Pregnancy and Motherhood in Japan: Katie’s Story (USA → Nagasaki)
Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to show their support for this new series. It’s truly wonderful to have the opportunity to share the stories of fascinating women from abroad who are experiencing pregnancy and motherhood in Japan, and it really couldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for all of you.
This story features our first mom located outside of the Kanto region. Katie is an educator originally from the San Francisco Bay Area in California, USA. Her exposure to Japanese culture started from a very young age when she began learning the language in the first grade of elementary school. She continued studying Japanese throughout college and in 2012, she moved to Japan as an ALT on the JET Program. As fate would have it, she was placed in Nagasaki where she met the man who would become her husband. (They’ll be celebrating seven years together in the coming spring!)
After three years of teaching on JET, Katie moved to Boston to get her master’s degree in school leadership. She then went on to become a high school vice principal in California. During those two years, she and her husband endured a long-distance relationship but she eventually moved back to Nagasaki and was able to work remotely on curriculum development for a school system in California.
In May 2019, Katie gave birth to a beautiful little boy in her husband’s hometown, a suburb of Nagasaki City. On top of being a new mom, Katie will be starting a job as a lecturer at a university in April 2020. She and her husband are also in the process of building their very own house, so it’s a very exciting time for her family.
Pregnancy in Japan
How did you find out you were pregnant and what did you do afterward?
I remember driving to the store and just having a *feeling*. I hadn’t missed a period yet, but my body just felt a little different. I drove straight to the drug store and bought two pregnancy tests. The results were unmistakably clear. I was pregnant.
I always imagined that I would surprise my husband with this news in a really cute way, but I picked up the phone and called him immediately. He was away on a business trip and he was scheduled to come back that same evening. I suppose I could have waited to tell him, but I was BUZZING. I think we hugged and danced and laughed nervously all night.
I called my family and my closest friends soon after.
What, if anything, worried you the most about the prospect of giving birth in Japan?
I had heard horror stories about doctors being strict and disrespectful in regards to weight gain. I was not looking forward to any conversations about weight.
Which clinic or hospital did you go to and how was your overall experience?
I first went to a local clinic because the doctor spoke English. I speak Japanese, but I preferred having an English-speaking doctor because I don’t know how to say things like “placenta previa”. I figured it would be great to not have to spend ten months relying on translation apps.
The clinic is quite popular here and so I sometimes spent up to an hour in the waiting room.
I ended up switching clinics after about five months because, as I feared, the doctor literally laughed at my weight. I have always been pretty petite, but I am generally curvier than the average Japanese 20-something. She told me that most mothers weigh about 48 kg and that I was too heavy. She laughed. She laughed in front of me and my husband. I picked up my documents, walked out of her office, and never returned.
I ended up switching to Tarami Angel Clinic, which was a bit more out of the way but it was highly recommended by my sister-in-law. The experience was wonderful. During my first visit, I explained why I was transferring clinics at five months and I was assured by my doctor and the midwives that the baby and I were both healthy and doing fine at my current weight.
If I have another kiddo (not sure that I will), I will for sure give birth there. I had a nine-day stay that included delicious meals, daily aromatherapy massages, lactation support, and a celebratory lobster dinner for myself and my husband. There was only one other mother staying there at the time, so I received a lot of care and attention.
Did you have a birth plan?
I did! The hospital specializes in “free-style birthing”, so I planned to give birth on tamami and a futon rather than a birthing table. I requested to soak in a tub while experiencing contractions. I also requested for aromatherapy and music of my choice.
My husband and I decided that he would be by side from start to finish and that he would cut the umbilical cord. Pretty simple birth plan, but I spent a lot of time thinking about it beforehand.
The birth did not go as planned, but I will explain that later.
Did you take any prenatal vitamins?
Yes, I took folic acid supplements. I took them pretty religiously during my second trimester and after that took them when I remembered…
I purchased them on iherb.com.
Did you do any additional prenatal testing?
4D ultrasound only. It was so wonderful to be able to see all of our baby’s little fingers and features so clearly.
Did you continue to work throughout your pregnancy? How did your coworkers take the news? Were there any challenges?
I worked full-time for a school in the US, so I was technically working from home everyday. The pregnancy didn’t affect my work too much, but waking up at 2am for weekly curriculum meetings with folks in California was really hard some days.
I also had a part-time gig as an Instructional Coach here in Nagasaki. The exhaustion and nausea during my first trimester were KILLER, but my coworkers were so kind and understanding.
How was your experience with taking public transportation?
I generally drive, but when I did take the train, I made sure to have my little pregnancy badge visible. People offered up their seats most of the time. I also got the sense that some people were confused about why I had the badge in the first place. That could have been a reflection of my own disbelief about being pregnant!
How did you decide what to buy initially for the baby in terms of everyday necessities (such as diapers, wipes, formula, soap, etc)? Did you get any free baby goods or samples from sites, stores, or events?
I leaned on my sister-in-law a lot. Social media was also really helpful. I spent a lot of time searching #オムツ比較, #おしりふき比較, etc. on Instagram.
Where did you go for maternity clothing?
ASOS mostly. I found a lot of the maternity clothes sold here to be too boxy and matronly.
I got a bit from A Pea in the Pod and I wished for maternity clothes from Hatch because everything is so modern and flattering, but I couldn’t justify spending so much money on clothing that I would only wear for a short period of time! Maternity clothes can be so expensive.
Where did you go to find information about pregnancy? Did you do anything to prepare for giving birth, such as go to any birth-preparation or parenting classes?
Social media was helpful in a way. There are a ton of people who share their experiences, but it can get overwhelming. Most people are sharing the best parts of their lives, so it wasn’t always helpful or good for my mental health.
I did really like looking at product reviews online and reading about people’s birth stories. I spent a lot of time doing that.
I went to the mandatory classes offered by my birthing clinic. They were honestly not very helpful. It was mostly information that I have come across online – what prenatal vitamins to take, what foods to eat, what to pack in my hospital bag, etc.
I started meditating in my third trimester and looked into hypnobirthing. A friend of mine recommended it and I found that the breathing methods and visualizations really did help during the first hours of labor. I went into labor feeling empowered with an extremely positive mindset as a result of listening to guided meditations and affirmations.
The pain of labor knocked a lot of that positivity out of me, but I started off feeling great!
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?
Our baby was late, which is not uncommon for first babies. My mom was in town for the entire month of May and my due date was May 9th. After two check-ups, the doctor said that I would likely not have the baby for another three weeks or so. After five days, we decided to induce so that my mother would be able to meet her first grandbaby before leaving for the US again. It was a tough decision to make since I had originally planned on having a completely unmedicated birth, but it was worth it!
Did you have a natural birth or a C-section? If you had a natural birth, how many hours were you in labor for?
I planned for an unmedicated natural birth, but proceeded with an induced natural birth. After 12 hours of excruciatingly painful labor, the doctor and I decided that a c-section would be the best way to proceed because although I was fully dilated, the baby had barely descended. He estimated that I would be in labor for at least another 12 hours if we continued with natural birth.
Did you have any pain relief?
I was able to soak in a tub before my water broke, which was soothing, but I wouldn’t consider it pain “relief”. The midwife and my husband rubbed my back throughout labor.
I was given an epidural before my c-section.
Was your partner allowed in the delivery room with you?
Could you briefly describe the moment your child was born?
I remember hearing his voice first and immediately crying. The nurse brought him up to my face so I could meet him and he was the wrinkliest, most beautiful thing I had ever seen.
His dad was able to hold him moments after. I was too medicated to hold him.
How was your hospital stay and recovery?
The hospital took such great care of me. I was able to ease into motherhood with the support of some wonderful midwives.
I was in a lot of pain afterwards, but I was able to rest a lot. I was up and walking by day three. I was hunched over, but I was mobile! I’m sure it was a normal experience shared by people who have had c-sections, but my body felt pretty good after a week or two. I was able to go on walks with the baby in a carrier at about three weeks. Slow walks, but walks nonetheless!
The hardest part was postpartum depression and anxiety, for sure. I spent the first four months in tears. It was so hard. I was full of anger and resentment towards the baby and my husband for putting me in such a difficult position. Postpartum depression didn’t allow me to fully enjoy motherhood in the way that I had wanted. I looked okay in photos, but I was really struggling.
I live within walking distance of my mother-in-law. I walked to her house once or twice a week when I was feeling especially overwhelmed. She would feed me and play with the baby when I visited, but she also would say things to make me feel guilty for feeling the way I did. She would tell me that our all baby could feel any stress or anxiety that I would feel, so I have to push through it. Not something new parents want to hear. It was bad enough that I was a mess. It didn’t feel good to think that I could also be creating an anxious baby in real-time. I wish people would have been more understanding and compassionate about something that was very real and hard for me.
I also lost about 20kg in the 4-5 months after giving birth. As expected, lots of people praised me and congratulated me on losing the baby weight, but the reality was that I lost most of the weight so quickly due to depression and exhaustion. Yes, I tried to exercise when I could and, yes, I was breastfeeding, but I wasn’t sleeping or eating well.
I flew home with my baby in September and got treatment there. I didn’t want to be medicated, but it was absolutely necessary. I am now able to truly enjoy time with my son while feeling like myself again. I can also look at myself, reflect on the first four months, and understand that I really needed help.
Was your birth experience how you imagined it to be?
Not at all. I have never experienced pain like that in my life. I have never experienced such pure joy in my life. I cycled through so many emotions during labor and in the days after.
What would you do the same or differently if you have another child?
I would do the same, although at this point I honestly don’t know if I want another child.
Child-Rearing in Japan
Did your partner take paternity leave?
My husband was able to stay the day of the birth plus one additional day off.
Did you have any family in Japan or from the US come and help you after the baby was born?
My mother was here from the US, so I felt very supported in the first few weeks.
Different cultures have varying ideas when it comes to safe sleeping. Where did your newborn sleep? Did you swaddle him, use a sleep sack, or put a blanket over him?
Our baby slept swaddled in a bassinet. We used an Ollie swaddle and it was one of the best decisions we made in the first few months.
What are some products you found to be especially useful for a new mom?
Ollie swaddle, Hatch Baby rest sound machine, and Solly Baby wrap. Wireless headphones also saved me during the first few months with baby. I listed to a lot of podcasts and audiobooks while rocking him to sleep.
What are your experiences with making local mom friends?
It was really tough for me to make mom friends. It felt like no one else in the area had kids!
I found out about daily mom/baby gatherings five months after giving birth. I’ve been able to join at least once a week and make a few mom friends with babies around the same age!
I also use the mamagirl-link app to connect with other moms.
Do you find your city to be baby-friendly? What are your experiences with going out alone with your child?
Very. We go on walks almost every day. It’s very safe and easy to navigate, although a bit tough to get around with a stroller. It’s been hard to get into some shops and I never realized how little sidewalk there is until I had to start pushing baby around.
Do you have any experience with the daycare system in Japan? If so, could you tell us a bit about it?
I just applied for daycare as I’m going back to work in April. The process was pretty easy, except for the fact that the fee for daycare is determined by how much you earned in the previous year. I’m applying for an April 2020 start, but they need to know how much I earned in 2018. I don’t know how people who have recently moved to Japan navigate this system.
What languages do you and your partner speak with your son? Do you have any concerns or plans when it comes to raising him in a bilingual or multilingual household?
I speak English to our baby and my husband speaks Japanese. We’re also looking into putting him into an international (read: English-based) daycare in the area.
We have agreed that we will only show English programs when he’s old enough to watch TV and movies.
Do you find anything daunting and/or challenging when it comes to raising a child in Japan?
Though we haven’t had any serious challenges yet, I am always a little nervous about raising a black child in Japan.
People constantly compare him to Rui Hachimura or other Black-Japanese athletes and it frustrates me. Comparisons like that are so limiting. I know people mean well, but I wish they could see that my baby has the potential to be anything he dreams of just like every other baby.
I worry about discrimination, teasing, and bullying. I hope that positive media representations of mixed race/bicultural people in Japan will allow for my son to develop meaningful friendships easily. My husband and I realize that we need to instill racial and cultural pride (and good comebacks) in him at home. I think he’ll be fine, but I can’t say that I don’t always have a little bit of anxiety about this on the back of my mind.
What is something specific to Japan that you’re looking forward to doing with your son?
Camping! Summer festivals!
I’m also excited for him to experience beaches, snow, and Nagasaki’s heavy downpours.
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 email@example.com or fill out my contact form.