The Mothers of Lviv (essay)

My mom and I on a train --with joy, no weeping
Mother's Day, 2022

The mothers of Lviv are weeping. The photos of them are seared into my brain, these women and children on the trains from eastern Ukraine, fleeing west to safety. They stop at the central station in Lviv, perched on Ukraine's western edge. They are numb with exhaustion. They keep going, boarding another train, or a bus, to Poland or to destinations beyond.

My great grandmother once stood on the platform at the train station in Lviv and wept. Her daughter, my grandmother, was on a train in Lviv, bound for a Soviet labor camp. My great grandmother saw her daughter on the train, but could not reach her. It was 1939 and Lviv was part of Poland; my grandmother called it Lwow. I tell her story here.

I never met my great grandmother, Barbara, but I wonder if her face held the same despair as the women in the photos of Lviv today. This city has seen many mothers loaded up on trains and hauled away, collateral damage of the wars of power-hungry men. The mothers of Lviv are weeping.

The mothers of Lviv also weep for the same reason mothers everywhere weep. We weep because we worry about our children. We weep when they get hurt. We weep when they resent us. When they exhaust us. When they inspire us. When they make our hearts overflow with gratitude. We weep for all this and more. The mothers of Lviv are weeping.

It's almost Mother's Day, which if I didn't know by the calendar I would know by the increase of mom-related Facebook posts, advertisements for restaurant brunches and the crafts my children bring home from school. One kid brought home a mom coupon book that included such gems as “good for one quiet morning” and “one meal that I help make.” I will celebrate Mother's Day with my children, and call my mother and thank her again for being my role model. But for so many, it's a day of weeping. Some mourn mothers who are dead, or estranged, or abusive. Some long to be mothers. Some have lost a child. For so many, the day is complicated. Many are weeping.

I was not prepared for motherhood, though I'd waited and hoped for it for so long. Aside from the sheer physical demands of mothering (I've run marathons that were easier than labor and postpartum recovery), I wasn't prepared for all the raw emotions. I wasn't prepared for all the weeping. The early days of parenting included hormone-induced emotions, but something longer-lasting shifted inside me, some new tenderness arose. My heart was walking around outside my body, as they say about motherhood. Even now, with three children and coming up on a decade of parenting, I'm amazed what brings me to tears. Watching my toddler examining a leaf with his chubby fingers. My kindergartner learning to read. My older son telling a truly hilarious joke he made up. Everything is raw and alive and tender and I am here for it.

Becoming a parent can feel like you're joining a club; there are some things that when you know, you know, and there's no way to really know otherwise. But it's also like a club in this way: there's a kindred-ness, a connection, with moms who are right where you are. There is no comfort like that of another mom with a toddler giving you a look of compassion while yours melts down in the grocery store. I know, she says silently. It's so hard. I've been there. You got this.

There's a sense of kindred with other kinds of moms. The ones you see not in the grocery store, but, say, in the photos at the Lviv train station. You see them and think about how capricious life is that she is on a crowded train that goes dark when air raid sirens blare, and you are in your warm house with a full pantry on a quiet suburban street. It's just sheer accident of birth or luck or fate or whatever you believe in that she is where she is and you are here now. The mothers of Lviv are weeping and you could be one of them. The least I can do is weep with them as a sign of our shared humanity. The most I can do is work for peace, justice, gender equity and rights for women – and raise my boys to do the same. And I can tell them the stories of their grandmothers and great-grandmothers who endured so much and still kept going.

In this Reuters article about the evacuation trains into Lviv, a mother arriving from Odessa told a reporter that she couldn't cry, because she had to stay positive for her children. There are so many ways we cope with tragedy. We do what we have to do, which is what women have always done. My guess is she'll cry later, when it's safe, when her children are safe. Until then, she does what she has to do for her children. It's what we do.

It's Mother's Day and the mothers of Lviv are weeping. Sometimes. Sometimes they are laughing. Sometimes they are keeping it together until it's safe to let the tears flow. Sometimes they are so caught up in the work and play of life that they forget to weep. Sometimes they are too exhausted and numb to weep. Sometimes they are working for peace, dry-eyed and dreaming of a better tomorrow.

The mothers of Lviv are weeping, but they go on. And so do we.

Happy Mother's Day.


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