Motherhood & Parenting in Japan

On Being One and Done in Japan

Last Updated on 2024-01-08 by Teni

It’s funny how the news works. Several years ago, national headlines focused on Japanese daycares (or lack thereof). These days, it seems like all headlines bemoan Japan’s falling plummeting birthrate (少子化 // shoushika). At the same time, I’ve noticed a significant increase in articles about the income disparity between men and women. Sometimes they’re with stories detailing the harsh realities of being a “working mom.”

A Yahoo News screenshot taken on March 5.
  1. The differences in sleep patterns between men and women with [young] children; Women wake up at night 13 times [more than men] to attend to their [young] children 
  2. The Countdown to the “Extension of the Japanese Race” Begins — “A desperate situation” evidenced through our nation’s dwindling birth rate
  3. Guess which country has it worse than us… South Korea’s birth rate dips to .78 — Is this due to the rise of “singledom?” What’s the deal with “solo weddings” and “benefits for singles”?
  4. The moms who just want literally “one minute” of alone time away from their kids. Working moms in their 30s, 40s, and 50s get real with us
  5. Single at 36; My mom is overbearing and it’s destroying my relationship with my boyfriend (Dating & Marriage Advice with [YouTube personality] Mr. Touma, AKA your dating app concierge)

While I’m not a professional translator, I tried to capture the sensationalism of these headlines! It’s absolutely incredible that politicians say with a straight face that they can’t understand why no one in Japan wants to have (any more) children?

As a long-term resident, I must admit that I’m part of the problem as I only have one child!

My thoughts on being “one and done” in Japan follow my recent appearance on a BBC podcast with Devina GuptaMs. Gupta and I first became acquainted via email. Later, we had a fantastic Zoom chat about my experiences as a mother in Japan.

I’d like to make it clear that my thoughts and feelings and opinions on being a mother in Japan are not reflective of all mothers in Japan. 

This blog, The Wagamama Diaries, has allowed me to write candidly about my experiences as an early childhood educator and as a first-time mom in Japan.

This recent podcast was another opportunity to share my unique perspective on a sensitive topic.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s start with the term “one and done,” and how I got here!

Thoughts On Being One and Done in Japan

Again, my experiences are not reflective of all women in Japan. Nevertheless, perhaps my story gives a different insight on why (some) modern-day Japanese families only have one child.

According to a December 20222 article on NHK, “Statistically, Japanese women are expected to have an average of 1.3 children over their lifetime while they would need to have 2.1 for a sustainable population.” 

The reasons for being one and done in Japan vary from family to family. However, respondents in a 2021 survey of nearly 6,000 married couples, “cited financial reasons for not having more children.”

In addition, Japan’s “Gen Z” is showing little desire to ever have children:

In my case,  I dreamt of having 3 kids. I thought if I could handle a classroom of 4 year olds without an assistant, then having a child (or 2 or 3) would be relatively mild. 

Narrator: It wasn’t.

In the past, I  struggled with my struggle with infertility. That is to say, I had to do some intensive soul searching to keep myself at peace when it seemed like every woman around me got pregnant so easily!

These days, I see a celebratory “We’re Expecting” post on Instagram, and I think, “Wow, lady, you’re an absolute saint. I can barely handle the one I have — and I prayed hard for this miracle!”

The Fourth Trimester

Perhaps the biggest influence in my decision to be one and done in Japan is “The Fourth Trimester.”

It feels like very little awareness is brought to the incredible changes that a woman goes through in the fourth trimester. Perhaps this is largely because every woman experiences it differently.

For the uninitiated, the fourth trimester is the postpartum period immediately after birth. It is a time of intense physical, emotional, and mental changes.

In my case, I had a relatively easy pregnancy. I worked right up until the designated period for maternity leave

(To be fair, this was only possible because I live in East Tokyo and worked in neighboring Chiba Prefecture. Everyday I went opposite the flow of rush hour traffic into central Tokyo!)

My birth story is similar; I had a relatively easy birth with no complications. 

Now, the fourth trimester, on the other hand…

To me, the “interesting” thing about being a mom is that everyone expects you to be naturally good at it. It’s what our bodies are designed for, to carry a baby to term and nourish it, right?

In reality, you’re winging it, every single moment, literally from the day they send you home from the hospital! 

And, on top of being a new mom, you’ve got to deal with the physical changes of childbirth, such as: 

  • Lochia (postpartum bleeding)
  • Engorged breasts
  • C-section incision drainage
  • Perineal pain
  • Contractions
  • Incontinence 
  • Constipation
  • Night sweats

It begs the question, If you’re a new mom experiencing the above while taking care of your new baby, who’s taking care of you?

Which is perhaps precisely the reason why many women in Japan spend a month (or more) at home with their mothers or ask their mothers to come spend a few weeks with them.

In my case, my mother-in-law graciously came to stay with us in Tokyo for several weeks as I recuperated. 

Again, I want to stress that both my pregnancy and birth were free of complications. My heart hurts when I imagine how hard the physical recovery must be for women who had complicated or even traumatic childbirths.

However, I was completely caught off guard by the emotional and mental changes that came with the fourth trimester. I now have come to realize that I suffered from postpartum anxiety and depression.

Remember what I wrote a few paragraphs back, that everyone expects you to be a good mom and to just “get it”, because that’s what female bodies have evolved to do?

In my case, I never got the damned software update or patch!

I remember getting into intense arguments with my husband, who’d try to diffuse a stressful episode with a “compliment” such as, “But, you’re good at this!”

To which I’d retort:

“Good? Breastfeeding isn’t something you’re good at or not. This is a literal do or die situation, as in, IF I DON’T FEED HER SHE WILL LITERALLY DIE!”

Which brings me to the next factor that helped me realize that I was one and done in Japan…

Work-Life Balance and The Roles of Men and Women in Japanese Society

What I want to say is this:

If I had known how much solo parenting (ワンオペ育児 // wan ope ikuji) was expected of me — from both Japanese society and my partner — perhaps I would have reconsidered my choice to have a child in Japan.

On the surface, Japanese labor law is largely accommodating to families where both parents work.

No, you read that right. In fact, I’ll rewrite that:

Japanese labor law is largely accommodating to families where both parents work. Read my post on Japan’s workplace accommodations for pregnant women, maternity leave, and childcare leave benefits. A follow up to that post details the latest government initiative to get men to take paternity leave,

YET

The overlying problem is that responsibility of parenting largely lies on the mother’s shoulders. I’d argue that the issue is not unique to Japan. In fact, I see similar sentiments daily on the r/oneanddone subreddit! However, I’ll just stick to Japan for the purpose of this blog post.

It’s 2023, and it’s still practically expected that a working woman in Japan will quit her job once she’s pregnant. And, if she decides to go back to work she faces the following obstacles:

Daycare & Kindergarten* Accommodation

*Daycare (保育園 // hoikuen) and kindergarten (幼稚園 // youchien) are two COMPLETELY different entities in Japan. Please read my posts on daycare in Japan and kindergarten in Japan for details. 

Most working parents in Japan will send their child to daycare as these facilities accommodate the schedules of working parents. In my case, my daughter currently attends kindergarten from 9:30 to 2:30, with Wednesday being a “half day.” 

Public daycares in Japan are need-based and monthly fees are set according to a sliding scale. Private daycares cost significantly more but are widely available. In either case, working parents must submit an official document (在職証明証 // zaishoku shoumeisho) which clearly states their employer, working hours, salary, etc. 

Once your child is in daycare, it’s time to sort out the following:

  • Who takes care of morning drop-offs and afternoon pickups?
  • Which parent takes care of emergency pick-up, for example, in the case your child gets a sudden fever?
  • Who takes care of bento lunch boxes and packs the bags every morning?
  • Who takes care of all the ”mundane” things like labeling supplies?
  • What about preparing for and attending school events like Sports Festival and musicals and so on?
  • What about after school activities like music lessons, swimming, karate, etc?

More often than not, these tasks are the mother’s responsibility. 

And, can I tell you something infuriating? Sometimes siblings can’t attend the same daycare facility (due to space restrictions). So, in some cases you have a parent doing two different daycare runs in one morning!

1.3 Million Yen Question (130万の壁 // hyaku sanjyuu man no kabe)

1.3 million yen (approximately $10,000 USD) is the income threshold that when crossed, a person no longer qualifies as a dependent. This effectively puts them on the hook for monthly insurance and pension premiums. 

If public (affordable) daycare is not an option, is it “worth it” to work full-time and pay for costly private daycare? It’s not uncommon for fees to be as high as 90,000 yen a month per child!

And no, I’m not exaggerating. I saw the invoices firsthand when I worked at a privately owned daycare facility.

What’s It Like Being A Working Mom in Japan?

I previously reported on my experience as a semi-full time kindergarten teacher in this post: An Unfiltered Look at Working Mom Life in Japan

After a year of working reduced hours (6 hours a day at 1,500 yen an hour) and having daycare fees (35,000 yen), school lunch (3,000 yen) taxes (18,000 yen), and social insurance premiums (18,000 yen) deducted from my paycheck, I, too, began to wonder if it was all “worth it.” 

If you didn’t do the calculations, here’s what the above all comes out to: after all the deductions, my monthly salary of 180,000 was actually only around 90,000-100,000 yen.

Perhaps I should have opted to work within the boundaries of 1,300,000 million yen. But, even then, my monthly salary would have been around 108,000 yen a month, working 4 hours a day. That would leave me with 70,000 yen after deducting daycare fees and school lunch fees.

Obviously, having a high paying job would relieve me of the financial burdens, but I’d still be facing higher daycare costs (mine were heavily reduced as an employee). Not to mention, my husband and I would have to figure out a new routine for daycare drop-off/pick up and work commute…which would probably be 90%-100% up to me given his work schedule. 

Again, I live in East Tokyo and worked in neighboring Chiba Prefecture. It was a door-to-door commute that was just under one hour if I decided to go by bus.

By train, my total commute was about 45 minutes door-to-door. This time included the time it took to transfer trains and wait for elevators. I never had to worry about daycare drop-off and pick up because I worked at my daughter’s daycare!

For me, the trade-off made sense. But, a part of me always wondered if I was doing myself a disservice by not choosing to become a stay-at home mom.

The thing is, I like working. I LOVE the creativity and fun that comes with being a kindergarten teacher. I missed all of that when I was on childcare leave. On the other hand, I was creating special moments with my daughter, but I also craved adult conversation. Not as in R18+ lewd chat, but speaking and interacting with adults.

So, when my husband took paternity leave, I jumped at the opportunity to return to the classroom.

Little did I know that I’d be emotionally and mentally pushed to my limits due to having the 24/7 job of childcare on top of a “day job.” 

Work-Life Balance in Japan As A Working Mom

Have you ever heard of the term “touched out?” It’s the feeling of needing a literal break from physical contact. 

As a kindergarten teacher, breastfeeding mom, and dog mom, my arms were always open for hugs and snuggles. 

At the same time, there were moments where I felt so uncomfortable in my postpartum body. 

Yet, it seemed like EVERYONE — my child, my students, my partner, my dog— wanted unrestricted access to it. Yet, if I, for whatever reason, claimed bodily autonomy, or wanted a few minutes of “me time,” suddenly I was the villain.

Which brings me to the “life” part in the “work-life balance” equation:

These days, it’s expected that women will continue to take care of traditional roles and work outside the home. This is not just out of personal desire, but out of economic necessity, too.

In my personal opinion, the painfully inconvenient truth is that the bar for fathers in Japanese society is so laughably low, that any modicum of effort is praiseworthy.

 

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Let me rant for a moment. The incompetence that most women I have to deal with on a daily basis would not fly in a company, Japanese or otherwise. Yet, Japanese fathers continuously get away with it because “otoko dakara shou ga nai ne” (男だからしょうがないネ // It’s because they’re men.”

Yes, I know this is a #notallJapanesefathers situation. But, I’m writing about my life/marriage in Japan. If I had more emotional/mental/physical support, this would be a completely different post!

I don’t even want to think back on all the sleepless nights where I’d be practically crying and begging for help at night only to be met with, “Well I have to work tomorrow.”

It’s unacceptable (criminal, even) for sleep-deprived pilots to fly aircraft. Sleep deprived drivers and workers, likewise, are not allowed to operate vehicles and heavy machinery.

So, why do we as a society think it’s perfectly acceptable to leave a frazzled, sleep-deprived, new mom alone with an infant for hours on end with no reprieve? And, yet, people have the nerve to wonder why moms “snap!”

Nothing could have possibly prepared me for all the years of negative feelings like anger and resentment, feeling like an unfit mother…

…when finally I realized the issue was not me, it was a lack of support.

I’m writing this post on a Sunday morning, and I can’t remember a single day when I’ve been able to sleep in. Not even when I caught COVID this past January. 

I’ve come to accept that while I don’t regret becoming a mother, I regret who I chose as a partner. That’s a choice I’ll continue to live with because that choice has robbed me of a future where I could have had two or more children with someone eager to be a hands-on parent.

Given my fertility struggles, PPD history, and now “Advanced” maternal age, having a second or their child is probably out of the question. (Still, “High Hopes,” by Panic! At The Disco remains my personal anthem!)

With that said, if I’m expected to be the default parent, where my literal cries for help will continue to go unanswered, then I’ll do this on my own, my way.

In my case, two years ago, I managed to start my own business, Edo Beauty Lab, and I even opened up a boutique in Tokyo, which gives me flexibility and control that most working mothers don’t have. (See my feature interview with Ranzo of The Black Experience Japan for details on my natural skincare brand.)

 

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At the same time, I admit that feel resentful that my “flexibility” is interpreted as “expendable” when it comes to work-life balance. Too often I am expected to forgo my work commitments, which in turn affects my profit margins. However meager my earnings are at the moment, the peace of mind is something that I will never let go.

Spring, the season of rebirth, is on its way.  I’m in the mood to take some more risks, reinvent myself, innovate, and revolutionize!

TL;DR

While I’m firmly team one and done for the time being, I’d happily reconsider ONLY IF my future partner is willing to be actively involved and physically present as a parent. Unfortunately, I’m nearly 40, which puts both me and my child at risk for complications, so I guess I might not be having a second after all.

Thoughts On Being One and Done in Japan

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