Pregnancy and Motherhood in Japan: Candace’s Story (USA → Saitama)
Women all over the world have their own unique pregnancy, birth, and child-rearing stories, but when giving birth for the first time in a country that is originally not your own, there are a lot of additional things to worry and wonder about. This is why I’m thrilled to share the story of another mother in Japan who has kindly allowed me to interview her for this series.
Originally from Goshen, Connecticut, USA, Candace now lives in Asaka, Saitama. She is an illustrator and mother to a lovely two-year-old girl who was born in Kawagoe, Saitama.
Several years ago, Candace was living in South Korea when she happened to meet her husband, a Japanese national, in Paris (of all places!). As Japan and Korea are quite close, it was easy for her to visit Japan and after a few trips over the course of six months, she decided to move there. She and her husband married and they welcomed their daughter soon after.
Pregnancy in Japan
How did you find out you were pregnant and what did you do afterward?
I think I was like seven or eight weeks along when I realized I should probably take a test. I think it was a Clearblue one. I had a doctor’s appointment with a general doctor at Kameda Kyobashi in Tokyo and asked my nurse to kindly ask their gynecologist to confirm the pregnancy for me. She did, and she then wrote me a letter of recommendation for the maternity clinic I spent the rest of my pregnancy and labor/delivery at.
What, if anything, worried you the most about the prospect of giving birth in Japan?
Honestly, I tend to take things as they come and only worried about something being wrong with my baby, but since pregnancies are monitored more closely in Japan I felt a little more at ease.
Which clinic or hospital did you go to and how was your overall experience?
I chose Nishijima Clinic because I immediately got on well with the OB there and it was close to my home, and even closer to my husband’s job. I could take a short train ride there, or a taxi.
Did you have a birth plan?
Haha, I was not really thinking about my birth, honestly. I just relied on the nurses and doctors to take care of me. I wasn’t into playlists or “THE MOOD”, although my clinic showed off this light on the ceiling I could choose the color for. I knew that if I set up expectations like that, I’d feel anxious if things didn’t go as planned, so I just didn’t plan anything. I don’t know if I would do anything differently a second time. They had me fill out a survey for labor/delivery/aftercare but most of it was in the last category (Do you want your baby with you the first night? Do you want her with you every night after? Do you want her given formula immediately, or not? and so on, etc.). There was no option for an epidural and that was fine and expected.
Did you take any prenatal vitamins?
The GP I saw initially suggested I take folic acid. My OB mentioned nothing, and I took nothing else.
Did you do any additional prenatal testing?
I wasn’t offered NIPT or any of the tri or quad tests. My OB attempted a 4D ultrasound but my daughter didn’t cooperate. However, I had two “anatomy scans”. My OB did a cursory one for any major heart defects and to check the sex of the baby at 19 weeks. At 21 weeks a midwife took us into a little private room and did a very long (an hour) and thorough scan where she showed us everything and asked if we had any questions. She showed us the umbilical cord, the organs, the face. All of our ultrasounds were uploaded to my personal patient page, and I still have the 21 week one saved because we caught her yawning and rubbing her eyes.
Did you continue to work throughout your pregnancy? How did your coworkers take the news? Were there any challenges?
I worked at the eikaiwa GABA, about a forty-minute train ride into Tokyo, until 36 weeks. I didn’t tell most people or students. It was a contract job and there was no maternity leave. The only challenge in working was in the very beginning when I could barely get myself out of bed from exhaustion.
How was your experience with taking public transportation?
I hated everyone on the train near the priority seats and took my pregnancy badge off and stopped trying for about a month in the beginning. I dry heaved on some business man’s shoes as he sat in the priority seat but of course, he pointedly ignored me. However, I probably should have been more direct in asking people for a seat.
What was the most challenging or frustrating thing about being pregnant in Japan? What did you find the most positive?
My pregnancy went fine and I liked my clinic. I felt like it was all quite smooth. My doctor was patient and kind, and the nurses too. I wish my husband had taken on more at home. It was difficult to make meals in early pregnancy so I’d come home from work, sleep, wake up to cook and maybe eat, and go back to bed for work the next day.
Did you get any free baby goods/samples, such as from sites or events?
My clinic gave me free samples of diapers and formula, a nursing pillow, and a couple bibs. I didn’t seek out much more but I now know there are tons of events. I probably would have been too lazy to go anyway, honestly.
Where did you go for maternity clothing?
I bought one maternity shirt at Akachanhonpo for work, and for some reason I bought a weird fleecy but short-sleeved dress from Nishimatsuya that I still wear because it’s so comfortable.
Did you go on a babymoon?
We went to Atami!
Where did you go to find information about pregnancy? Did you do anything to prepare for the birth, such as go to any birth-preparation or parenting classes?
I don’t know how I feel about this, but I honestly didn’t do much research. I just went to my appointments, the clinic’s prenatal classes, and read stuff on my baby tracking app occasionally. I didn’t research much online and I avoided a lot of the US-based holistic blogs because a lot of stuff they recommended (diet-wise, especially) was not really feasible for me.
Is there anything else you would like to share about your pregnancy?
I was diagnosed with gestational diabetes in either the late second trimester or early third trimester. I went to see a nutritionist at a bigger hospital and she recommended I eat whole foods spaced in smaller meals throughout the day. Nothing was really off-limits and it never really came up again, but my doctor said if I showed any complications I’d have to deliver at a larger hospital and he wouldn’t be there. I was really nervous but it all ended up fine.
Giving Birth in Japan
When did you realize the baby was coming and what did you do? Was your baby early, on time, or overdue?
I had cramps at 38 weeks and grumbled about it for a couple of days when I started noticing spotting. At 38.3 the cramps became unbearable and my clinic had me come in. At that point I was 5 cm dilated and my water hadn’t broken, so they shaved me and had me roam the labor and delivery room trying to get comfortable.
How many hours were you in labor for?
I labored at home on and off (tolerably) for a day or so – labored at my clinic for 13 hours.
Did you have a natural birth or a C-section?
I had a vacuum-assisted delivery with an episiotomy.
Did you have any pain relief?
My doctor gave me local pain relief for the stitches after delivery, after the episiotomy. Otherwise no.
Was your partner allowed in the delivery room with you?
Could you briefly describe the moment your child was born?
They took her away to clean her up and make sure she was breathing since she was showing distress until they pulled out the vacuum. When I first saw her face I thought, “Oh no she looks just like me!”. I was so exhausted I was shaking, and she was taken away to be warmed up pretty quickly. I do have photos of her on my chest, but I just remember her being slimy.
How was your hospital stay and recovery?
It was pretty standard, I think. I had my own room and toilet, but showers were shared. No problems there. Food was great, staff were all over me trying to make sure I didn’t wither away from loneliness (they openly felt sorry for me). My husband visited every night after work then went home to finish preparing all the baby shower stuff I’d laundered but not put away yet when I went into labor. I kept turning the temperature down to 24 degrees but they said it was too cold for the baby, and the hospital gown was so heavy I was sweltering – finally I got my husband to bring me a t-shirt. The hospital bed was also super uncomfortable, but the room was sunny, there were hot drinks available in the main lobby, and so on. I felt like I was well taken care of but not smothered. The only problem really was them trying to teach me how to get my newborn to latch, and we were pretty much all frustrated by the experience – she didn’t really catch on until a month or so later.
Was your birth experience how you imagined it to be?
I expected a lot of pain and it was extremely painful. It was much more difficult to breathe through contractions than I’d expected. However, I did expect to feel the need to push, and I didn’t really feel that. Also, I expected my water to break but the midwife broke it manually. I was also surprised by how my distress just compiled until the end. My OB walked in and told me very kindly to “relax”, and I felt myself relax and listen to him immediately. I wish he’d popped in sooner.
What would you do the same or differently if you have another child?
I don’t even want to think about that yet – or ever.
How would you describe your overall birth experience in Japan? Was there anything you were unprepared for or did anything really surprise you?
I was not really prepared for labor. Maybe I should have practiced meditation or breathing better so I didn’t stress myself out so much? At the same time, I think that if I’d over-prepared, I would have panicked when things didn’t go as planned.
Child-Rearing in Japan
Did your partner take paternity leave?
He took two weeks.
How did you feel those first couple of days home from the hospital with a newborn? What would have been different had you given birth in the US?
It was super rough. I was kind of floating on a weird hormonal cloud, but breastfeeding was so painful and difficult and the advice from my clinic was so unexpected (only nurse 15 minutes per side, and switch often) left me exhausted. I ended up getting mastitis and crying a lot. I think I may have resorted to calling a lactation consultant if I’d been home in the US, possibly? There were options in Tokyo, or even via Skype, but I didn’t feel comfortable contacting a stranger like that, even if it’s their profession.
Did you have any family in Japan or from the US come and help you after the baby was born?
The only one to visit was my father-in-law. He brought snacks.
Different cultures have varying ideas when it comes to safe sleeping. Where did your newborn sleep? Did you swaddle her, use a sleepsack, or put a blanket over her?
She slept in a rented crib, and I used sleep sacks. We attempted swaddling but the swaddle sacks I had gotten were Velcro and so loud!
What is one product you found to be especially useful for a new mom?
She was too small at first, but my BabyBjorn bouncer was great, and my ErgoBaby (again, as soon as she was big enough for it – we struggled with the infant insert). She sat in the bouncer when I showered, right outside the shower door. She sat there while I cooked, staring at me. The ErgoBaby was great since we never bothered with a stroller. I still use it when she’s tired and we’re out shopping or on the train. I love having full use of both my hands so I never wanted a stroller – the baby carrier was the best decision ever.
What are your experiences with making local mom friends?
I’m not a very social person, but I did go to the local jidoukan for their infant events, and I went to the shien center very often. This was mostly for my daughter’s benefit as I found talking to people exhausting (still do). I mostly talked to the staff and only made one close friend (also a foreign mom) when our kids were about a year old. We’re still friends now. I found another two mom friends through Reddit and I treasure them, and one more from a Facebook group.
Do you find Tokyo to be baby-friendly?
I do, for the most part. I’m alone with my daughter the vast majority of the time. Not having a stroller helps, so I can carry my shopping, a backpack, and wear my toddler (for now). The baby rooms tend to be clean and well-equipped and the nursing rooms were plentiful when I needed them – I’ve never wanted to nurse in public, but I have heard from other moms that they’ve never encountered any negativity when doing so. We don’t go out to eat very often but there are a lot of family-friendly places. I try to take my daughter out once or twice a month to a chain cafe or something to get her used to sitting in a restaurant, getting used to the environment. While staff aren’t as warm and effusive as they tend to be back home, they are very patient and kind. I spend most of my time in Tokyo in Ikebukuro – lots of places to bring a baby or toddler – but I wish the parks were greener!
Do you have any experience with the daycare system in Japan? If so, could you tell us a bit about it?
We entered a temporary daycare less than ten minutes from our home when she was 18 months old. Three days a week, 8:30-4:30. We both hated it at first, but it was nice to have some time to look for work and build up my portfolio. The staff were more physically hands-on than I expected. In some ways it was good, they hugged her and carried her around lovingly. Other ways were very off-putting, they would lead her around by the arm a little more forcefully than I was comfortable with, take her lovey from her without warning, and so on. I had to talk to them about it. Then we moved, lost our spot, and we are waiting to find a spot at another hoikuen or yochien. While losing my little alone time stung a bit, I’m 100% fine staying home with her as long as I can, especially since there are tons of jidoukan around in our new neighborhood to explore.
What languages do you and your partner speak with your daughter? Do you have any concerns or plans when it comes to raising her in a bilingual or multilingual household?
We speak English at home, I do my best to use Japanese when we are out when conversing with jidoukan staff, other moms and kids, etc. But primarily English and she will enter public Japanese school at some point so it may be a challenge to keep her using English at a native level. I’ll do my best.
Do you find anything daunting and/or challenging when it comes to raising a child in Japan?
Probably the loneliness and the fact we are suburban – so not necessarily things that are because we live in Japan. I would love to be raising her a little more free-range with places to roam. I feel like I am constantly telling her to keep in line on sidewalks, watch out for other people, etc. It’s exhausting for both of us. When we are back in my hometown (and I am typing this from there) we are both freer to wander and explore. There are places where we can go specifically for that where we live in Saitama, but it’s not the norm. Sometimes I wonder if moving to a more rural location would help or if I’d just feel more isolated. I have also struggled with cultural norms like the attitude towards car seats – I’ve had many many moms bewildered by my refusal to go anywhere without a car seat, and my husband too was a little irritated by my anxiety concerning car seat safety.
What is something specific to Japan that you’re looking forward to doing with your daughter?
My hometown is pretty rural and we usually go to the supermarket in the neighboring town and stock up for the week. Cafes are few and far between and seasonal sweets aren’t a plentiful as they are in Japan. I look forward to brightening a dreary day with my daughter when she’s a bit older, finding favorite places to stop after school for a treat, trying something new and interesting we see in the shop windows, and so on. I hope she remains an adventurous eater!
Candace can be found on Instagram at @fujii.illust where she posts her beautiful illustrations (check it out, you won’t be disappointed!).
Are you a mom or mom-to-be in Japan and interested in sharing your story? If so, I’d love to hear from you. You can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or fill out my contact form.