Saturday, September 17, 2011

Japanese Mamahood

Recently, my husband and I came to an impasse about our time in Japan. He is upset that I want to return to the States seeing it as leaving him to fend for himself. He is obligated by the U.S. Navy to finish another year of service. I, however, am not. He was shocked that I both had and wanted to exercise the option to leave Japan. We have finally settled on a halfway point that we are both happy with. For me, it was never about leaving him, but about the rigors of Japanese Mamahood.

Being a Japanese Mama is Harder than you Think
Everyone seems to think I have it easy and besides I chose to do this immersion thing. However, I never expected to do it for more than three years (I'm working on year five), and being a Japanese mama is harder than you think.

We settled in Kamakura, where I had been assured by the base housing office we did not want to live- it was too far. We promptly enrolled our children into yochien Japanese preschool. Their ages (2 & 3 at the time) were perfect for language immersion, and if they could do it, so could I. My can-do attitude came in handy with the many road blocks that came our way: illiteracy being paramount, paperwork translation, communicating at mama and teacher meetings, bureaucratic paperwork obstacles, and differing cultural perspectives.

Adopted by various mamas and schooled in the ways of Japanese yochien mamahood as much as a gaijin mama could muster, they appreciated me for simply showing up. I, at times, liberated them from the straight and narrow roles usually expected- no group could ever function as a normal mama group with me in it from using a phone tree to creating a skit which was a yearly necessity at yochien. The annual skit in and of itself resulted in numerous meetings and at least one grand mama night out that lasted until four in the morning as well as a variety of ways to incorporate the lone American speaker into the event- twice a year for three years (two kids). I fumbled and learned the basics. I was never expected to fully get it right and was given kudos for continuously trying except by my own children who put the blame squarely on me when they were wearing the wrong uniform, eating the wrong kind of obento, or missing some necessary school supply.

The Weather Factor
It's mid September now, but it is hot and humid here. My son has heat rash because it is miserably humid and hot and because there is no central air conditioner in our house or at their school. Over eight hundred children attend their elementary school and there is no air conditioning in it. In Japanese life, you are exposed to the elements- I get frost bite on my toes, in my house, in winter. Things like weather exposure was not something I factored into my lifestyle choice when I opted to live off of the reservation.

Being the Transportation
Japanese mamas generally get around by bicycle or on foot. There are many a "paper driver's license" out there among my mama friends. This means they have a paper to drive, but they do not drive. You bike. Have two kids? Two bicycle seats, one on the front and one on the back of mama's bicycle with no helmets on anyone. Three kids? Add a back pack on mama for the youngest. As you might imagine, the mamas encourage bicycling early in their children.

Japanese Mama- kid on the front, kid on the back
My husband and I marveled at the two year olds trotting down the road while along Komachidori, the shopping street, and yet small dogs can be seen being pushed in strollers. Being the transportation is part of the job of a Japanese mama. You think driving an air conditioned car is tiring? Try bicycling yourself, your kids, and all of the gear you can pack onto your bike and pedaling under the sweltering sun in a hundred percent humidity. How about riding your bike with twenty pounds of food in the basket- wobblier than I expected. It rains in June, all month. I want the car option.

The Dog Stroller

Laundry Pains
Over summer break I reveled in the ease of washing and drying clothes in machines in the States. My sister-in-law told me the Mule had marveled at the fresh from the dryer towel she was offered noting "it's so warm!" and "so soft" especially when compared to the air dried ones we have at home which some days take several days to actually dry.

Hot water is not attached to washing machines and there are no dryers here in Japan. Stains and spots are scrubbed out at the kitchen sink with a brush by hand. All laundry is hung up to dry which sounds fabulous if you live on a Kansas prairie, but in rainy, humid, ever green Japan, this is difficult. Keep an eye on the laundry pile or you won't have enough space to hang it. School children bring their gym clothes, inside shoes, cooking wear, and various bags, hand towels, and handkerchiefs home every Friday. I always feel an inward groan on these afternoons as the house suddenly erupts with laundry, backpacks, art projects, and piles everywhere. To insure that everything has time to dry by Monday morning, you have to do the laundry by Saturday and sometimes that isn't long enough.

Making Meals
Mamas are the first up to start the rice, to make obentos for lunch, and to make breakfast. Backpacks must be checked- children bring all of their school things home each day. Even in first grade there is a daily schedule of which books and supplies to bring. A thermos of ice and mugicha is prepared daily as well. After everyone is off, then it is time to hang laundry, clean, and get the days supplies.

The Dad Part
The dads aren't slackers, don't get me wrong. They commute by train often to Tokyo or Yokohama traveling two to three hours a day. The work hours are long resulting in late night returns. I don't see drunken dads coming home like I expected after hearing tales of "platform pizzas" and other sordid details, but the dads I see have tired faces and the desire to see and spend time with their families though they are absent much of the week. After school activities can require a great deal of commuting on the mother's part but generally it seems after first grade the students are on their own- walking to swimming, riding their bikes to practice, etc. The second shift is dinner when the dads return- heat up dinner, chat a bit, and then clean up once again.
Shibu Inu (Dog) in a backpack
Mama Jobs
Some of the mothers have part-time jobs, a few full-time, but I rarely see much of these mamas. Even with mothers of younger children, I realize I most likely will not do much with those mamas as they simply don't have the time to cross paths unless with other mothers of young children and the same agendas. There are no babysitters regularly employed beyond help from grandmothers. The Japanese mamas get their break when the children start into yochien and more fully when elementary school starts from first grade- the children gradually assume more independence and have school lunch. No obentos are allowed in elementary school here so don't think your picky eater is going to survive on peanut butter and fruit rollups.

The Easy Life Calls
It gets lonely. The work is monotonous. But the mamas don't seem to grumble as much as plan for a bit of fun when they can. I respect that, and I have been the recipient of some great invitations for hikes, lunches, onsen trips, cultural experiences, and for coffee/tea, as a result. I don't want to leave Japan to get away from the culture, my friends, or my husband, but I could do with a whole lot less of the grinding sweat shop aspect of mamahood here. I also have the added pressure of having limited ability to help my children with their school work, the need to teach them English in their and my free time, and my weekly meeting with the translator to review school papers. As these little things time consumers add up, that house in Ohio beckons. It is not about Japan, but about an easier life, I admit it!

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