This is a picture of “beschuit met muisjes”, which is something Dutch people eat to celebrate the birth of a baby (pink and white sprinkles for girls, and blue and white for boys). The “muisjes” are candied anise, which is supposed to help with milk production.
The first interview of 2020 is a special one as it looks at the experiences of our first European mother.
Linda, a kindergarten teacher now living in Minoh in Osaka, moved from Zoetermeer in the Netherlands to Japan almost six years ago. Having studied Japanese in university, she had always planned to live in Japan for one or two years and made the move shortly after she finished a three-month internship in Japan, during which she met her then-girlfriend. Although they broke up a year after she moved to Japan, she continued to live in Osaka while working as an English teacher.
After a while, she felt that she needed to utilize her Japanese language skills more and took a real estate job in Nagoya. Unfortunately, the job was far less than ideal (to quote her words, it “absolutely killed me”) and although she would have always felt a sense of regret had she not taken that position, it made her feel sick of living in Japan. But as fate would have it, she met her husband right as she was preparing to move back to the Netherlands for good. He convinced her to move to Osaka to live with him, they got married and then brought a lovely baby boy into the world in October last year.
I feel incredibly grateful when busy mothers in Japan take the time to do this interview, especially when they have a new baby to care for, and I love being able to read their stories. Linda’s was especially fascinating for me to read for the cultural aspect as I learned not only about her experiences in Osaka but also how people in the Netherlands approach pregnancy and childbirth. I hope everyone finds this interview as informative and enjoyable as I did!
Pregnancy in Japan
How did you find out you were pregnant and what did you do afterward?
I felt different that month. I’d had what I’d been hoping was implantation pain, and my nipples were extra sensitive (TMI time: there was horrible chafing lmao). On the day I was supposed to get my period I woke up and I told my husband I wanted to try a pregnancy test. He was worried it wouldn’t work properly yet, and didn’t want to be disappointed, but when I told him false positives aren’t really a thing he gave me the go ahead (but assumed it would come out negative.) I took a Clearblue test we still had at home and it showed a very faint line.
We made an appointment at a nearby clinic to confirm the pregnancy about a week later. I did take a pregnancy test the night before we went just in case, because I didn’t want to find out in front of a stranger if my hormone levels had already dropped and I was going to miscarry. Thankfully everything was fine!
What, if anything, worried you the most about the prospect of giving birth in Japan?
I had heard horror stories about doctors being awful to plus size women, and since I’ve never been great at controlling my weight I was a bit worried I’d be shamed at every appointment. My doctor gave me a pretty low range of weight I was allowed to gain, but didn’t really comment when I went (way) over.
In the Netherlands home births are still pretty common, so that’s very different from here. The people at the hospital thought all western people have their babies at hospitals with pain medication, so it was more of a shock on their end than on mine. Personally I was more than happy to give birth at a hospital, just in case.
Which clinic or hospital did you go to and how was your overall experience?
After our first appointment to confirm the pregnancy my husband told me he wasn’t comfortable going to that particular clinic, because he was worried about the air quality in that area. We ended up going with a clinic that came highly recommended by several of his coworkers. It was a really beautiful hospital, almost like a hotel. The nurses and midwives were amazing, although the main doctor kind of rubbed me the wrong way, and I was always very happy whenever I could have my appointments with one of the other doctors.
Did you have a birth plan?
The hospital had a template, kind of like a questionnaire, that you needed to fill out before before week 32. It didn’t really allow for many requests, but I didn’t have that many anyway, so that was fine for me. My birth plan was basically that I wanted my husband to stay with me, and that I wanted skin to skin contact after the baby was born.
My hospital promoted sophrology to prepare for the birth, so I had a guided meditation track that I did maybe a dozen times or so. They played the same relaxing music in the LDR. (It actually did help a little bit for the earlier stages.)
Did you take any prenatal vitamins?
I started out with Dear-Natura, but my doctor was very unhappy with those. He said the amount of folic acid was too low, and there were a lot of other vitamins missing. I then switched to NatureMade capsules, which I got off iHerb. They helped almost immediately with varicose veins for me.
Did you do any additional prenatal testing?
4D ultrasound was pretty standard at my clinic. The doctors just switched to 4D if they thought they might be able to catch a nice picture of the baby’s face. (They never did, baby almost always looked like Voldemort.) They also tried and failed many times to find out the sex. My baby was very shy.
Did you continue to work throughout your pregnancy? How did your coworkers take the news? Were there any challenges?
I’m a kindergarten teacher, and having a physically demanding job like that was definitely tough sometimes. Right when my morning sickness was at its worst was the busiest time for my class, with lots of bus rides for excursions and graduation practice. I told my teaching partner and my management team at 7 weeks, because I needed their help to get through it. They were amazing. I told the rest of my coworkers at 12 weeks, and the parents at 14 weeks. Everyone at my school was very supportive. Some of my old students even came to see me to congratulate me!
Taking the kids outside during the summer was especially tough, and towards the end my coworkers very kindly covered those shifts for me.
How was your experience with taking public transportation?
The better part of my commute was by bus, which was not great for my morning sickness as it was, but the times I had to stand for the whole ride I nearly passed out by the end of it. I tried being strategic, standing close to people I knew would get off soon. From April onwards public transportation is always more crowded, and I couldn’t even get close to the seats anymore. One time I actually passed out and the only person that cared was the woman standing next to me. After that I started taking a much earlier bus, which meant I was spending a lot of extra time at work (until I got my working hours adjusted at least), but honestly that was less exhausting than navigating rush hour. I wish I had been more confident in asking for a seat, but I guess part of me felt that asking people to stand up for me every day was rude somehow. (It’s not, and if you are a more confident person than I am please go ahead and ask!)
What was the most challenging or frustrating thing about being pregnant in Japan? What did you find the most positive?
Maternity clothes were a struggle. I got a pair of jeans from H&M, but most other things I got from ASOS. I was pleasantly surprised that the UNIQLO v-neck bra tops were a decent alternative for me for maternity bras, because I hate all their other built-in bra clothes. I also ordered their rirako pants in the largest size available, which were really nice to wear around the house.
What I really liked was how often you go see your doctor for checkups, and that you get to see the ultrasound every time. I worry a lot, so having that reassurance was really nice.
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?
We got a few samples at the Welcome Baby class we had to take at around 30 weeks, but nothing compared to the bags of stuff the clinic gave us after the baby was born. I remember struggling to find time to go through it all to see what was in there.
I did a search on google to research diapers, but for other things I kept it pretty basic. A lot of what we use is either Pigeon, or the Akachan Honpo brand.
Did you go on a babymoon?
We didn’t go anywhere, but that’s mostly because we have a dog and putting him in a pet hotel is very stressful for him. We did have tickets to USJ that we got with credit card points before we found out I was pregnant, so we went and walked around the park a bunch (there’s almost no rides or even shows you’re allowed in if you’re pregnant).
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?
In the first trimester I read a lot of English language books about pregnancy and motherhood, to keep myself from worrying too much. My husband also got a Japanese book about pregnancy, and a magazine about the financial aspects of having kids (household budgets etc., but also how to apply for the 420,000 yen you get for giving birth, child allowance, those kinds of things). Reading the Japanese books definitely prepared me for my hospital stay in terms of language, and also to take away any doubts about what might and might not be normal in Japan.
Is there anything else you would like to share about your pregnancy?
I’ve used guided meditation before, to cope with stress or to help me fall asleep, so that didn’t strike me as too out there. However when my doctor started handing me bags of okyuu (incense sticks on sticky pads that you apply to certain pressure points) I really couldn’t stop myself from being openly cynical.
My doctor was also very intense about not eating raw foods. Even fruit and vegetables! (Not that I listened.)
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’m convinced that the pressure change caused by typhoon Hagibis is what made me go into labor. I felt crampy and weird on Friday, then on Saturday afternoon (the day of the typhoon) I thought I felt something warm run down my legs, but when I checked there was nothing. I woke up that night feeling like a bubble had popped between my legs. I ran for the bathroom and made it just in time. I called the hospital to tell them my water had broken, and we went there by taxi. I was in labor for all of Sunday, and then on Monday morning (full moon!) we finally got to meet our little boy.
Of course it could all have been a coincidence, but most other moms in the 2-month class I went to also had their babies that same weekend. Baby was 6 days late.
How many hours were you in labor for?
From water breaking to birth was 27 hours. Fun times.
Did you have a natural birth or a C-section?
I had a natural birth, but at 24 hours needed oxytocin because despite being at 10cm my contractions didn’t turn into pushing contractions. Unfortunately the oxytocin didn’t do enough and I had a vacuum-assisted delivery with episiotomy.
Did you have any pain relief?
I didn’t, but it was by choice. My clinic did offer epidurals.
Was your partner allowed in the delivery room with you?
He was, but because my labor was so slow to progress he got sent home on Sunday morning and was told to come back later that afternoon. He then stayed for a little bit after baby was born at 4:53am, and then got sent home again. I was a little disappointed at how strict they were about visiting hours.
Could you briefly describe the moment your child was born?
I couldn’t feel any more pain than I was already feeling I think, because I couldn’t tell anything was different until his shoulders were out and I felt the rest of his body follow. I remember just struggling to breathe despite the extra oxygen. My baby cried for just one second and then he became very quiet. Maybe it was the exhaustion or the fact that everyone handled it so calmly, but I wasn’t worried, I could only feel relief that we made it through.
How was your hospital stay and recovery?
I think my clinic is very good, and all the care, the food, just everything, is top level. For me personally though I struggled a lot with postpartum hormones. I would get flashbacks about the birth and it would feel just like I was back there again, and it was absolutely terrifying every single time. What I appreciated the most is how well equipped my nurses were to deal with that, and that they arranged for the clinic’s psychiatrist to come meet me so it would make it easier to reach out if I felt like I needed help later on. The clinic also basically encourages mothers to have their babies in their room, but in my case the nurses just brought him by for feedings (and also just if I wanted to see him), so that I could get as much rest as possible before going home.
Was your birth experience how you imagined it to be?
I think it’s impossible for anyone to imagine the extent of the pain if they haven’t actually experienced it. As for the general flow of things, I was counting on the doctors and the nurses to know what would be best for me, so not a lot of surprises there. I guess how long the whole thing took was a bit shocking, because when I was reading up on labor times the averages for a first time birth already sounded so long to me. (Approximately 12 hours according to the book we got.)
What would you do the same or differently if you have another child?
I’m still having nightmares about this birth, so I can’t really think about that yet.
How would you describe your overall birth experience in Japan?
I felt well cared for.
Child-Rearing in Japan
Did your partner take paternity leave?
My husband’s work is purely commission-based, so we couldn’t afford for him to take time off. He had to go see a customer on the same day our son was born, and couldn’t even make it to the hospital for visiting hours on a few evenings. He would have been allowed to stay the night, but because we have a dog he couldn’t even do that.
How did you feel those first couple of days home from the hospital with a newborn? What, if anything, would have been different had you given birth in the Netherlands?
Even though I was really excited to leave the hospital, once I got home I felt incredibly overwhelmed and lonely. If I’d been in my home country I wouldn’t have stayed in the hospital for as long as you do here, but there would have been a nurse coming to our home every day for the first week to help out with the transition. I would have been able to see my husband every day. Not to mention that I would have had my family come over to help out.
Did you have any family in Japan or from the Netherlands come and help you after the baby was born?
My mother-in-law passed away a long time ago, and my father-in-law recently got remarried to a lady in Ehime, so no help there. My mom and grandma came to visit about a month after I gave birth. It was a nice incentive to start challenging myself to leave the house more, but it was more a meet the baby than a help out with the baby type of thing.
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?
At the hospital he had a blanket, but once we got home we swaddled. After a few weeks we started using a sleepsack from H&M.
What are some products you found to be especially useful for a new mom?
Nipple cream, haha. The obvious two reasons aside, I’ve also used it as a lip cream and as a barrier for some of the more raw-looking patches of diaper rash. (The hospital did send us home with cream, but it wouldn’t go on some of the patches.)
What are your experiences with making local mom friends?
I exchanged LINE with a mom that I met at a Christmas party for babies. We met up once for tea, but it’s been pretty quiet since. Another mom that I randomly met at a mall seemed really eager for friends, because she said she didn’t know anyone in Osaka, but I haven’t heard from her either. Both moms claimed to be very bored at home, but I guess not bored enough to take the initiative to make plans. I have a few friends who already have kids, so I’ve spent some time with them as well.
Do you find Osaka to be baby-friendly? What are your experiences with going out alone with your child?
I get a lot of positive attention, especially from elderly women. When baby cries on the bus people are always really kind about it, and one time a pair of ladies even jangled their keys in front of him and talked to him a bunch to distract him.
In terms of facilities, a lot of stations and malls have places to change diapers, and even breastfeeding rooms, which is nice.
My city organizes a lot of events for moms with young children to meet up, such as the Christmas party I mentioned. I also received a card that lets me go into convenience stores and other places to ask for hot water and other things. I haven’t actually read up on what other things, but even the hot water helps.
Do you have any experience with the daycare system in Japan? If so, could you tell us a bit about it?
I was originally planning to go back to work in April, when baby is 6 months old. To join daycare in April the deadline to sign up was mid-December, and we just didn’t feel comfortable making the decision so far ahead of time. We are now planning for October, and when I called city hall about the signup deadline they said before the 1st of the previous month (so before September 1st) is fine.
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?
The idea is that I speak Dutch and my husband speaks Japanese, but often when we’re both home I find myself slipping up and speaking Japanese too. It’s something I need to work on more. I’m worried that because I have no one to model conversation with, it will be harder for baby to learn Dutch. If possible I’d like to take a trip to the Netherlands once a year at least, to expose baby to the culture as well.
Do you find anything daunting and/or challenging when it comes to raising a child in Japan?
Vaccinations. The schedule for them, all the medical lingo about side effects, filling out the forms, etc. I asked my husband to help me understand it better but he says it’s not my Japanese, it’s just complicated.
What is something specific to Japan that you’re looking forward to doing with your son?
Attending sports day, going hiking, and going to Disney Sea.
Linda can be found on Twitter at @buzzzbird