Skip to main content

For some, parenthood is an act of resistance in wartime; for others, a new source of worry for their country’s future. Either way, they find another reason to persevere

There’s something about the smile of a baby that can make even the darkest of times feel a little more hopeful.

That’s especially true in Ukraine, where bleak days are plentiful but hope, and babies, are getting harder to find.

More than two years of war has caused untold death and destruction, and cut short the potential for new life to begin. The birth rate has plummeted to 0.7 per woman, almost half what it was before Russia’s invasion, and the total population has dropped roughly 20 per cent. Those trends are expected to worsen as the fighting continues and Ukraine’s existence is thrown into doubt.

Now, every new baby is a lifeline to the future.

For some new mothers the birth of a child is almost an act of resistance – a challenge to Russia that a new generation is coming to rebuild and carry on. But others take a more cautious approach and wonder whether their child would be better off somewhere else.

Whatever their views, Ukraine’s mothers share something in common: a new beginning of life with the promise of hope.

Open this photo in gallery:

The Russian invasion turned millions of Ukrainians into refugees, like this mother cradling her infant's feet in Warsaw. It also cut the Ukrainian birth rate to roughly half of pre-war levels, and the country's population has declined by about 20 per cent.

Nadiia Spodyniuk never thought of children that way, until it was almost too late.

She’d spent years mapping out her life with precision, and put off starting a family while she climbed the academic ladder. By the time the war started she had a doctorate in engineering, a lecturer position at the National University of Life and Environmental Sciences in Kyiv and a portfolio of scientific papers that cemented her reputation as an expert in energy technology.

She spent the first days of the invasion hiding in a church basement and then fled to Warsaw with the help of Polish scientific colleagues.

All those years of planning suddenly seemed pointless. “The war made me realize you don’t have another life,” she said. “You haven’t time. Life can finish at any moment.”

The university in Kyiv kept her as an online lecturer and a research institute in Warsaw offered her a job. But her work and career weren’t enough any more.

And so, for the first time in her life, she made space for a relationship. She joined a chat group for refugees and found someone intriguing.

He was a widower from Nova Kakhovka, a city near Kherson that fell under Russian occupation early in the war. He left with his 17-year-old son a few months after the invasion, following one of the only routes out: through Russia to Latvia and then Warsaw.

They met for coffee in December, 2022 and soon fell in love. He proposed two months later, and they moved in together.

They’re planning a wedding at City Hall and Ms. Spodyniuk is pregnant with their son, named Dmytro.

“For years I didn’t understand that time is passing,” she said at the thought of becoming a mother. “And then I realized, oh my God I am 38, the war has started and what is next? And I decided, yes, I will have this baby. I want to have this baby.”

Open this photo in gallery:

'The war made me realize you don’t have another life,' Nadiia Spodyniuk says. 'You haven’t time. Life can finish at any moment.'

She’ll raise Dmytro to be a proud Ukrainian and she hopes he’ll return to his homeland one day.

“I will tell him about why he was born in Poland,” she said. “Maybe he will be luckier but we don’t know. We can’t predict any situation about this war.”

She knows that she’s safe and privileged. And that she has a contribution to make.

“It’s very important that in Poland it’s safe for us and we can think about a baby and plan it. It’s important for Ukraine that we make a family here and after the war, of course, we come back to Ukraine and we will live in Ukraine.”

She and her husband have talked about having more children. “My husband says it’s enough for him, but maybe it’s not enough for me,” she said with a smile. “Let’s see.”

“Putin and this war are fighting me,” she added. “No, he doesn’t win. I will have a baby and there will be life.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Mariia Diachkova was seven months pregnant with Artur when she left Kyiv last May, leaving behind an abusive partner, a veteran of the Ukrainian armed forces.

New life and new babies were also far from Mariia Diachkova’s mind in the months leading up to the invasion. She was just trying to get through each day without being beaten.

She’d met her partner four years earlier when she was a teenager, and he was a dashing young soldier. But a couple of concussions drove him out of the army and altered his moods. Soon, she became the target of his demons.

Russia’s invasion only added to her terror and suddenly nowhere was safe. But she couldn’t bring herself to leave the relationship or her country.

Then, in the fall of 2022, she became pregnant with their first child. Now she had a reason to live – and to escape.

It took seven months for her to gather up enough courage. Finally, on a spring day in May, 2023, Ms. Diachkova slipped out of their apartment in Kyiv and caught a bus headed to Poland.

She was 20 years old, pregnant and scared. But finally free.

Her courage kept building as she crossed into Poland and made it to Warsaw.

“I know that if I didn’t have a baby, I would have stayed,” she said, holding Artur tight. “He saved my life.”

She found her way to Mother’s House, a small shelter for new moms from Ukraine. Volunteers helped her through the final weeks of pregnancy and then gave her and Artur a room of their own.

For the first time in ages, Ms. Diachkova felt loved.

She started learning Polish and began looking for an apartment. She’d trained as a masseuse in Kyiv and sought out the qualifications she’ll need in Poland.

Sometimes she dreams about buying a camper van and travelling around Europe, just her and Artur. Or maybe they’ll go to Canada or the United States.

But not back to Ukraine.

She understands that it will be up to children like her son to lead the country’s renewal one day. And she relishes the thought that she’s holding Ukraine’s future in her arms.

But the war is too brutal to bear. She can’t see the Russians stopping and she doesn’t want Artur to ever join the army. Even in Poland the war is too close.

“I want to stay far away from war,” she said. “Last year we were optimistic that it might end, but this year, no.”

She knows how bad life can be at the front. She’s kept in touch with her ex-partner’s mother, a military doctor who understood Ms. Diachkova’s decision to leave. The doctor is serving with a unit close to the front line and she’s vividly described the heavy losses, the lack of ammunition and the slumping morale.

“She still has hope,” Ms. Diachkova. “She has to have hope. Without hope people can’t fight.”

Open this photo in gallery:

Ivanna Danyleiko’s fourth child, Ustym, was an unexpected but welcome addition to the family after they fled Kyiv to Przemysl, Poland, in the early days of the war.

Ivanna Danyleiko won’t give up hope. She has no doubt that Ukraine will be victorious and she’s teaching her children to be ready to rebuild.

“Children need to grow up with a wider perspective than we had,” she said with a firmness.

Ms. Danyleiko wasn’t planning a fourth child when her family headed to Poland shortly after the first bombs fell. She was 38 years old and led a full life in Kyiv with her husband, their 10-year-old daughter and their sons, ages 14 and six.

She comes from a family of musicians and has a deep passion for the music and songs of Ukraine. She’s a choir conductor, a teacher and a performer. Sometimes she sings with her husband, Severyn, who plays cello in a famous folk band called Chorea Kozacky, which won national acclaim last year for its album Songs Of The Ukrainian Revolution.

Her family’s life in the arts has made Russia’s invasion especially painful.

She felt anguish at all the lives lost. But also agony at seeing so many national treasures – museums, concert halls, galleries, libraries, theatres – laid to waste by the Russians.

Ms. Danyleiko tried to start over in Poland. She found work teaching music in a school in Przemysl, a small city just across the border with Ukraine. The family was lucky to be together. Adult men had been banned from leaving Ukraine, but exceptions were made for those with three or more children.

But there was still an emptiness inside her and she struggled with sadness.

Then the unexpected happened. She was pregnant and it felt like a miracle. “I am a mother again,” she thought to herself. “It’s like a blessing.”

Her darkness soon lifted and her creativity blossomed. She wanted to tell the world about what was happening to Ukraine through the only way she knew how. She arranged concerts with artists from abroad, helped make a record that raised money for refugees and put on a performance that blended songs and stories from her homeland.

“He gave me strength,” Ms. Danyleiko said of her five-month-old son, Ustym. “He gave me life with happiness.”

When she told her husband they were going to have another boy he was thrilled. Not only because Ustym will be a wonderful addition to their family, but because of what he will mean for Ukraine.

“It’s great because we need a new generation,” he said. “Many people, many boys, many men, die in this war.”

She’s vowed not to hold anything back from her son. She’ll tell him about the war and the centuries of Russian oppression of Ukraine.

“He will know our story so that maybe the story will not happen again,” she said. “A lot of people in Ukraine don’t know the Ukrainian story. They were thinking that Russia was a brother. It was never a brother. Nobody destroyed us like Russians.”

Ms. Danyleiko has told her three other children to study hard so they can build a stronger, better Ukraine once the Russians have been defeated.

“They need to grow up and be professional at whatever they do,” she said. “I not only want my children to survive physically, but also I want Ukraine to survive.”

War in Ukraine: More from The Globe and Mail

The Decibel podcast

The Globe’s Mark MacKinnon spent the war’s second anniversary in Kharkiv, where he updated The Decibel about the front lines. Later, he held answered reader questions about what might happen next. Subscribe for more episodes.

From our foreign correspondents

Ukrainian men living abroad feel conflicted about returning home as war rages on with shortage of troops

Ukrainian beauty campaign heals more than the traces of war

Putin critics lend support to Russians fighting for Ukraine

Ukrainian troops in Donetsk hold the line with little hope and less ammunition

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe