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Mama Said: How do I explain about Ukraine?

In her latest column for Velvet, mum-of-two Emily Martin wonders how - and indeed if - she should explain the war in Ukraine to her children

The war in Ukraine is the only topic on Emily Martin's mind (55848222)
The war in Ukraine is the only topic on Emily Martin's mind (55848222)

Velvet is put together a month ahead of time and so, as with the columns I wrote about the various stages we found ourselves in with Covid, what was prescient in the world at the time of writing can sometimes be altered by the time you read it. I hope so much that things are better by the time this is printed. But even if they are, it won’t undo the damage that’s been done.

And like you, even sitting down to explain in words how I feel watching the news, from the point of view of a mother with two small children…well, I don’t even know what to say. The other night I went to bed with a crying headache, from watching the 10 o’Clock news. Like I’d been watching a sad film, but it was all real, and then in the morning it just felt even worse.

My friend says she’s had to stop watching the news except for just to check in on the latest developments each day. She says when you’re powerless, and you’re literally just watching people suffering, what good is that?

I don’t know. Stepping away from the TV and forcing myself to really concentrate on reading the bedtime stories, remembering that it’s not my suffering, yet, does give a minute of blue sky to the relentless fog of worry. But then I feel as though, if it were me in Ukraine, or fleeing from Ukraine, it might be some small consolation to know that people around the world were going to bed with a crying headache, thinking about me and about the day I’d had.

I can’t imagine having to flee my home in fear for my life. What I would grab and how I would pack bags for a journey that would probably involve lots of walking, trying to get on a train, in the cold, my two children in their little hats asking me questions about what we were doing and were we were going?

The surrealness of shutting the door of our house as air-raid sirens whirred in the sky and then closing the gate on the garden, on our little pink slide and the orange football in the flowerbed. And setting off, on an unknowable, unimaginable journey, that I couldn’t plan for. For which I couldn’t, on my own, carry everything we might possibly need. How long until we’re next sat on a sofa with our coats off? Where can I next brush their teeth? If the Boy falls asleep, how can I carry him, and the bags, and hold the Girl’s hand if we’re in a crowd? Have I got food for them and drinks or is that going to make it all too heavy? What about school? Where the hell are we going and will we ever be coming back?

The news footage of mothers saying goodbye to partners, with hands pressed up to train windows is indescribably horrific. Such sadness and fear. It seems unimaginable and impossible that mothers are having days like this, in 2022, in Europe, when two weeks ago they were just sat in their houses, like I am now, wondering what to make for dinner and feeling mildly anxious about the possibility of war. And it is mothers and women, because the men are having to stay behind and fight. Defending a country that’s already so smashed it’s only their bravery that keeps the world hoping this could end a different way.

The last two years have been so surreal and dramatic. My son is 4 and so he’s only known worried faces watching the news, playing games of “Covid test” with his sister and not being allowed to see Grandma randomly sometimes.

I’ve heard people asking each other how they’re explaining what’s going on to their children, or even if they should? My 8 year old daughter has seen loads of news footage and asked a few questions like: “Who’s that?” when Zelensky is speaking or making comments like: “Woah, Russia is absolutely massive.” Usually, with world events, I do try to explain things to her, the goal being I guess to encourage her to think about how fortunate she is. And if or how we could help. Because that’s a kind thing to do and we should always try to “be kind”, just like it says on all her T-shirts and pyjamas.

But right now I don’t know how to explain all of this, I really don’t. Does she need to know about nuclear weapons? About little children being separated from their fathers, grandfathers and older brothers? No, of course she doesn’t. We teach our children from the start that you have to stand up to bullies and that, through everything, if you’re a good and kind person, you’ll always win in the end. God, I just really hope that’s true.

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