Life With Noah
They, (whoever ‘they’ are), weren’t kidding when they said time would fly by. Noah is fast approaching his second birthday and it is hard to believe that just last fall he could barely walk, or that just last summer he barely had any teeth. Now he runs everywhere and boy oh boy does he ever bite. With his big 2 just around the corner, I thought now would be a good a time as any to talk a little about what it’s been like raising a toddler sized Noah in Japan. Has it been easy? Has it been hard? Well, it’s been both, that much I can say.
Where to begin? Japan feels like a pretty safe place to raise little kids. They are allowed to be innocent and playful in a place where there is seemingly very little to be afraid of. Traffic is slow and the community seems to be diligently on neighbourhood watch over its young inhabitants. Kids here still walk to school by themselves which actually shocked me the first time I saw groups of 6 year olds marching off to school in the morning. My favorite time of day is when I bike home from work along the river. Pairs of children will be toting huge backpacks home, chatting about that days playground gossip. I often see boys out with their butterfly nets, trying to catch beetles and praying mantis’. If I am lucky, the little league rugby team will jog by and give me a resounding Konnichiwa!
Noah is well loved in our community, and he’s a bit of rock star at his day care. I am always greeted by the screams of little girls yelling his name, and even yelling out “Hi there, Noah’s American Mom!” Our older neighbours, who own a small barbershop, have sort of become Noah’s adopted grandparents and are always giving him sweets too sweet to eat, and treating him to free hair cuts. They love to see him and are always trying to get him to say “I love you!” in English, because they think it’s so endearing. We also try to figure out together what language Noah actually speaks. At the moment, he seems to be perfectly bilingual and seems to understand just as much Japanese as he does English. In the playground he takes on a different tone of voice when chattering with his Japanese playmates. At home, he throws around a mix of understandable words and baby-sign language. But then there are many times where I assume that he’s just babbling, but my Japanese friends will point out that he’s actually talking in baby-Japanese. I get a sense that there is a lot more being said to us than we might realize, and I wonder what we may be missing.
While Noah might have North American parents, his heart certainly must be Japanese (wa no kokoro as they say here), or at the very least his stomach. He doesn’t like pasta, which sucks, because it’s like a mom’s lifesaving i’m-too-tired-to-cook-easy-to-make meal. Tortellini, spaghetti, penne. He would much rather throw it on the floor than put it in his mouth. But I can hardly finish forming an onigiri rice ball before he demands to eat it immediately. Same goes for tamagoyaki, and don’t even get me started on natto. We have a lock on the fridge to keep him from busting in there and jailbreaking the natto packages, which would be really bad if he did. I don’t know if there is a surface cleaner strong enough to get that stuff out of the tatami flooring in our place.
Of all the things we’ve been blessed with here in Japan, I really appreciate our friends. A special shout out goes to the younger singles, who after we had a baby, didn’t drop us like hot air balloon sandbags. We aren’t frequenting the snack bars and JET parties like we used to, but our social lives are still pretty healthy thanks to the people we know here that genuinely love kids and love Noah. Our family has always been welcome out to restaurants, picnics, BBQ’s, hiking trips and just about anywhere our stroller will fit. Having a great community of friends has made our lives as parents in a strange place more enjoyable than I could have expected.
Life with Noah in Japan is fun, but it is also incredibly hard to be a full time working mom with a dad who works a lot of evenings and no family in sight to help lighten the load. Add to that the non-existence of things like ‘babysitting’ and you are ready to pull your hair out somedays. It doesn’t seem to be part of Japanese culture to leave your child with anyone but family and all my foreign friends have lives just as busy as I do, so time alone as a couple is nearly impossible to coordinate. I can probably count the number of times on one hand that I have managed to drop Noah off for more than a few hours with someone I trust leaving him with. I once left him with a neighbour who has 3 other kids. It was an emergency and by the expression on her face, I knew she was doing me a huge favour. She looked spent when I got back. I never had the heart to ask her again after that.
One godsend is Noah’s daycare. He started going there shortly after his first birthday. Up until that time Matt was watching him, but that was an even more hectic experience. I’d work a full day and then scramble back home as quickly as possible to make the baby-swap so that he could head off to his evening classes. There were some days that I barely made the switch and stress levels were high. Noah was also getting more mobile and neither Matt or I seemed to have the combined energy it took to keep up with him or our crazy routine. Things are much more doable since Noah started going to his play place. It’s open late, so I don’t have to kill myself trying to pick him up on the dot of a certain time. It’s also open on Saturdays if I need an emergency day off, but I rarely use this option, cause after 5 days in a row, Noah really doesn’t deserve to be institutionalized for the weekend. I like the staff who are very caring and energetic women. Noah gets a lot of attention, physical activity and really healthy meals and snacks, but unfortunately, the one thing he doesn’t get a lot of is us. He spends about 8 hours a day there, and sometimes I wonder if he knows which of the women in his life is actually his mom.
The reality about Japan is that as safe as it is, and as child friendly as all the restaurants, hotels and public toilets are, family does not necessarily come first. Mothers here do everything for their children and fathers work themselves into oblivion. From my experience, a Japanese family is most well off if the grandparents are still alive and active to help the moms with the enormous task of essentially being a married but single mother. If a mother needs to work before a child is school aged, and grandparents are unavailable, then the daycare system in Japan is left to raise the children, and I mean that quite literally. Our daycare is equipped to feed kids every meal but breakfast and has a thriving weekend program. Some kids are there 6 days a week, 10 hours a day. They see the daycare staff more than their actual parents. In some ways it’s not unlike the life of my high school students, who spend more hours a week in their school uniform and an average of 12 hours a day at school.
My male teaching colleagues are always telling me how important it is that I do what is best for my son. Sometimes I wonder what that really means to them. I know they love their children and their wives, but these are the same men who work 50 to 60 hour work weeks, are sometimes transferred to cities where they live apart from their loved ones, coach sports teams 6 days a week, go on regular weekend business trips and attend most of the work drinking parties. These are people who don’t get a long 2 month summer vacation, but who teach early morning extra classes and spend considerable amounts of time being father figures to children who are not their own. When they finally do have a moment for themselves, they take the chance to go surfing or play a round of golf. And why shouldn’t they have that pleasure? I know how rejuvenating it can be to have an afternoon to myself. But when these men ever get to spend any real quality time with their families is a big question mark to me. I wonder if they feel like they are really doing the best they can for their own children, or if they have little other choice but to just keep going the way they are going.
I think the whole daycare experience is what pushed me to quit my job and make the call to take us back to Canada. I had to ask myself “Do I really want to be missing these precious years of my sons life? Do I really want him to be raised by strangers, most whom I don’t even know their names and can’t communicate with properly?” Push come to shove, I would rather that Noah know the faces of his grandparents than the faces of the staff at his daycare. It’s terrifying to actually be leaving. The future feels so uncertain, but I suppose it was going to be uncertain either way. Still, it doesn’t change the fact that it was the hardest decision i’ve ever had to make, and I have no idea where it’s going to take us.