Two siblings, one dressed in dark blue and the other in yellow, are on a bed reading a book


I’m Learning How To Reconnect With My Ukrainian Culture So I Can Pass It Down To My Kids

Apr 19, 2022

"Mama, how much Ukrainian am I?”

The question came from my nine-year-old on the drive to school recently.

As someone who generally tries to avoid doing anything beyond basic math, I didn’t have a good answer. Just add it to the dozens of vague responses I've offered my children since the war in Ukraine broke out at the end of February.

When Russia launched their invasion, I experienced the usual range of emotions that come with witnessing innocent people suffer: sadness, horror, fear. What I didn’t expect was for the war to trigger a sense of rootlessness, caused by the severing of ties with my parents two years ago.

Do your kids have questions about Ukraine? Here is an age-appropriate approach to what's going on.

Losing Connection With My Heritage

I’m a fourth-generation Ukrainian Canadian on my father’s side. Both of my paternal grandparents were Ukrainian, my grandfather born in Paris in 1927 to Ukrainian immigrants who eventually made their home in northern Saskatchewan. Many of my relatives also married other Ukrainians, and my younger childhood years were filled with large family gatherings where stories and laughs were shared.

"I’ve felt lost, and somewhat ignorant, when my kids pepper me with questions I don’t have answers for."

As I got older, I began to lose ties to the heritage I had always felt most connected to. First with the death of my grandmother when I was 12, then my grandfather at 21 and finally, the estrangement from my immediate family.

I don’t have much knowledge of my ancestral history, but watching the ambush of their homeland awakened a desire to learn and reclaim this part of my heritage. But first, I’ve had to come to terms with the fact that I don’t know how to pass on a sense of history to my children when I feel so deeply disconnected from it myself. I’ve felt lost, and somewhat ignorant, when my kids pepper me with questions I don’t have answers for, both about their family and their own identities, and by the way, what and why is war, anyway?

I have my own questions, the biggest one being, how do I define my cultural identity amidst the messiness caused by the family members who most closely connected me to it? I’ve also wondered how many others feel a similar disconnect to their heritage, whatever the source may be.

Defining Identity Without Cultural Markers

In 2011, 60.7 per cent of the total population of the country was made up of third generation or higher Canadians. Those of us who fall into this category often have few concrete connections to our ancestral homelands, and that sense of history can feel diluted, as it’s likely the ones who originally called it home are no longer around to share it.

The separation from my parents has meant I no longer have direct access to things like family photos, recipes and keepsakes. And I’ve discovered I’m not just grieving a future different from the one I always imagined, but feeling as though I’ve lost a large part of my past as well. Even my childhood last name, one of the few things that outwardly identified me as Ukrainian, carries too much baggage for me to feel comfortable using.

There is also an intangible loss. Most of my own memories that connect me to my heritage are from my younger years, and mine are fragmented from childhood trauma. It’s only through the healing work of learning to reconnect with my younger self that I can open the Pandora’s box of emotions that come with revisiting this part of my life.

Tamara Schroeder has been working to face her past abuse so she can be a better parent to her kids, and herself. (Warning: This piece discusses themes of family violence.)

What Being Ukrainian Looks Like For Me

What I do know for certain is that I came from a loud and proud Ukrainian family. I remember boisterous dinners on holidays and even just regular Saturday nights, where there was always plenty of traditional foods.

"Sometimes we have to reshape our idea of family and history, and forge our own path of connection to our heritage in a safe way with safe people."

I often spent a couple weeks of my summer vacation at my grandparents’ acreage just outside Regina, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sound of my grandfather’s booming accent and even bigger laugh that had one volume (set so the neighbouring farms could undoubtedly hear it). My cousin and I quickly learned that on the occasions my grandparents argued, as soon as they switched from English to Ukrainian, it was time to clear the room. They were the last generation I know of to speak the language fluently.

This space from my past can feel like a minefield, as I dance around possible triggers, but in it I’ve discovered something just as valuable as stories and recipes I can pass on to my kids — an eagerness to hold on to the cultural connections I do have. Through my experience, I hope they’ll understand that while cultural identity may live in our blood, sometimes we have to reshape our idea of family and history, and forge our own path of connection to our heritage in a safe way with safe people.

I’ve started to connect with extended family during this time — those who are able to honour what I’ve decided is best for myself and my children. They can’t fill in all the blanks I’m missing, but they offer old stories and new perspectives that allow me to acknowledge and appreciate the ancestors I loved dearly, and how they contributed to the woman and mother I am today.

Article Author Tamara Schroeder
Tamara Schroeder

Tamara Schroeder is a freelance writer from Alberta who graduated from the journalism program at Mount Royal University so long ago, it was still a college at the time.

When she isn't listening to her nine- and 12-year old talk about Minecraft and Animal Crossing, you can usually find her running, enjoying the mountains or talking to her lively Twitter community about everything from ADHD and mental health to the time she got tipsy at a Fred Penner adult sing-along and spent $300 on a life-size concert poster.

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