Kids Not Welcome: On Discrimination Against Mothers

Saturday, 30 July 2016, 12:47
Olha Myrtsalo
based in Kyiv, mother, especially for Ukrayinska Pravda

Olha Myrtsalo, based in Kyiv, mother of a one-year-old boy, especially for Ukrayinska Pravda Zhyttia, as part of the "Discrimination Holds Us Back. Counter It!" project.

I made a conscious choice to become a mother. Before that, I worked and traveled a lot. I didn’t have a ‘classic’ maternity leave — I worked for as long as I could. After my son was born, I had a short pleasant period between the summer and December, when I was taking care of Levko. Out of this period, we spent two months in Germany, where my husband lives.

It turns out that the mother’s world in Germany and Ukraine is very different. I knew about discrimination, but I have never expected that as a mother with a child I would be vulnerable.

"How Do I Explain This Striptease to Children…"

I try to walk outside with my son as much as I can. But when it is about to rain, we immediately head home. I can’t have a tea of coffee at a cafe and wait for the rain to stop. For one thing, we can’t come in because of the stairs. To be honest, even only because of that many coffee shops lost me as a client.

It was mid-autumn, it was drizzling. We lingered before getting home, and my son ended up getting hungry. At the time, he was breastfed. I was happy to notice that Zhovten cinema was near. It was freshly reopened, and it now had a wheelchair ramp attached. I remember thinking it was great that they were so inclusive.

I entered the cinema and asked about a sofa where I could sit to feed my son. A man nicely replied they were on the first floor. I went up the stairs and sat on one of the sofas. A woman who was sitting on another sofa immediately asked me what I was doing. I explained her that my son was hungry, it was raining so I couldn’t feed him outside, and it was a long way to our home. To me, all of these things were obvious, but she didn’t seem to understand.

If a cultural institution shows alternative movies, often about human rights, you would think it to be a conscious choice of the administration, who you think would care about equality and non-discrimination. I guess that the woman’s attitude was not as much the official position of the cinema, as her personal stance. And still, she called the guard and asked why he let me in.

"You’re lucky our director doesn’t see this. And how do I explain this striptease to children, who will be exiting the cinema halls," the woman yelled.

I don’t undress when I feed my son, my breasts are covered, so I was indignant at what she said. Other people started apologizing to me for her behavior. When I was leaving, the woman yelled at my back: "I don’t respect mothers who come to public places and do this."

Olha Myrtsalo from Kyiv is mother of one-year-old Levko.

Another similar situation happened in winter, near Saint Nicholas Day. This time we were caught by hunger in Mariinsky Park. We were close to the National Philharmonic. Again, it is a cultural institution where I would expect to be understood.

The entrance to the Philharmonic is made for very able-bodied people. Heavy doors, made for probably very slim people, followed by very steep steps. We haven’t even reached the stairs — we were stopped at the doors by a very vigorous woman. It turned out that 3 o’clock is the time for matinee. The hall of the Philharmonic was empty, everybody was inside, listening to the concert, but the woman was keeping defense.

She asked me if I had a ticket. I told her I didn’t come to see the concert, but to feed my son. "You can’t enter without a ticket," she said. At this, Levko and i just left.

Do institutions such as Zhovten cinema or the National Philharmonic only need us when we are buying tickets or some other kinds of goods or services? With all respect to Zhovten, I haven’t seen a single movie there since. I am upset, and I don’t want to contribute to their well-being with my money. If they don’t need me with my child, why would I help their business? Neither I would go to the Philharmonic.

"I Don’t Want to Be Your Client and Give You My Money"

When you become a mother, many places consciously or unconsciously close their doors for you. I get it that the doors open when you knock, and I knock, but some places are very persistent in closing their doors in your face. It is unpleasant and scary.

Ukraine can’t afford to disregard children. They are, without exaggeration, our future. In a very short time we felt that Ukraine is in a serious demographic crisis. I can’t be sure that Ukraine has developed a social policy for parents with children and for children.

Photo from a shoe shop in Cherkasy.

The money that the state pays you when you have a child is rather a ‘compensation’ for the problems that you face. To me, in addition to welfare payments, it is very important to talk about friendly spaces for parents of small children.

I usually only meet other mothers at the park. If I come to a cafe, I am the only one with a stroller there. It is both the architectural hindrances and the lack of infrastructure to change or feed a baby. Our establishments don’t understand that they need changing tables in the bathroom — they don’t take up much space. If you have taken at least one flight in your life, you must have seen they have them even in those tiny plane bathrooms. For some reason, it is a big problem for Ukraine.

Almost at every restaurant or cafe that I visit in Kyiv, I leave the same entry in the ‘Book of Complaints and Suggestions’: "I like your place. But you could become more mom-friendly if you removed one step in front of the entrance or installed a changing table." I haven’t had any responses yet, but I am waiting for them.

What Would Change the Situation?

The first step is to talk about it. My friends often tell me to let it go. But why would I? This affects how I feel, this affects the mood of my son, and on global scale, it affects a very large part of the population in terms of mobility.

People stop leading their regular life, drop out of their social group, of the group of their friends. If you have no car, you have no mobility. I have a bicycle, but I would never take my son on it, knowing our roads and our drivers.

The second step is social policy that would be need-sensitive. Mothers are a group of young professionals, and children are the future of our country that we are turning a blind eye to. Nobody really believed that smoking would ever be banned in Ukrainian cafes. But it worked. If this can be, it becomes normal that parents and children belong not only in parks, but in any village or city street, in shops, cafes, anywhere.

I am one of those ‘crazy’ mothers who drag their strollers up and down the stairs, because I don’t want my motherhood to be confined to the park or my apartment. Children are not a limitation. Children mean more opportunities. And for small- and medium scale businesses they are an opportunity for economic growth.

Olha about Kyiv: "I have a bicycle, but I would never take my son on it, knowing our roads and our drivers." In the photo: Mother and son in Amsterdam.

In Germany, a mother and a child are integrated into society. There I don’t have to think how to get somewhere or how to feed my child. Doors of public transport are adapted for strollers, there is enough space inside, and you definitely know that the first door near the driver is where you can ‘park.’ It is not a problem to get from one point to another.

When I became a mother, I immediately felt it was ironic that we are proud of Kyiv’s deepest subway station, Arsenalna. It is almost the biggest hindrance for me — to move with a stroller on all those countless escalator steps there.

There are also two unshakable rules in Germany. First, you can use the bathroom at any establishment, regardless of whether you bought anything there. They can’t refuse you, if you want to feed or change your child. Of course, our people are kind and help you much more often than people in Western countries. But Western countries have such conditions for mothers that they don’t require help. I would rather have less hindrances and deal with them myself than have people ready to help me.

Written by Iryna Virtosu, Human Rights Information Center

P.S. If you have encountered discrimination and your appeal was left without attention, ask the "Discrimination Holds Us Back. Counter It!" project for help. Project experts and lawyers will help as best they can.

Translated by Tetiana Vodianytska

A column serves to express the personal opinion of the author. It does not aim to be objective or comprehensive about the topic in question. The opinion of Ukrayinska Pravda editors may differ from that of the author. The editors are not responsible for the factual accuracy and interpretation of the information, our media outlet hereby only serves as a platform.

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