In celebration of Mother’s Day on May 8th, NATALYA LENSKAYA explores the modern-day Belarusian woman and what makes her a force to be reckoned with.
What is the difference between American and Belarusian women? Here’s what I think: American women are independent, dynamic and fun, but often let their emotions run away with them. Belarusian women, on the other hand, are good-natured, peaceful and modest. Their expressive, brilliant eyes reflect the blue lakes, green marshlands, and dark, dense oak forests of our country. You can drown from love and escape life’s adversities in these eyes. They hurl lightning or inspire calm, attract or incinerate. But having looked into these mirrors of the soul, no one can remain indifferent.
Though Belarusian women smile sweetly, don’t let that fool you. Beneath that calm exterior lies the strength of a tigress, the fierce loyalty of a mother bear and the courage of a warrior.
This strength of character derives from several factors: first, Belarus is a female-dominated society. According to United Nations statistics, for every 1,000 women, there are only 869 men. Second, UNESCO data show that Belarusian women live longer than their men. But perhaps these figures don’t tell the whole story.
To put it another way, Belarusian women are a lot like Erin Brockovich, the energetic, impulsive, real-life heroine from a tiny town in the Mohave Desert in California, portrayed by Julia Roberts in the Hollywood film of the same name. Erin had little education, but she showed a natural intelligence. She was aggressive but lovable, and when life knocked her down, when love went wrong, when jobs didn’t pan out, she never stopped trying to make a good life for herself and her children.
Katherine, a girl I knew in grade school, reminds me so much of Erin Brockovich. A quiet girl, Katherine always stayed on the sidelines, never joining the fun. She had no close friends and rarely smiled, but the one thing I remember clearly about her is the deep sadness in her big, bottomless grayblue eyes.
I ran into Katherine about 10 years after we graduated. She was pushing a stroller in which sat a baby girl, detached from the world. The girl threw back her head and looked at the sky. She had gray-blue eyes exactly like Katherine’s.
Born with cerebral palsy, Eva, Katherine’s daughter, initially required lots of special care, and the doctors advised Katherine to institutionalize her permanently. But Katherine would not hear of it. She assured the doctors that she and her husband would raise Eva themselves. Katherine and her husband had taken a vow to love one another in sickness as in health, and that promise included their daughter. The three of them, she told the hospital staff, would build a life together.
It took many months in the hospital before Eva could live unassisted from the medical devices keeping her alive. During that time Katherine’s attention to her little girl was unstinting. When the day came for the baby to be discharged, Katherine’s friends and relatives showed up at the hospital with balloons and flowers. Everyone came to celebrate Eva’s homecoming, everyone, that is, except Katherine’s beloved husband.
I know that in America, people do not abandon their sick. Americans understand that debilitated does not mean done with life. It is the same in Belarus. Belarusian mothers simply do not abandon their children, even if a child’s disability makes life difficult and inconvenient, even if their husbands desert them and disavow their children.
The Belarusian government helps, too, believing that children are an important resource in a country. In fact, Belarusian mothers who give birth to three or more children receive generous financial support from the government in the form of free housing, free medical care, and the opportunity for a free college education.
And so my friend Katherine, the Belarusian Erin Brockovich, didn’t give up. She took Eva home and cared for her every need. Even though the doctors gave her baby girl a life expectancy of only three years, Katherine persevered, and Eva thrived. Observing the child doing so well, the doctors soon changed their prognosis to five years, then 10. Today, Eva is almost 20. Katherine, Eva and Eva’s grandmother, three women with bottomless gray-blue eyes, live together and support one another.
What’s worse, not only the father, but also the grandfather deserted them, when Eva was but three years old, placing a huge plush rabbit on his daughter’s doorstep before he disappeared forever.
Faced with life on their own without the love and support of their fathers and husbands, these women rose to the challenge before them. They shrugged off their fears and ignored their weaknesses. They had to learn to be independent so they could continue to plan for the future.
Katherine dreamed of visiting the sea and showing it to her daughter, and one summer, she brought her dream to fruition. They went to the coast and gazed on the blue expanse with their fathomless eyes. And I am sure that after their journey to the sea, they forged yet another dream, because dreams fill our lives with meaning.
And though Belarusian women mostly come across as quiet and patient, they are like smoldering ashes under snow. If need be, they can overcome any obstacle, conquer mountains, and, as the men joke, snatch cranes from the sky. And yet they will wait a lifetime for their dear and cherished love to appear. Belarusian women, along with their American counterparts, purse their lips, gather their strength and attack their goals, especially when it comes to their children.
Children in Belarus are a symbol of renewal and future prosperity. With the birth of a child, the Belarusian Erin Brockovich begins to approach life more calmly, taking care of the day-to-day details while finding time for everyone and everything, including herself.
What’s more, Belarusian women become even more beautiful and stronger after bearing children, and many foreigners notice this. The number of young families increased from 2014 to 2015, and each child is cared for attentively by their parents. What does this mean? It means that family life in the country has grown stronger.
At the same time, the age at which young Belarusian women and men start families has increased, and women are postponing motherhood in favor of other opportunities. Svetlana Alexievich holds the Nobel Prize for Literature. There are women who fill the jobs of ministers and deputy ministers. Women continue to rise higher and higher in Belarus.
Another one of my friends, Olga Petrovna, like Erin Brockovich, also will not retreat from a fight. She has succeeded at everything in life: She is an amazing hostess, a loving wife, a caring mother and a capable leader. She loves doing crossword puzzles and writing poetry. Her poetry demonstrates feminine rhythms with easy and gentle sounds, bringing the reader almost to tears. Olga Petrovna enjoys few friend- ships, but the ones she has, she knows she can count on.
But one day, Olga vanished. Doctors had discovered that my dear friend had Stage 3 breast cancer. However, far from feeling defeated by the often deadly disease, this woman, who had never before held a Bible in her hands, turned to God to overcome the ordeal.
When I saw Olga recently, I asked her how she was doing. “Everything’s in God’s hands,” she sighed. Then she confessed to me that after she’d undergone surgery, she’d read the entire Bible, learned the psalms by heart and even now whispers them to herself when she feels her will to live faltering.
Now, it’s not gloom that resounds in her mind, but hope. And when she gets better, Olga says she will publish a book of the prayers she used during the worst days of her illness, when she felt she was close to death.
Olga Petrovna will definitely survive! Like Katherine and Erin Brockovich, she is an ordinary woman who became extraordinary when facing the harsh trials of life. After all, she is a Belarusian woman, and Belarusian women are made of both beauty and substance.
Would you like to see for yourself? Come to Belarus!
You can reach Natalya Lenskaya at firstname.lastname@example.org