable for me, he began asking whether I will be able to run with him once I take these medicines. I had to disappoint him, because even if I go through with the treatment, there will be no such spectacular results.
Despite everything, the wheelchair is a barrier. When Felek was little, it was a barrier to cuddling. That's why we devised a system for him to ride on my right arm rest. In our town we are known for moving about like that – me on my wheelchair and Felek on my right arm rest. Well, despite being 8 years old and more than 140 cm tall he still wants to do that. When he sits there he is taller than me. It looks comical.
I would wish for all future mothers, who find themselves in a situation similar to mine, not to have to go through what I had to. Not to experience that surprise and fear. I would want them to know what to do in advance and to be able to make an informed decision. But that is not so. I have just been to a conference on sexuality, procreation and parenthood for people with disabilities and it turns out that throughout the nine years or so since I became pregnant almost nothing has changed. And that is scary. Poland is lacking in education for families with disabled children in terms of their future parenthood. GPs and gynaecologists do not know how to appropriately help and guide a disabled patient."
THE MOST BEAUTIFUL IN THE WORLD
They spoke about adoption for the first time before marriage. No one knows why they began thinking about what would happen if they were unable to have children. Then Ewa's fiancé said: "Well, we'll adopt." And no more was said. After the wedding Ewa quickly became pregnant. And she lost the pregnancy even quicker. She never managed to be with child again. Tests did not show any problems. The subject of adoption came back like a boomerang. Before visiting an adoption centre for the first time, just to get some information, she was scared and had doubts. After the visit all her worries were long gone. They had to wait almost three years before receiving news of siblings for adoption: "I was extremely emotional. It was so bad that my legs were shaking when we were walking into the orphanage. They introduced all the children to us, and we were introduced as guests. We knew the names of our children in advance, and when I first laid my eyes on them, I couldn’t stop thinking: Oh God, these are the most beautiful children in the world. I had to sit down next to my son on the floor right there and then, otherwise I would have collapsed." Ewa has tears in her eyes when she talks about that first meeting.
Since then, they have been so busy that they've been running on automatic mode. They rearranged the house and organised everything the children needed – clothes, beds, car seats and toys. They visited the orphanage on a daily basis. After two weeks the children came home with them: "The first evening was difficult, as we tried to stick to a schedule too strictly and put them to bed at 6 pm. As they were used to going to bed at around 8 pm at the orphanage, they couldn't fall asleep for three hours. Together with my husband we did not know what to do – we sang, danced, took them out of their beds and put them back in... A nightmare. It took three hours. Next day we used common sense and they fell asleep in 15 minutes." This was the start of sleepless nights for Ewa and her husband, as throughout the initial months one of the children would wake up crying six or even nine times in a night. As they were warned, the other child woke up before 5 in the morning. That kid does not like to waste time on sleep to this day.
A year down the line and Ewa's maternity leave came to an end. They managed to get places for their children in the best preschool in the area. They were lucky and their children were accepted rather than put an long waiting lists. "Everything was going fine, until two days before the first day of preschool. Then I realised that I do not want to be away from my children for such a long time, each and every day. I realised that there is nothing a preschool can give them which I cannot. And that they will lose their mum for a few hours a day - a mum which they did not have before. And for them, there is nothing more important than their mother. My husband came home from work and found me in tears. When I told him that I cannot imagine sending our children to preschool, his response was short: It that's how you feel, then they aren't going. He trusted my intuition." That was when they began their adventure with home schooling and in retrospect they think it was the right decision.
"For a long time I thought that I am unfit to be a mother. I am an only child, just like my husband, and I wasn't around small children all that much. Well, I was never crazy about our friends' kids. I just wasn't interested in them. Once my husband said to me: You are a mother already, you just need the kids. I did not believe it at the time. However, when I met our children and when they came to our house, on the inside I automatically became a mother. It came to me suddenly. I had no qualms about it. I wasn't worried at all. I took to that role like a duck to water.
Children sometimes ask: Mummy, was I ever in your tummy? We have a story entitled How we found each other. At one stage, when driving in a car the children would constantly ask me to tell that story: Mummy, mummy, tell us how we found each other. I would tell them with more or less details. However, sometimes they would press me for more details and we would get to our house and sit in the car for half an hour as they would want me to tell them that story to the end.
Not everyone knows that the children are adopted: just the family and some friends. We agreed with the children that the adoption is our own, private thing and not something which they have to tell each and every person. Just like with many other things, not everything that happens at home has to be announced to the outside world. Sometimes the children do tell someone, but we do not make a big deal out of it, as in the end it is their decision.
We have cards which the children made hanging on our fridge door (sometimes with spelling mistakes): Mummy, you are the best mum in the world! Daddy and mummy love each other like two angels. It is so lovely.
I am really touched when our son, during daily prayers, thanks for having such amazing parents. It's not something we'd expect him to say. Even if we are not having a good day, if we've been arguing, he is still full of gratitude.
ONCE A MOTHER, ALWAYS A MOTHER
Joanna Jarząb knows that being a mother does not end when the child becomes an adult. Together with her husband Mark and son Adam they've been living in Great Britain for eleven years. Adam is 21 years old, and he just graduated with a Bachelor's degree. He wants to live his own life. This demands more wisdom and patience from Joanna than when he was a little boy: "It is difficult for me when he decides to do something which I know he will be hurt by. But that is my problem, and I do not share my misgivings with him. If I cannot change his mind in a brief conversation then I just let it go. Once bitten, twice shy is what I say."
Ever since Adam left home, Joanna has less physical chores – she does not have to cook dinner every day, there is less washing, cleaning. But she does worry more: "My son studies in London. Walking around London in the evenings is far from safe and I just have to come to terms with it. The good thing is that Adam sends me a text message whenever he comes back to his halls of residence. It is not an obligation, but that's his way of showing kindness toward me. And I appreciate it. A side effect of this is that when Mark or I go out late, we also have to send him a text message, as he worries about us. That's how we care for one another in this family. It makes life easier, especially now that there are so many knife attacks on random people in London."
Joanna sees clear cut differences between how Polish and English mothers treat their children and their attitudes to motherhood: "In Poland people are not so eager for their adult children to move out. And here I often see that once a child turns eighteen, the parents expect them to fend for themselves. To do justice to them I have to say that those better off pay their children's deposit on a house or a flat. And that's 10% of the purchase price. I also heard people say: Oh no, our kid is coming back from university and he eats so much! I'll have to spend a fortune on shopping! Whereas in most cases we take pleasure in cooking for our children. When Adam goes back to university after a break, he takes food which was cooked for him at home. And then he freezes it. English mothers do not prepare food for their kids. Mothers from India, Pakistan, Cyprus do it. And Polish mothers too."
Joanna does not know how accurate her comparisons are between Warsaw, where she lived before emigrating and the village in Suffolk, where she lives now. But she has noticed that English parents are much less interested in afterschool classes for their children: "Well, to be honest there are no extracurricular activities available for kids. Perhaps with the exception of sports. There is no custom here to send children to learn additional foreign languages – English parents expect the school to deal with that. Here people aren't as bothered about children as we are." She is shocked by the parents' acquiescence to their fifteen and sixteen year old children drinking large amounts of alcohol: "You know, it does happen that a child comes home drunk in Poland too, but it is never with the parents' approval. And that's how it is in England. It seems drinking is a given here."
"When I look back on Adam's life, then it seems to me that carrying him when he was little, sleeping in the same bed and spending as much time with him as he needed have borne fruit. Before he was born, I thought that I would be bringing him up differently. However, I quickly realised what his needs are and I followed them. Not everyone in my family or my group of friends agreed with me, but I trusted my intuition. The following story illustrates my approach really well: I took little Adam to Ikea. There I saw a toy giraffe, which caught my eye and I wanted to buy it, seemingly for Adam but really because I liked it so much. Whereas my son became engrossed with a large wooden clock, where he could move the hands by himself. And I bought it for him, even though I was sorry to have to leave the giraffe behind. The way we brought him up means that today he has 100% certainty as to our feelings towards him. We can tell him off, but no matter what problems he is facing we will always stand fast behind him and he can count on our help. I work at a boarding school for teenage girls and based on what I can see here, the trust between parents and a child is priceless. I meet girls here dealing with major problems with themselves which stem directly from the kind of relationship they had with their parents when they were younger. I am over the moon that when it mattered my instinct or intuition told me what would be best for my child."
Marta Dzbeńska Karpińska
Autorka jest z wykształcenia politologiem i fotografem, redaktorką portalu wrodzinie.pl