My 16-year-old son left for a summer study session this morning, only to message me from the train station thirty minutes later. Oops, it had been cancelled. Now a long day in the oppressing heat and humid hell of Japanese summer stretches long and lazily before us. It is not what we were expecting.
But this has been a long season of not-what-we-were-expecting. Other countries seem to have the pandemic under control. Other countries return to life as normal, but not here in Japan. Life never shut down or locked down to the extreme of other places, but we live long, drawn-out half-lives under continuous states-of-emergency while the Olympics flash on TV. It is not what we were expecting.
We didn’t expect to wake up one day to find school cancelled, and for it to stay that way for months. We didn’t expect to learn the ins and outs of indoor ventilation or the effectiveness of different kinds of masks. We didn’t expect to be separated from our friends and loved ones for so many long, long months while simultaneously being shut-in with our nuclear families while trying to work and study from home.
For me, that became a stream that burst through the cracks of my marriage until the boat was no longer seaworthy. I’d always been what I call a “solitary mom,” since my husband left all of things kids and household to me. Now the kids and the household and the mom are in another building, and all things husband are left to him. It’s not what we were expecting.
I wasn’t expecting to start graduate school; that was a dream I’d given up on, but when programs that required in-person segments changed their policies I saw my chance. I’m one term in. So far, I’m doing better than I was expecting.
I didn’t expect that so many old friends and acquaintances would have such different opinions on something as simple as a mask. We’ve worn them in Asia from before. It isn’t new. It also isn’t hard. These old friends and acquaintances are not the people I was expecting them to be.
I never expected to be relieved to the point of tears when my children were able to get an appointment for a vaccination. In this country, very few children have had that chance yet. I am still nervous and worried that something will go wrong with the supply or the appointment system, and they won’t be able to get their second shots. In efficient Japan, this distrust is also not something one would expect.
The anger is new, too: anger at people’s selfishness and silliness that puts other people in danger, anger at the government for not being more decisive, anger at myself for being powerless. It is new but not really unexpected. The unfairness of the world has always made me angry.
Some days I feel hopeless. I want to see my sister again; I want to meet my niece. I want to hug my friends and go for coffee on a cool autumn evening. I want to feel the breeze on my cheeks uncovered by a mask. I want to wear lipstick. I see pictures of friends and families from countries where these things are now possible, and the deepness of the envy I feel is unexpected and takes my breath away.
Beyond all of this, though, I have discovered that I am so much stronger than I expected. I have held the disappointments and the sadness and the loneliness of two little people along with my own, all of this time. But they have so much more resilience than I expected. We are all so much stronger than we were told. We exceed all expectations.
This is an original post for World Moms Network by Melanie Oda.
No, this isn’t a political post, unless you consider that on some level every post written by a woman is a political post whether she intends it to be or not.
This is about the apocalypse, Armageddon-style chaos and anarchy that happened at my house last week. That’s right, y’all. I got sick, Influenza A to be exact.
For anyone who has not yet experienced the unique experience that is being-sick-while-mommying, please stop reading now. Or gird your loins or something because I don’t want your mom calling me and saying my post is the reason she will never have grandchildren.
I realized very quickly that no one else knew the details of our household: where underwear are kept, what time children need to leave for school in the morning, who has pool on what day and what that entails, what time dinner needs to be started to get children to bed on time, etc. I am truly both the lowly servant girl and the CEO of this organization.
Five seconds after the first epiphany, I also realized that no one else is interested in learning and remembering these details. It’s my job to be everything to all people, as far as all other people are concerned. They are “just helping.”
Convenient, that. I never agreed to be both lord and serf of this manor, but because I have been thrust into that role, I am also unable to demand excellence (to be honest I would settle for basic sufficiency) from the people around me. If I do, I’m being ungrateful.
But I don’t seem to receive much gratitude.
All of the physical and mental tasks involved in keeping a house and family going, the mental gymnastics of scheduling around other people’s needs, all of that “woman’s work,” is real labor. When mom is down, other family members realize that, but make no real effort to take any of it on for themselves long term. It isn’t an ignorance issue. Is it an entitlement issue? A laziness issue? Why should I be fielding where-is-the-swimcap phone calls when I am sick in bed?
How do we find ourselves in this position, and what can we do to relieve it? The basic truth is this: my time and labor should be just as valuable as other family members’. I should be able to be sick without the world falling apart.
What happens in your family when mom falls ill? How do others cope?
Fixing boo-boos was easier when they were little. Even the “big” boo-boos; call the ambulance! Go to the emergency room! Call the poison control center!
Those times were scary, and I thought nothing could be worse. But at least I always knew what I should do. I didn’t second guess if taking those actions would make the situation worse.
But as children get bigger, I find their boo-boos can’t be fixed with a kiss or a band-aid, or a trip to the emergency room.
Those are all fixes for the body, but of little use to the heart.
I have been hurt in many ways during my life, but nothing can prepare you for the pain you feel when your child is hurt, intentionally, repeatedly, by a bully.
It hurts that it would happen at all; that anyone would see your sweet little baby as a joke, a nerd, someone worthy of disdain and mistreatment.
It hurts more to know that your child is a target because of you: that you being a foreigner, of a different race, with a different accent has opened your child up to ridicule.
No action I can think of is free from an undesirable reaction, but doing nothing is also not a solution. I don’t want to make it worse, but I can’t see any way to make it better.
Have your children suffered from bullying? What steps have you taken to help them?
It started out innocently enough. Perhaps because she was the younger child, the second grandchild, her Japanese family just didn’t seem as interested in her as in her older brother.
I thought perhaps since they only had sons, or that my mother-in-law only had brothers, they were not sure how to interact with a small girl.
I suggested things that she liked to do, bring over toys she likes to play with so they could interact. (This resulted in my brother-in-law developing an iron-beads addiction, but had no impact on the grandparents at all.)
Then there were subtle things: talking over her, not listening, not answering when she asked a question. Some people are just like that to children, I thought, though I knew in my heart they hung on every word my son said.
“She is talking, too, let’s listen!” I try to draw attention to her.
Then they joined in the cacophony of voices around us, “Girls don’t sit like that. Girls complain too much.”
“It isn’t only girls,” I try to laugh it off.
We would go their house, and they would put out only one cookie, even though there were two children. “We didn’t think that she would want one.”
I make the children share, or I go to the store for another ice cream or bottle of juice.
She received only half the amount of money at New Years for otoshidama (a cash gift given to children from relatives,) and was specifically told it was because she was a girl. “You must have heard wrong,” said my husband.
When we went home, I made the children pool the money and split it evenly.
Then this year on Children’s Day, we arrived at the in-laws house to find a beautifully wrapped present.
My heart sank because I knew. I knew that now she would know; that I couldn’t cover it up this time. There was no misunderstanding. This wasn’t a snack brought home on a whim, or an envelope that looked the same on the outside but was different within. This was a gift that had been searched for, lovingly wrapped, put in a place of honor for all to see on a day to honor our children.
But it wasn’t for her.
I saw her eyes dazzle in excitement, dart in confusion, then steel over with resignation. Her big, brown eight-year-old eyes.
She didn’t say anything, she didn’t cry at the injustice, until we were at home.
“Why is he more important than me?” she asked.
The simple truth is that they are both important. The sad truth is that there are people out there who refuse to acknowledge that, who treat these two children that I love equally with all of my heart in a very unequal way.
I wish sometimes they weren’t so close to home.
I can see that it is damaging to have that dynamic in our extended family, against the backdrop of a world that is unkind to women (to put it lightly.)
In the moment, I decide against explaining to my little girl that the cards, in many ways, are stacked against her. Instead I hold her close and tell her that all children are important, and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong.
Have your children experienced instances of sexism? How do you talk about it at home?
This is an original article by World Mom, Melanie Oda.
To Cram Or Not To Cram
As my son begins sixth grade, the final year of elementary school here in Japan, I feel a sense of panic.
Have I taught him all he needs to know to navigate the choppy waters of adolescence?
(Mental note: enroll him in swimming lessons while I am still master of his schedule.)
Is his English up to par for his age?
(Reading: yes, writing: no. Another mental note: make more time for him to practice his English writing! He’ll need incentives…. Sticker charts won’t work anymore, what will we do?)
Does he have the ability to identify the difference between a true friend and a jerk? Somehow I don’t think so.
And then there are the looming educational choices. We never really considered that he would need to take the entrance exam for a private junior high, but recently I’ve heard unpleasant rumors about the neighborhood public junior high school. We never sent our son to cram school, so it would seem a private junior high isn’t an option. Are the local schools good enough? Should we start cramming now, sit the test, and hope for the best? Maybe put him into international school? But those are all expensive options that we couldn’t realistically afford for two children.
I have gradually come to the realization that most children in Japan at some point will have to attend cram school. This is something I have wanted to avoid. In my heart I believe that kids learn best through play, and that forcing them into cram schools and extra study stunts their growth in other areas. I had hoped that studying English at home would give them a big enough advantage to get into whatever school they aspire to, but I have to admit that I no longer believe it is enough. My anti-cram school, pro-childhood stance has limited my children’s options for junior high. I need to stop and reassess, then make some choices about a high school entrance exam system that I don’t really understand.
We are a family that could make that happen, financially, with some sacrifices.
To Cram Or Not To Cram
But what about all of those families for whom it isn’t possible?
The cold, hard truth is that seemingly egalitarian Japan is quietly becoming a country of have and have nots.
It feels unfair and somehow immoral that children are not able to make the best of the gifts they were born with because of an entrance exam system that requires attendance at expensive cram schools to have a shot at the best schools, public or private.
Childhood poverty is a growing problem in this country. I hope the education system evolves to give every child a chance to follow their dreams.
Do all children in your country continue into secondary education? What process is used to place students?
Photo Credit to the author.
Here in Japan, as the cold winter wind continues to blow, the school year is coming to a close. Even the smallest children are busy preparing for graduation from their various places of learning. It is a time of reflection for the mothers of Japan: look how much they have grown! It is also a time of of worry, of anxiety about what awaits our children in their next portion of their journey.
It hasn’t been a particularly good year for the rights of Japanese women. The Supreme Court recently ruled against a group of women petitioning for the right to continue use of their maiden names after marriage. Around the same time, the same court struck down a law that enforces a waiting period for women desiring to remarry after divorce, citing a lack of similar restrictions for men. Then in the same ruling, it suggested 100 days as a reasonable waiting period. (Huh?) A male parliamentarian applied for paternity leave, to the cheers of many younger women, only to be embroiled in an infidelity scandal and forced to resign shortly thereafter. “Maternity Harrassment” was listed as a trending term on TV programs celebrating the end of 2015.
Saying that I am full of anxiety and worry for what this country holds in store for my daughter would be an understatement.
But even in this midst of this still-winter, from the warm enclave of the kotatsu (a low table equipped with a heating unit and enveloped by a duvet,) I can see that outside plum blossoms are starting to bloom. Cherry blossoms will follow. There is warmth and life and hope awaiting us, if only we persevere a little longer.
Perhaps it is just coincidence that plum blossoms are a symbol of Girls Day as well.
Families across Japan will spend March 3 celebrating their love for their daughters. Gorgeous collections of delicate dolls representing the members of the ancient imperial court are being displayed as I write, the superstition being that should any disaster like fire or earthquake occur at your house, these dolls will take your daughter’s place. She will be spared.
Mothers and grandmothers will toil over chirashi zushi, a kind of sushi where the fish are “scattered” on top as opposed to rolled within. There will be crunchy, lightly sweetened snacks, traditional pounded rice cakes, and (especially for families with young daughters) perhaps even cake and pizza.
That this is an old tradition gives me hope. Even in the darkest days of a powerful patriarchy, parents have loved their daughters. Families have gathered, special dishes have been prepared, efforts have been made all for the love of girls.
In the midst of other more negative messages, this is a powerful one. I hope it gets through.
What kind of messages do you feel the traditions of your country send to young women? How would you like to change them, if you could?