Ukrainian mothers at war: "Not alone, even if they feel that way"

Mother's Day.

Ukrainian mothers at war: "Not alone, even if they feel that way"

Mother's Day. What sounds to many like a pure invention of the floristry industry is actually a day that you should let melt in your mouth. Many people still take it for granted that a woman becomes a mother. The women who try everything in vain to have a child know that this is not the case, those who have one they didn't want at all, or those who have a child during the war or while fleeing. At the moment the Ukraine war is very close to us: It is therefore not uncommon for mothers who do not know how to feed their child because they are too stressed to breastfeed. Luckily there are other women who are helping: Tatjana Kiel (CEO of Klitschko Ventures) has started an initiative to give security to Ukrainian women who give birth to a baby in the war zone or while fleeing. 10,000 postpartum packages with the essentials for a newborn baby are from Kiel's initiative How can we help the mothers who are currently having their child during the war?

Nicole Szesny-Mahlau: Mothers need familiar people around them, that gives them a sense of security and orientation. Of course this is difficult in a war situation and many mothers are alone. That's why an action like that of dm and

They donate to help mothers who give birth to their children while fleeing or in war zones.

Kerstin Erbe: Yes, that's actually quite obvious, even if you don't always realize it. The moment I realized it, my colleagues and I couldn't help but want to act and help. I was shaken. I'm also a mother - just the idea of ​​being pregnant, then the war would start, and getting into such a situation of suffering and fear and unspeakable conditions moved me very much. I was terrified of swine flu when I was pregnant, I remember that, and I was overly cautious. How must mothers in Ukraine be doing now?

And then you started?

Erbe: Yes, I thought to myself, we have to support women very quickly. At the same time, I was approached, including by a former employee, about what we can do. Management colleagues were immediately convinced to make the limit of one million available.

What happens in the body and mind of a woman - and also a baby - when they are subjected to such a stressful situation as war?

Szesny-Mahlau: Trauma causes the brain to no longer function as usual. It switches into a "survival mode" and becomes flooded with stress hormones. The brain regions that are responsible for processing impressions can no longer process the impressions that hit women well. In the worst case, traumatic images arise that keep reappearing and that cannot be sorted and stored in memory. These images can then attack women again and again in a wide variety of situations or even appear in nightmares. This can go so far that the person thinks they are back in this event, in this place. And that can happen at any time. The body is in a permanent state of alarm and cannot rest. Increased jumpiness and sleep disorders are common consequences.

And with the baby?

Szesny-Mahlau: Normally, the baby is well protected against everyday stress via the placenta. However, when the stress hormones are very high, it affects the brain development of the fetus. In short, a child could have a higher susceptibility to stress throughout their life. This manifests itself, for example, in the fact that it cannot concentrate for so long, has problems at school and in training and generally reacts much more strongly to stressful life events. In addition, the risk of developing a mental illness in the course of life increases significantly.

Also physically?

Szesny-Mahlau: Children who find themselves in such an enormously stressful situation as a war are programmed to set up a certain "survival mode" in the womb. This means that these children develop completely differently: they are often born earlier, they are often born smaller and lighter, but they are also equipped to survive in a difficult environment. It may be the case, for example, that body fat is stored differently, that later - even when the environmental factors are normal again - they react differently.

How is that expressed?

Szesny-Mahlau: That they use food differently, for example, when everything gets back to normal. However, this also means that there is a higher risk of classic lifestyle diseases such as obesity or diseases affecting the heart and blood vessels.

Ilka Kaufmann: Every living being naturally seeks a safe space in which to give birth, so that giving birth in a war zone with reflexes to flee, triggered by stress symptoms and the release of adrenaline, is hardly possible or can only proceed with major complications. In fact, it is hard to imagine what these women and expectant mothers in Ukraine are doing right now.

Can we actually base ourselves on results from experience reports, for example from the Second World War?

Szesny-Mahlau: Yes, there are actually studies from that time, but also from different parts of the world. But we also know it from animal experiments. The current TV pictures can suddenly bring back these fears from earlier in people who were born during the war or who experienced it as a child, i.e. for whom images and feelings were more or less buried for decades. Many had locked away their post-war experiences in deep drawers at the back of their minds, they might have had nightmares and other non-specific symptoms. In old age, however, post-traumatic stress can arise again, for example because the brain can no longer shield itself so well and it is triggered by war reporting.

Can we act prophylactically for those who are now at war?

Szesny-Mahlau: Yes, that's why actions like this are so important. Women need to know they have support. They need to know that they can find rest, that they can devote themselves to their child. That they don't have to constantly think about how to proceed? In the long term, it needs a lot of education and then a good diagnosis. If necessary, therapeutic intervention options are needed. In acute cases, this includes very early help, for example in the form of psychosocial emergency care, also in the form of apps that show you how to calm your nerves, how to get out of the high-stress mode and how to take care of yourself.

Apps for self-help are certainly useful because it is often simply not possible to put yourself in the hands of a therapist.

Szesny-Mahlau: There is the Helperscircle project, which helps parents and children in an uncomplicated way to calm down the nervous system with simple physical exercises. A helpful app that is also available in Ukrainian is "Safe Place".

Kaufmann: A lot is changing in this area, because midwives, for example, are also drawing attention to themselves. Podcasts and social media are a great way for new moms to find out.

And how else can we help?

Erbe: Our industry partners immediately agreed that they wanted to support, and so we got the goods together for the first 10,000 packages. We simply had to get active, also because we see ourselves as a company run by women for women.

Kaufmann: We have to see that the basics are there. And of course we achieve that with such great campaigns, because then we ensure that the newborn baby is cared for. Because a mother needs this knowledge because she is so vulnerable. After all, even without a war, giving birth is an incredibly drastic moment in a woman's life, which should not be underestimated psychologically either. You need a safer setting.

Coming to the role of women in war...

Legacy: In war, men are considered the heroes and women are the victims. Of course there is something to it, men fight at the front, but if you look closely - also looking back at the Second World War - what is the role of women? Women hold everything together, rebuild, feed and educate the children, reorganize everything. These are the heroines of life - without wanting to belittle the achievements of the men who fight on the front lines. In reporting, women only appear as victims. We have to change that.

Kaufmann: People say so succinctly that children have always been born and often forget that - if there is no medical care, as is currently the case in Ukraine or when fleeing - women and children die during childbirth. And die. Even today. Basically, however, giving birth is a completely natural, beautiful process. In many cultures, this period after childbirth is much better attended, for example in China, where new mothers are also provided with food and support by their neighbors and friends for four weeks, so that they can recover physically and psychologically. This avoids infections, childbed fever, breast infections, uterine complications - there is a reason a woman should recover for at least two weeks after childbirth. And we have to try to give that to the women from Ukraine.

Shouldn't the image of women in war be reformed?

Heir: Yes, definitely. That's why we support you, also in the future. My worldview fell apart when this war started. I thought we'd left "something like that" culturally behind us. But then the coping strategies set in, repression turns into help and things become concrete. Of course, we want to be able to guarantee that the aid gets where it makes a difference. We knew from the start that this wasn't going to be a short run, but a marathon. We looked at where the need was and then realized that the campaign to support mothers and very small children who were often born prematurely is exactly our core competence. This is not a marketing issue, but an affair of the heart. We are extremely competent here and we work together with exactly the right organizations, for example with the midwives' association. And if this initiative

Many people are currently afraid of a war - isn't your practice overflowing?

Szesny-Mahlau: We have a lot to do, yes, things have increased massively. In the area of ​​my practice, where we deal specifically with trauma-related disorders, the inquiries have really increased. There are many more people suffering greatly from these events. Because our resilience, our resilience, has decreased after the last two years with Corona. Many are more vulnerable than before the pandemic. This can trigger feelings of powerlessness and the worry of not being able to cope with life.

Then what do you advise?

Szesny-Mahlau: The most important thing is to keep concentrating on the things that you can control: How can I shape my life? And if stocking up gives someone peace of mind, then do so to a reasonable extent and try to get back to your daily routine afterward. Keep doing sports, talk about fears, meet friendly people, limit media consumption, don't constantly confront yourself with situations in which you feel helpless. Trying to break out of the cycle of wanting more and more information in the hope that it might make you feel more secure.

People can still endure a lot...

Szesny-Mahlau: Yes, a surprising amount. And the good news is: With psychosocial support, you can also master really bad situations. Of course, when symptoms do appear, it is best to seek psychotherapeutic care as soon as possible. Post-traumatic stress disorder can be treated extremely well with psychotherapy. With sufficient social support and a minimum of security, even a crisis situation like having a child in war can also - and this is very important to emphasize - bring about a closer bond between mother and child. A woman can be proud of having overcome such a difficult situation. And that strengthens you for new tasks.

What do we need most now?

Szesny-Mahlau: We need more specific therapists. In Germany, a child waits up to two years for trauma therapy - that's too long, because many problems could have been solved by then. My colleague dr. Patrick Fornaro and I - and that's why I'm also involved in Tatjana Kiel's campaign for - have therefore founded this child therapist network in order to connect therapists with each other in order to be able to offer fast treatments immediately. This means that "the trauma" is not treated, but rather the diverse consequences that can result from experiencing traumatic events and, as I said, very good results can be achieved there.

With Tatjana Kiel and the Klitschko brothers in the background, you probably feel safe that help is getting there.

Erbe: Yes, it's really important to us that things don't arrive in gray markets because they "fell off the truck" somewhere. We can now rely on the logistics with the appropriate local partnerships. Knowing that hospitals are being bombed, for example, makes it very difficult to act on the ground. In any case, we are already thinking about how to help build and face the new challenges when hopefully this war will be over soon. But first we want to get people out of this acute emergency: we have the know-how, the contacts, the logistics - we can and want to provide efficient support.

Kaufmann: This campaign is intended to show the mothers that they are not alone, even if they feel that way. We can't change the situation right now, but we can improve it. And give them a prospect of a future.

Sabine Oelmann spoke to Nicole Szesny-Mahlau, Kerstin Erbe and Ilka Kaufmann


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