REALITY OF BEING A FOREIGN MOM IN JAPAN

A few weeks ago, a fellow foreign mom living in Japan who has seen some of my videos on YouTube reached out to me via private message. Having just given birth this year, she shared about her struggle and asked for some advice – one mom to another. At that moment, I was honestly gripped with guilt because this had been a topic I have been wanting to speak about in this humble platform that I have. It has been more than a year since my son was born and for that entire time, we have not left Japan for even a single day. It gets easier, I tell you that. If you’re a new mom, let me say that again: It. Gets. Easier. But that first year, being a foreign clueless newbie mom here in Japan, it was hard – especially the first couple of months. I felt guilty because I remembered the sleepless nights I spent caught in what seemed like an endless cycle of diaper-changing and breastfeeding. I remembered that those nights I would plead to some unknown force to “please, somebody, just tell me you’ve been in my position and just tell me that this is not IT. This can’t be all that motherhood is”. And since that unknown force I was pleading to never did send anybody to talk to me, I remember promising myself that when things get better, I, instead, would be THAT SOMEBODY to other moms who just need someone who knows what they’re going through.

But things did get better. Things got awesome, actually. Yet I never followed up on that promise. So this blog is a love letter to my fellow foreign moms in Japan – especially those who are still in the very challenging earlier months. I have a very small following but I do have moms who comment and ask questions here and if I could make even just one of you feel better, that would be enough. This is just a reminder that yes, it’s hard. Yes, it can be BAD – it’s not all JUST in your mind, you’re not JUST stressed – because I’ve experiences the bad side too. But remember, there’s also the GOOD and I hope you get to experience and appreciate it just like I do.

GOOD: IT OPENS UP A NEW WORLD OF FRIENDSHIP

The Japanese have a special term for it – ママ友(達) Mama Tomo(dachi) – other moms that you get to befriend because of your baby. Between work, personal projects, studying Japanese and taking care of the home, I honestly have not made a lot of Japanese friends in the first 3 years that I have lived in Japan. I expected that adding a baby to that equation would not really help my case. However, I could not be more wrong. Okay, I’m not saying that I am now a member of some kind of Mothers’ Club but to date, I have added a couple of contacts to my LINE account, Ryuma has been having a regular playdate with another baby and going to the park is a pleasant experience that I look forward to every single day not only because my son enjoys it but because I get to have friendly chats with other parents.

Truth be told, making conversation with strangers does not come as easily to me as it might to other people. But when you have a baby in tow, it is just SO EASY. You already have a common topic – your kids! Plus, the youngsters are probably going to start with each other anyway so the mommas would very naturally just join in. My Japanese is very far from perfect and maybe yours is better – if so, great. You should have no issues chatting others up. Even if you barely speak any Japanese though, this is really an effortless endeavor. As soon as you go to the park and the other parents see you with your baby, their usual reaction is always to greet you with a ‘Konnichiwa’. Pick this habit up and the next time you see another toddler-toting mom at the playground, greet them with a smile – that’s always a universal sign of goodwill. Compliment their babies with a ‘kawaii’ (coz heck, all babies are!), ask how old the tot is (ikutsu desuka) and when appropriate, gasp with an ‘ookii desune?’ (most Japanese moms tend to take this as a compliment). In fact, this is a good chance to improve your Japanese. You can naturally pick up words that the parents use to talk to their kids. Soon enough, playground time would be one of the highlights of your day.

Even if having a conversation with the other moms are a struggle and you feel left out while they chatter away and you can barely catch up, do your baby and yourself a favor by making it a point to go out to play. If nothing else, there’s something very reassuring about seeing other people go through the same things that you are. It’s nice to know AND SEE that your baby is not the only one who is going through a phase of suddenly throwing tantrums for no apparent reason, or is becoming a nibble monster who would put just about anything in his mouth including pebbles and sand. That mom may not be your BFF and you may not have said anything to each other beyond greetings but seeing them with the same victories and struggles that you do would surely warm your heart with a sensation akin to friendship.

BAD: LONELINESS AND HELPLESSNESS

Maybe it’s not all of us but I think it’s a safe bet to say that most of us foreign moms here in Japan are far from the rest of our family. Some probably came for the sole purpose of being with their Japanese spouse, others to find employment. To us, feelings of loneliness and homesickness are nothing new but this has been made even worse by travel restrictions brought about by COVID-19. I had my baby in February of 2020 – just as the threat of the virus was beginning to grip the world – lockdowns were imposed, panic was high. Meanwhile, I was a mess of hormones and emotions – having close to no clue about how to care for a baby and continue functioning as an adult running a household. Early at dawn, I would reluctantly wake up to the wails of my baby and at night, my tired body would be begging me to rest but my mind did not want to – it had overwhelming dissatisfaction about what I’ve accomplished throughout the day. Because, quite honestly, the only memory I have of the past 10 hours is sitting on the sofa, breastfeeding, literally staring at the clock as it ticks with every passing second. And before I knew it, it’s time to prepare dinner and go through the ‘scary’ ordeal of bathing baby. I know, we live in magical time in history when everyone, in any corner of the world, is just a phone call, a video call away. I could always reach out for help – I did. And I have a loving family and wonderful friends who were always ready to talk but you and I both know – it’s not the same. It’s not the same with knowing that you could snooze for 30 more minutes because your sister volunteered to watch the baby. It’s not the same with looking forward to dinner because instead of worrying yourself about what to cook or what to buy, you have your own mother’s lovingly prepared dish waiting for you. It’s not the same with having actual friends and family ease the boredom of breastfeeding by being in the same room with you, chatting over drinks. IT IS NOT THE SAME. However, that’s the reality of being a mom in a foreign land. The world would hopefully soon be over the hardship caused by COVID-19 and maybe you would be more fortunate than I was and you could bring your newborn back home to your family. But at the very best, that would be a temporary arrangement that would last you weeks or months. You would have to go back and deal with this yourself – hoping that the love of your far off family and friends would be enough to sustain you. This is another reason why I highly recommend finding friends right here in Japan.

GOOD: THE GOVERNMENT’S GOT YOU

Of course, your opinion might differ from mine depending on what country you’re from. Personally though, I’m from the Philippines – a still developing country whose healthcare system is not yet as well-organized, well-funded and functional as Japan’s. Mothers and babies here do get helpful perks from the government which are not available in my home country. To start with, there’s that lump sum amount of more than 400,00yen to help with your hospital fees and subsidy vouchers for prenatal check-ups that even include ones for dental checks. Once your baby is born, the government is also prompt in providing you with the schedule, necessary documentation and subsidies for his or her vaccines – everything you can get by mail. They have also made it very easy for us to not miss our baby’s developmental checks even sending their own personnel right to your home (depending on which area you reside). With the assistance of the company you work in, you can receive your maternity and child-care fees very easily, without even leaving your house – and with a regular schedule that you can trust. Once you factor in the child-care leave, the length of time a mother can spend caring for her baby while still receiving some financial incentive is also much longer (thanks to a recent amendment in the law, Filipinas can enjoy up to 105 days of paid maternity leave but before last year, it was only up to 60 days for those who have had normal delivery. In Japan, however, basing on the circumstance and your company’s approval, the child-care leave can be extended up until your child turns 2 years old). Though not very high, the child-support allowance received by parents is also something that should be appreciated. Again, your perception of Japan’s financial and medical assistance to babies and new moms would be highly dependent on what’s the norm where you’re from. As for me, I’m just really thankful that vaccination fees, finding doctors, receiving my financial incentives were not things that burdened my schedule and my mind during the last year – as they sometimes, unfortunately do, parents in the Philippines.

BAD: THE CULTURE DIFFERENCE CAN DRIVE A CLUELESS NEW MOM CRAZY

I admit, even under normal circumstances – perhaps even on a daily basis – I can be pretty neurotic and obsessive. And, yes, maybe that had a lot to do with me being very anxious about everything during the first few months of being a mother; but I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one was filled with a lot of worries and questions during this stage of motherhood. I had absolutely zero knowledge about how to take care of my newborn and relied mostly on the advice of people back home or on dear old Google. However, Japan has its own way of doing things that sometimes are not in consensus with how most of the rest of the world operate. When we brought my son home back from the hospital for example, my mother-in-law came to Tokyo all the way from Osaka to help us out for a couple of days – something I would forever be grateful about. After expertly bathing Ryuma (while my husband and I just stood watching), I was horrified when she told me to prepare some warm water for the baby to drink. All the information from websites, magazines and books I’ve crammed into my head in preparation for giving birth declare that I should NOT, at any rate, give anything other than breastmilk or formula to a baby that’s under six months old! Imagine me – fresh from the hospital, still bleeding down there, tired and sleepless from all the breastfeeding, diaper changing and baby’s wailing- torn between doing what my kind and helpful mother-in-law said or telling her that I can’t possibly do it because it might harm him. I ended up giving that warm water to my baby but the entire time he was sipping his bottle, I was obsessively watching and praying that he would only drink a little. Apparently, this is a common practice in Japan – as long as the water is warm and you don’t give too much. But how am I to know how warm is warm enough and how much is too much? Another practice which thoroughly shocked me, and excuse me to those who are eating, is that when a baby has not pooped for a day, Japanese people try to hasten his bowel movement by slightly inserting a lubricated cotton swab into his anus. Granted, it was effective. But I have never seen this done in the Philippines and my searches in Google seem to suggest that some people do do this, usually with thermometers for babies, but still, it is not advisable.

Those are just some of the wackier examples but the difference in culture is something that is constantly present. Personally, I sometimes feel like there is a very high standard for moms in Japan to adhere to and that it at times demands more than what is required back home. Take feeding baby solids – I’m sure that this is a stage that most new parents are excited yet also anxious about. Whereas most of the western world and my country simply offer a quick guideline on methods like baby-led or traditional, what food should not be fed to the baby, how many times he/she be fed and others; In Japan, there are volumes and volumes of books on the topic. I kid you not, some of the best-selling ones (like the red book linked right below) actually contain recipes and a daily, per meal schedule of what to prepare for a span of 6 months or a year – these meals usually consist of 3 different components to make sure that each food group is represented, sometimes there is even an added ‘dessert’.

There are also books and websites dedicated to the ‘freezing’ method which is essentially ‘meal prep’ for babies that are just starting on solids and you would almost always find pages and pages of charts detailing when a certain food may be introduced! Although I love going to the park with Ryuma, of course there are off days when I really would just love nothing but to stay home – I’m sure it’s true for other moms as well. But in Japan, I get the feeling that if you don’t bring your baby to the park as often as possible, you are viewed as a lazy and irresponsible mom who is not willing to do the hard work in order to prioritize the learning and growth that your child can gain from playtime outside. Honestly, it’s like a common ‘inside joke’ among the moms I meet at the park to say that ‘oh, I did not feel like going out today but my husband who’s working from home urged me to play baby outside’ or ‘yesterday was a rainy day so we at least had some time to rest at home’. If the Japanese mothers themselves, feel like they sometimes need a break from this, how much more in my case when I did not really grow up with this culture – heck, we don’t even have that many parks and playgrounds in the Philippines. Differences like these can really be frustrating sometimes and of course, some cases still bother me but I have resolved to just take it as a learning experience – an immersion into the Japanese culture.

GOOD: EVERYONE. AND I MEAN EVERYONE. IS FRIENDLY AND KIND (WHEN THEY SEE YOU WITH A BABY!)

The Japanese are known for being a polite, respectful and kind people – and no, I’m not trying to contradict that. But believe it or not, once they see you lugging around your little bundle of joy, their niceness mounts to an even higher level that you probably have not experienced before. Let me start with the scores of ojiisans and obaasans who are present and numerous anywhere you go in Japan – whether it’s on the train, in the middle of the road, while you’re out grocery shopping, the sight of your sleeping or smiling cutie would always stop them in their tracks and with a nostalgic smile, they are ready with a compliment for your baby, wanting to play with him, sometimes even being unable to resist the urge to pinch his cheeks (which I admit, kind of bothered me during the peak of COVID’s notoriety). There is this group of elderlies who go out for their daily stroll and chat at the biggest park in our neighborhood everyday, and they enjoy the company of the playing kids so much that they not only take the time to get to know them, talk with them, and play with them but some members of the group have even ‘claimed’ their unique ojiisan character – one is like the ‘candy’ ojiisan and he always gives out a lollipop to every single kid in the park, and it always comes with a candy for mom as well. Baumkuhen ojiisan comes when the clock strikes 11:00 am in order to water the plants but before he does that, he first distributes the Baumkuhen cakes he dutifully brings in a white paper bag. Last year, we went to an Onsen and seeing that I was carrying and bathing Ryuma while also taking a shower myself, this group of obaachans offered to carry him while I finish up with my bath. Other than the grandmas and grandpas, most Japanese people just can’t seem to resist the sight of tiny tots and are always ready to help parents out whether it be offering you a seat on a crowded train, giving you priority on the elevator, helping you out when they see you struggling with pushing your stroller and even going out of their way to play peek-a-boo with your little one when he starts throwing a tantrum while you are waiting in line at the supermarket.

bad: the language

If you are an expert Japanese speaker, well, kudos to you. But the reality is, most of us are not. I have an N2 Level Certification and can understand Japanese well enough to be able to follow most daily conversations. Before I had my baby, I honestly did not have much motivation to learn Japanese anymore because I felt like the level I was at was good enough for me to live comfortably in the country. Heck, I know people who barely know nothing beyond ‘arigatou’ and ‘konnichiwa’ who have been living here for years and they seem to be doing just fine! Once you have a baby though, it’s a whole other story – there are government documents you need to process, vaccination appointments you need to keep track of, product labels you need to scrutinize and many more. Of course, if your spouse is Japanese, you could always ask for help and there are some English assistance that you can find but having to always rely on others is not a nice feeling. A few months ago, my baby needed an ambulance and it was a good thing my husband was home but what if I were alone? I kept thinking – would I be able to sufficiently explain symptoms to the doctor, would I be able to convey the sense of urgency of our situation? Having to live in a country whose main language is not something you grew up speaking will always be difficult and whereas before, some of us would just consider it an inconvenience, when you are a mom, there’s that feeling of dread that this inability of yours might cause a disadvantage to your baby as well.

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS

The first video I ever uploaded on YouTube was about what to do when you find out you are pregnant in Japan and so the very reason I started this channel was because I felt like there wasn’t sufficient information or a welcoming community for clueless foreign new moms like myself and I wanted to fill that gap. I still strive to create content with that in mind and I hope that this video has reminded foreign moms in Japan out there that there are always two sides in everything and to always look at the bright side.

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