newborn on mat
Interviews

Pregnancy, Birth, and Motherhood During COVID-19 in Japan: Tari’s Story

It’s been a while since I last posted an interview, and this one is especially relevant for the times as it features a woman who gave birth during the coronavirus pandemic in Japan. This is also the first interview looking at the experiences of a mother originally from Australia.

Tari is a first-generation Portuguese Australian who was born in Sydney. Five years ago, she came to Japan on a working holiday and then was sponsored at an IT company that developed photo editing software where she did UI/UX, web and graphic design, as well as international sales. Now she works at an online hat shop and is responsible for graphic design, photo-editing, coordinating photoshoots, and doing SEO for the international storefronts in over 7 countries. In her free time, Tari loves to illustrate and exercise, as well as play retro video games. She’s also fond of anything with miniature kawaii fruit, iridescent everything, dinosaurs, and Sailor Moon (a woman after my own heart!).

Her partner is originally from Okinawa but moved to Osaka when he was 2 years old. Despite this, he still understands and speaks Okinawan, and through this Tari discovered she has a knack for Okinawan herself! Tari gave birth to their son in Osaka in July this year, during a time when COVID-19 cases in Japan were beginning to rise again. 

A huge thank you goes out to Tari for allowing me to interview her and for sharing her experiences being pregnant, giving birth, and now raising a newborn during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hopefully, this interview will help provide more context on what it’s like to have a baby during the pandemic and help alleviate some worries that future parents in Japan may have.


Pregnancy

How did you find out you were pregnant? Do you remember which pregnancy test you used and how many times? What did you do afterward?

It was about mid-November. My period comes pretty spot on every 29 days so when I finally noticed that I was late, I went to the pharmacy and found the most expensive pregnancy test, assuming it would be the most accurate. Then bought two of them (laughs). When that faint second line showed up, I apprehensively (but immediately) showed my husband, who was far more excited than I was. I cried from worry, as at the time we were in the process of losing my husband’s house due to bankruptcy. He stood up and promised he would take care of me and our child. Then the rest of the night, followed me everywhere (even sometimes into the toilet!) because he was so elated. It made me feel a little better for sure.

What, if anything, worried you the most about the prospect of giving birth in Japan? Were there any major differences between your home country and Japan in terms of pregnancy and childbirth?

In Australia, childbirth through the public system is 100% free. There are also different methods for pain relief such as gas, so I was worried that these options would not be available. As a lot of immigrants are aware, Japanese medicine is very weak so I worried about the aftercare as well if I were to have an episiotomy or c-section. The cost of childbirth was also a huge worry as we were already financially in a bind. Also, and I know this may be a little bit of a stretch, I was worried that I would be discriminated against because I am a non-Japanese, tattooed woman. But luckily, that was not the case. 

What did you feel like knowing that you would have to give birth during a pandemic? What concerned you the most?

I was worried that my husband would not join me in the birthing suite, nor meet our son as soon as he was born. Unfortunately, this was the case with my hospital as they were very strict. Another huge worry I had was if something happened to me and/or our child, my husband would not be close by as the hospital was a 25 min drive away.

What clinic/hospital did you go to and why did you choose it? How was your overall experience with that particular clinic/hospital? 

 I chose Chibune Hospital in Nishi-Yodogawa. My initial plan was to go somewhere that an epidural was readily available as well as 24hr emergency care, so I was recommended by my OBGYN to go to Chibune Hospital or another hospital in Tenma. Little did I know, getting an epidural wasn’t that simple (the cost of ¥100,000 as well as a class that must be taken by my husband and I, and only on a weekday), so I ended up opting out.

Overall, my experience with the hospital was pretty good! 

Your pregnancy began before the pandemic. What differences did you experience at your prenatal checkups?  

In the beginning, my husband attended every check-up with me. He was there with me when we first saw our son as a tiny little jellybean with a heartbeat. However, when I was due to go in for my 4 month check-up in January, my OBGYN placed strict rules due to COVID-19 that my husband could not enter the clinic, even for ultrasounds. It was a huge disappointment, as I could not find out the sex of our child together with my husband. 

Did you have a birth plan? If so, could you share a bit about it?

 I didn’t really have a detailed nor extravagant birth plan, I just wanted to give birth in a dark room and hold my baby as soon as he was born. 

Did you take any prenatal vitamins? If so, which ones?

Yes! I took the ones you kindly recommended, the BeanStalk Folic Acid with Iron. I liked the flavour (they reminded me of tiny multivitamins the shape of koalas I had as a child) and they were easy to chew. It was especially helpful when I had morning sickness and my appetite was nonexistent.

Did you do any additional prenatal testing (i.e., 4D ultrasound, NIPT, etc)? If yes, what was your experience?

I tried to get a 4D scan of my son, which was provided for free at my clinic, but every single time he was hiding his face so I never got that chance. Even if you hear other mothers saying it doesn’t look anything like your child, I would still heed the chance if it’s readily available to you. It’s a nice memento. 

Did you continue to work throughout your pregnancy? How did your coworkers take the news of your pregnancy? If you continued to work, were you able to get childcare leave in addition to maternity leave? Were there any challenges when working while pregnant?

Yes, I worked until I was 38 weeks. Fortunately, my work was understanding and from March I mostly worked from home due to COVID-19. However, the final month I was at work (all of June) I went into the office basically every day as I had to train my replacement. My coworkers were happy that I was pregnant but they were also concerned, as I am an integral part of the international team and they were going to lose someone pretty important for at least 6 months. In turn, this put quite a bit of pressure on me to make sure my replacement could do my job competently until my return. It did get challenging at times to juggle check-ups and when I was feeling run down, especially during the last few months. I was running on no sleep (3rd Trimester Insomnia), migraines, very painful hemorrhoids as well as intense baby brain trying to train someone who was just learning the ropes. 

How was your experience with taking public transportation? Do you have any tips?

  Luckily I did not have to take public transport too much, due to COVID-19. The times I did have to take the train, I usually didn’t have much of an issue finding a seat but of course there were times where other passengers were blissfully ignorant to the pregnant lady standing in front of them while they checked Instagram on their phones.

What was the most challenging or frustrating thing about being pregnant in Japan? What did you find the most positive?

The obsession over weight gain. I would only gain 400g one month, but when I gained 2kg the following month I was scolded. They try to limit your weight gain here to 6-8kg or so (from my experience) where in Australia, 12-15kg is pretty normal. I got so worried about my weight gain that in the end, I think that may have contributed to my son’s pretty low birth weight. Another thing I found a little annoying is the maternity clothing availability and fashion. Everything is shaped like an oversized potato sack for women with no curves, so if you have a big butt and hips, everything looks awful on you. I ended up just wearing large shirts and Uniqlo sweats that were a size up. Positives I would say the prenatal checkups were very thorough and the amount of free samples you could sign up for!

 What additional precautions did you take when it came to being pregnant during a pandemic?

 I limited any kind of social activities from next to nothing. When I had to go grocery shopping, I wore a mask, was mindful of the time so I could predict how busy the store was and had hand sanitizer on me at all times. As soon as I got home, I would wash my hands and groceries. When I had to go somewhere with a lot of people (unfortunately had to go to immigration at one point), I followed these same procedures and as soon as I got home, I did not touch too many things, changed clothes and had a shower.

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/samples from sites, stores, or events?

 When I read your blog about how to receive free baby samples, I did all of the things possible on the list — my favourites were the Amazon Japan Baby Registry and Akachan Honpo. Then on top of that, I kept an eye on my local Sayonara Sales Facebook page for baby items, along with kind donations from friends I met online. Other than that, the first things I bought were a bassinet, a baby bath, baby oil, wipes, and some newborn clothing. I also purposely visited many baby websites such as Merries, Pampers, Nishimatsuya, Akachan Honpo, etc so that my Facebook algorithm would pick up on it and advertise sign-up-and-get-this-free items to me. I would then block any kind of business phone calls that came through afterwards, hehe.

Where did you go for maternity clothing?

I did buy maternity leggings at Akachan Honpo, but for nice maternity clothing unfortunately nothing really suited me as I am a curvy Portuguese woman and everything looked awful. I opted for comfy clothes from Uniqlo such as their Airism range as I was due in the middle of summer. 

Where did you go to find information about pregnancy? Did you do anything to prepare for the birth, such as attend any birth-preparation or parenting classes? If so, was it helpful?

I looked around online a lot to read experiences from immigrant women living in Japan, as well as asking friends who had children here. I also discovered your blog and read as much information as possible to get some kind of idea of what to expect. Unfortunately due to COVID-19, all local birth-preparation and parenting classes held by my ward office and hospital were canceled, but my hospital made videos about how to bathe your baby, breastfeeding, and birthing and uploaded them online. 

Did your clinic give you any health advice about being pregnant during a pandemic and the conditions under which you would give birth?

 My hospital did warn me as soon as the strict COVID-19 rules were put in place that my husband could not come into the birthing suite, nor visit us until we were discharged from the hospital. They (painfully) reminded me of this every single appointment I had up until giving birth. As for health advice, they just said to follow the 3 C’s (Avoid crowded areas, close contact, and anywhere with poor ventilation), always wash my hands and avoid touching my face. If possible, work from home as much as you can.

Birth

When did you realize the baby was coming and what did you do? How did you feel? Was your baby early, on time, or overdue?

It was Sunday the 19th of July, around 7:30am. I woke up and felt cramps, which honestly I thought were poo cramps (laugh). I was taking 500mg of magnesium to help pass stool easily since I had horrendous hemorrhoids (sounds like a Ronald Dahl book or a death metal band, take your pick) so naturally I assumed it was just poop time. But as the day progressed, the cramps were steadily getting worse and the timing between each cramp was pretty close together. I then realised that my son was on the way, so I timed every contraction. I called my hospital around noon and told them I was having steady contractions, but they said that unless I have bloody show, my water broke and/or I am unable to speak with the contractions 3-4 minutes apart, to not come to the hospital. However, the thing is, my contractions were 3-4 minutes apart, but I could still talk through grit teeth. My water had still not broken yet. 

About 12 hours passed, and my contractions would grow further and closer apart during this time until they suddenly got more intense and close together again. I called the hospital again, and they were a little apprehensive but told me to come in (without my luggage). So we took a taxi at about 11pm or so to the hospital. They checked if I had dilated and they said my cervix was soft but I had not dilated at all. I thought you must be bloody joking, at this point it was around 16 hours of frequent contractions. They said that I was nowhere near giving birth and to go home. Reluctantly, I went outside to where my husband was waiting 20 minutes after entering the hospital and we went back home together.

A few hours later, around 5am on the 20th, my due date, it was starting to get intense again. I went to the toilet to try and calm down, and then a big blob of thick discharge mixed with blood came out and I thought this must be my mucus plug. I called them again, told them it was getting more intense, painful, had my bloody show and the contractions were 3-4 minutes apart again, sometimes 2. Then, they called me back to the hospital – this time, with my luggage. I thought ‘Right-o, they must be taking me seriously now’.

Once I was there, I was checked again and that I had only dilated to 4cm, but they will put me into the birthing suite. From there, the contractions became erratic again, I would have frequent, and suddenly, no so frequent contractions. I also became very queasy and threw up several times. Then, I felt like my water had finally broke. When I called the nurse, she looked at my discharge and said ‘I don’t believe your water broke’ — however, she was actually very mistaken, as I went to the toilet and saw my discharge was green, a sign of meconium in the amniotic fluid. But at this time, I was so tired and I believed that the midwife was right because hey, it’s her job and she does this everyday so she must know, right?

When I returned to my bed, the doctor (who would later deliver my baby) came back into the suite and suggested that since I am not dilating again and the labor has slowed, it would be more ‘comfortable’ for me to return home. I was shocked that they would try and send me back home again, despite the amount of pain and fluids coming out of me, including that I threw up all over the floor. Twice. I called my husband and he spoke to the doctor on the phone and refused to let her discharge me. We then decided that tomorrow at 6am on the 21st, if I still had not dilated to 10cm, that I would be induced. If the induction didn’t work, then an emergency c-section. My husband and I agreed and I was allowed to stay at the hospital.

From there, I was put into a normal room where I continued to contract. However, I was in so much pain, I only lasted about 15-20 minutes before I begged to be put back into the contracting room as to not bother the other mothers and their newborns.

When I returned, a nurse checked my blood pressure and then… suddenly ran off. Within a minute, 3-4 nurses returned, put two IVs in and put an oxygen mask on me. Turns out my blood pressure went through the roof and I had sudden preeclampsia. I was so scared because I didn’t know what was going on.

The doctor returned and said that they will keep an eye on my blood pressure every 10 minutes. At this point, I asked the doctor ‘my pad is soaked green, what does that mean? Does that mean my water broke?’ to which she said yes. I knew it, I thought. And until the end of my stay I waited to find that midwife but she never appeared again.

As the night progressed, at around 4am on the 21st, the contractions got so intense and a midwife, named Taba, came in and checked my cervix. 

 “You’re at 10! Let’s take you to the birthing suite.” 

At this point, I was so relieved and was wheeled in by wheelchair into the birthing room.

A quick little note about Miss Taba.  She is a kind lady who spotted my unique surname on the list of women in labor. Okinawan surnames are easily recognisable by other Okinawans, so when she saw my name she assigned herself to me because she wanted to connect with someone who was also uchinanchuu (Okinawan for… Okinawan!). She looked after me and checked up on me until her last shift before my discharge, and she made my experience so much more bearable.

I was left in this room for about 30mins, and I realised my contractions started to slow again. When my doctor came in, she felt my cervix and decided, ‘You’re not moving fast enough and you’re getting tired, let’s induce you’. While I was shaking, tired from being awake for 40hr+, I signed a waiver and had the medicine injected into my bloodstream through one of the IVs.

Then, the labor jump-started and I finally dilated again to 10cm at around 10am. From there, I pushed for about 2 hours until my little boy was finally born at 12:10pm, July 21st, 2020.

From there, my son was not placed on my chest like I had hoped. When I was pushing they realised he was getting stuck as I wasn’t stretching enough, so I needed an episiotomy. I also had internal tearing in my vaginal passage wall, so the doctor spent the next 40 minutes stitching everything down there without any local anesthetic — precious time I could be having skin-on-skin with my baby boy. The doctor also let me know when she was done that I had lost about 980ml of blood, just 20ml shy of a necessary blood transfusion. 

When I finally held him, I called my husband and I could only last about 5 minutes until I was finally wheeled away into my room.

From the beginning to the end of my stay after birth, I was on a blood pressure drip, then moved onto medicine which I had to continue after discharge, while checking my blood pressure evening and night until my postpartum checkup or until it stabilised.

Were you tested for COVID-19 before delivery?

  I was not tested for COVID-19. They just asked the questions of “Did you travel overseas in the past two weeks and came into contact with anybody with COVID-19?”, “Do you have a fever or had a fever in the past two weeks?” And that’s it.

One concern mothers-to-be have when it comes to giving birth during a pandemic is whether their partners will be allowed in the delivery room (or even the hospital/clinic they give birth at). Was your partner allowed in the delivery room with you?

 Mine was not allowed into the delivery room, nor in the hospital, until I was discharged. It was really upsetting but I had to just let it go or else I would not be able to focus on giving birth.

What was your experience giving birth during a pandemic? Did the medical staff wear protective gear? Did you have to wear a mask? Did you feel safe?

I fortunately was not forced to wear a mask; however, all medical staff wore masks and during birth, wore face shields as well. Which, unfortunately, reflected everything that was going on down there so I saw the whoooole thing. 

Did you have any pain relief? What was your experience with/without it? How many hours were you in labor for? 

 Absolutely no pain relief until after birth, and even then I only received 60mg of ibuprofen. From the first contraction to birth, about 52 hours.

Could you briefly describe the moment your child was born?

 When I saw them hold my son up, it was a sense of disbelief. He was not bright purple like I had seen on TV or other birth videos. He was slightly red and only cried for a moment. When I looked over to him on the little bed they laid him on, he quietly looked over to me too. I know he couldn’t physically see me, but it felt like he knew I was there. It was an indescribable moment.

How was your hospital stay and recovery? Were you allowed to have any visitors?

 Unfortunately due to COVID-19, I was allowed no visitors during my stay. I did video chat with my husband and my family a lot. I felt lonely sometimes, but I mainly wanted my husband to visit even for just a moment to meet our son.

Recovery was really tough, as I was on the high-pressure IV as well as an additional drip for the first two days, as well as very minimal pain relief for my sutures downstairs. So when I went to the toilet, I had to unplug two drips and somehow maneuver my way to the toilet. However, the ladies who assisted me through birth, mainly Miss Taba who I mentioned before made it so much more bearable. They even visited me in my room to check how I was going, and how tough I was to go through such a difficult birth. As for Miss Taba, to think she chose me and stuck close by me as long as she could was so amazing. I even ran into her after my son’s 2-week check-up and she ran over to greet me and my husband.

How did you bring your child home from the hospital or clinic?

My friend lent me her Maxi-Cosi and we use that to take the taxi home. It’s great! You can anchor the child seat with just a seatbelt!  

When looking back at things you were worried about when it came to giving birth during a pandemic, how would you describe your birth experience overall? Was it what you imagined it to be?

 The procedures of giving birth during a pandemic were pretty predictable as they warned me many times beforehand, but I was thankful that the midwives did not force me to wear a mask through labor.

What would you do the same or differently if you have another child?

If I have another child, I would most likely have a planned C-Section.

How would you describe your overall birth experience in Japan?

They were very thorough with the aftercare. Although there were many hiccups during birth, it was an okay experience.

What advice would you give to women who have to give birth during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Be mentally prepared to be alone during birth. As scary as it may sound, you can do it. Our mothers, grandmothers, and so on did it with absolutely nothing. Women are strong, and we can push against the current just fine on our own.

Child-rearing

How did you feel those first few days home from the hospital with a newborn?

It was pretty scary, it was still quite unbelievable this little human was inside me just the week before.

Given the pandemic, did you have any help from anyone other than your partner after the baby was born? What has it been like so far having a newborn during a pandemic?

Due to COVID-19, I have been looking after my baby pretty much alone since he was born. However, my mother and sister in Australia have basically been my on-call midwives (laugh). I have called them with any questions I had, no matter the time. Once I even panic called my mum, thinking my son was choking when it was just the hiccups… (laugh). But seriously, I am eternally grateful for their help. I admit there were times where I wish I could have had my mother-in-law come to help me, but in the end, I was glad that I did this alone.

Where did your newborn sleep? Did you swaddle them, use a sleep sack, or put a blanket over them?

My newborn slept (and still sleeps) beside me in a bassinet. At first we swaddled him, but he became very active very quick and kicked out of the swaddles. We then moved onto a ‘Love to Dream’ sleepsack which is great. 

What is one product you found to be especially useful for a new mom?

 I absolutely love two things: My Angelcare baby monitor with movement sensor pads and a bottle warmer. It makes nights so much more bearable, and I have not lost sleep watching my baby to check if he is still breathing thanks to the monitor.

What are your experiences with making local mom friends?

 Due to COVID-19, I have not made any local mum friends, however I have made friends with a few mums through Twitter that I look forward to meeting one day!

Do you find Osaka to be baby or child-friendly? What are your experiences with going out alone with your child?

I think it’s pretty good! Where I live, there are a ton of parks and all the local shopping centers such as Q’s Mall have a feeding room, fit with hot water systems, and breastfeeding booths.

Are you planning on going back to work and if so, when are you hoping to put your child in daycare? Have you had any experience with the daycare system in Japan? If so, could you share a bit about it?

 Yes, I am planning to go back to work this April. As much as I would like to stay home and exclusively raise my child, financially it is not possible. I haven’t had any experience yet, other than filling out the endless pages of paperwork.

What languages do you and your partner speak with your child? Do you have any concerns or plans when it comes to raising them in a bilingual or multilingual household?

We speak to my son mainly in English and Japanese. However, when I call my mum, I ask her to speak to my little one in Portuguese. I don’t have any concerns, as I was raised bilingual myself, as did many of my childhood friends. It is really beneficial for your child’s growth!

Do you find anything daunting and/or challenging when it comes to raising a child in Japan?

I think the main thing I am worried about is that I am a foreign woman with many tattoos. Of course, tattoos are still quite looked down upon and I worry the other children will bully my child because of me, on top of being a double child.

What is something specific to Japan that you’re most looking forward to doing with your child?

 There is an artist in Tokyo that redraws his son’s drawings into magnificent artworks (Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/thomasintokyo/) I really want to do the same!

 


Painting of Matsuno Shrine by Tari

Tari’s painting of Matsuno Jinja, a shrine near Arashiyama 

 

Tari is on Twitter as @weetbixncheese and is happy to answer any questions you may have about her interview or giving birth during COVID-19. 

 

 

 

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