Discovering choices in a new world

Maria FAMILY (2)

Serguei Siassine and Nina Siassina holding their newborn child, Maria, in 1992.

As I prepare to say goodbye to what could be the last stretch of my formal education, all I can think about is how my future seems to get foggier with every passing day.

While I am spending a great deal of my time trying to figure out which path is right for me, I can’t help but turn to my parents, who did not only make these decisions much earlier in their lives, but with a lot more pressure from society.

Somewhere around the time I decided to pursue journalism, I began to hear a similar sentiment from many successful career women: that it is nearly impossible to balance a social life and a work life. In fact, many had explained that their work life had become their social life. It was all or nothing for these women; and I admired them for giving it all up for their careers. They wouldn’t settle for a mediocre home life in a suburban city with two and a half kids and a Volvo. When I was growing up, those were the two choices I thought a person could have: an unsatisfying family life, or a gratifying, but demanding 70-hour work week.

Both of my parents are Russian and both of them were born in 1967 – a time when the Iron Curtain was still in effect and it was extremely difficult to leave the country. When they met in 1991, they got married within six months of meeting each other, and had me six months later. They knew each other for exactly one year before having their first child, and sometimes I can hardly believe they’ve made it for 21 years.

But this is not about their marriage. This is about the opportunities and the closed doors they faced in their journey as a young married couple in Russia and then in Canada.

My mother tells me this anecdote once in a while to remind me how little freedom was offered to her in her youth, and how fortunate I am in mine. When she was in the hospital about to give birth to me in 1992, she was 25 years old. Nurses in Russia were not nearly as compassionate as they are in Canada, and they did not hold back on voicing their judgments. For my mother, they decided to make it perfectly clear how incredibly strange it was that she was having her first child so “late in her life.” Still today, she tells me how women in Russia are chastised for waiting past the age of 30 to start a family.

During the “perestroika,” or the time when Russia was remodelling its financial system and fiscal institutions after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the inflation that occurred threatened many families who used to feel content with life during the U.S.S.R. This happened in the early to mid-1990s when my parents were just starting to learn the hardships of raising a child on one paycheque.

My father, stoic and a “man’s man” as everyone calls him, rarely talks about the time where all men felt enormous pressure to provide a comfortable lifestyle for their families, especially in a country where many of these men turned to drinking and dangerous lifestyles to blow off steam. Voicing these concerns and talking openly about feelings was not an option at that time – particularly for men. The desire to keep pride intact for the sake of family, and for the sake of the country was almost a requirement to be a citizen of Russia.

Both of my parents talk about the expectation of starting a family when they finished school. My mother accepted the path chosen for her as a housewife without questioning it, and my father accepted the responsibility of being the sole provider.

I used to think this was degrading; missing out on your youth, remaining a housewife for your entire life and waiting for the day you become a grandparent so you can do it over again seems harrowing.

But my mother tells me now that she loved staying home caring for my brother and me as a full-time job in Russia and then in Canada. Although this path was chosen for her, she didn’t feel any resentment for devoting herself to her family and home.

My mother says the biggest difference between living in Russia and living in Canada, was the option of making choices as a woman in her personal and professional life. Even though she still chose to stay at home while my father worked from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. every weekday and most weekends during the Internet boom, she explains that she began to feel the absence of societal pressure on women in Canada.

She suddenly became more comfortable with her options and so she went back to school for dog grooming, photography, sommelier training and, most recently for food styling. She recognized how lucky she was to be able do this with no university experience, and at a time in her life when her friends in Moscow were calling themselves spinsters and waiting for the chance to retire.

My parents taught me the importance of a person’s freedom to make their own choice. So while I feel uncertain about my future, I am indebted to them for giving me the chance to feel terrified in the face of so many options, instead of feeling pigeonholed.

I’m not sure I’ll ever get around to family life, but I’m grateful that my parents had the strength to create a new place for themselves in the world, so I could do the same.

This story was first published in The Ryersonian, a weekly newspaper produced by the Ryerson School of Journalism, on November 20, 2013.

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