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A view of the harbour from outside our Golden Week restaurant

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Needing a little bit of Tokyo

shinjuku picture

I sometimes forget that I live in what is loosely described as greater Tokyo. Life happens and it’s mundane and it all becomes so normal that it’s only occasionally that I’m reminded that, whoa, I live on the outskirts of the biggest, zaniest city in the world.

I’m not having a great week. We’re having problems with our house, the owner and one of the neighbours at the moment. I don’t feel quite like getting into the whole thing yet – I suspect I’ll be more up for telling the whole awful story when there’s a resolution at least in sight – but the whole thing is upsetting and we’re looking at moving. 

With that as a starting point, it hasn’t taken much for my mood to head steadily downward. There have already been a lot of problems the last few months and, when we do get through something, it’s often only with a lot of stress involved. I’m also running on about 4 or 5 hours sleep at the moment, which leaves me miserable more often than not, and, all in all, I’ve been a bit of a mess. Teary. Dizzy spells. Loss of appetite. Stressed.

On Wednesday, I had to head into Tokyo itself for a work thing. I wasn’t thrilled when I first heard about it, but I did have the wherewithal to at least figure I may as well make the best of it. Instead of rushing off and making the one hour plus return trip as soon as work was finished, I asked the childcare to watch Mr. K for an hour more than was strictly necessary and lingered a little.

I did two things. One, I had lunch in a Nepalese restaurant in the laneway leading out from Okubo station. Two, I headed off to Takashimaya Times Square in Shinjuku nd, most importantly, the branch of Kinokuniya that is still housed there. It’s my favourite English bookshop in this city, and it was one of the very first places I visited when I first came to Japan. 

Only after I was done with that did I make the long trip back to pick up Mr. K (who had quite enjoyed his day with the other babies) and then retreat to what doesn’t entirely feel like home just now. 

Physically, the whole thing left me exhausted. I had had even less sleep than usual, the trip was tiring, work was intense and Tokyo is overwhelming. Mentally, though, I realised I actually felt rather stimulated. I felt an old fizz of excitement just being there in the heart of Shinjuku with all those people swirling around me. And, most importantly, I began to feel less sad and more up for fighting it out, whatever the next it happens to be. 

“But he’s too little!”

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Definitely not a pose his father let him linger in for longer than it took to take this photo

I work part-time and this means, with a couple of notable exceptions, that my seven month old is elsewhere while I’m doing so. “Elsewhere” for us means a nice childcare center less than 10 minutes from where his father works. We were lucky to get a place at all, let alone in one that’s vaguely convenient, new and modern, complete with largish, airy rooms, kids grouped by age, outside space, and a carer-to-child ratio of 1:3 for the babies.

For some people, that’s still not cool, though. Childcare at all for a baby is just. not. right. He’s too young! He should be at home with… well, me! Or a family member, at least. Or someone like that, I don’t know, you figure that part out, but still!

What are we thinking?

A simple answer that, actually, childcare seems to suit Mr. K reasonably well and I don’t think it’s so bad for him to be looked after qualified individuals who, so far, seem to be taking exceptionally good care of him when he is with them may be the best solution for my own peace of my mind. It doesn’t really give my life-commentators the explanation they’re seeking, though, and even though they’re not really entitled to such, I still find myself wanting to provide one. A defense, a justification, an explanation, something.

 

The only socially acceptable answer really seems to be a sudden admission of abject poverty. That raises a whole new problem, though, in that we are suddenly talking about money and that is a bit of a taboo. Do they really want a breakdown of our household income? Or  the details of the financial mess caused by my father’s unexpected death (another taboo!) and how I would like to help my mother? Do they want an in-depth discussion about university debt, rent prices, the coat of fresh food? Perhaps I can explain, in depth, what starting unpaid maternity leave early cost, or the expenses that a baby generally accrues.

I’m doing part-time work, so things can’t be too bad. I must only want money, not really need it. Maintaining a certain quality of life, pfft. Perhaps if I cut out some of those expensive extras… my idea of an expensive extra is a 500 coffee set? No, that can’t be it. Those expensive overseas holidays… visits to my family? Huh.

Do I need to I explain that no, my husband doesn’t make enough money to cover this? Shall I explain why it works that way? And that I also prefer him having a job where I actually see him as opposed to a more financially-lucrative job where he’s absent for six days, sometimes 7 days a week? Perhaps I need to stick to more general comments on money? But then, I doubt they really want to hear my extensive and largely negative commentary on the full-time wage, Japan’s “Abenomics” version of neoliberalism, Japanese work culture, gender roles, men generally working themselves into the ground?

Talking about politics and criticising the esteemed Japanese culture, yes. That’s going to go so well, don’t you think?

Should I tell them that I actually enjoy my work and, on the days I don’t, that I still get satisfaction from doing it? That’s just selfish, though, isn’t it?  It doesn’t matter how I might feel about work or staying at home, or how well I know my mental state. Nothing is as important as being a mother and being a mother means being there all the time, duh.

If I need help, I could ask my mother… oh, right, Australia. Well, my mother-in-law, surely? She must be so excited about her grandson! Should I then explain how strained that relationship is, the now non-existent support on that front, and how non-interested she is in Mr. K at all, especially compared to her daughter’s baby girl? Hell, perhaps we need to discuss the weirdness of my husband’s family generally, and exactly why my sister-in-law is getting a divorce too.

Or, you know, we could discuss where the fathers fit into all of this and we could branch into my thoughts on your somewhat outdated notions about gender roles to boot. That sounds like a bit of fun too, doesn’t it?

In short, the more I try to think of appropriate responses and explanations, the more I realise that just about every line of conversation these supposedly innocent remarks about childcare could take us on touches on something taboo. All of the explanations that are expected of me lead to topics  that have the potential to be scandalous, interesting… and absolutely uncomfortable. It’s generally accepted that these are things people might not want to talk about, and we’re generally not expected to do so.

Since these people are fairly often well-meaning students, my inner troll sometimes sticks its head out and I find myself fighting the urge to tell them that my God, they have shown me the light! I see the rightness of their words! I’ll quit my job right now and hurry home to resume childcare duties at once!

Oh, what? That leaves you without an English teacher? Well then.

Since trolling is definitely out, the only acceptable response to an unsolicited comment on what was not an easy decision about raising my baby is… no response. I am supposed to simply take this throwaway criticism in my stride, maybe act appropriately ashamed and sad to top it off.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I don’t entirely want to do that. What I wish instead is that we could all add another taboo to the list of those I’ve outlined above, that being the offering of unsolicited criticism, however throwaway the comments might be, on people’s parenting decisions.

The simple fact is that, unless the child is obviously being neglected, it’s fair to assume that no small amount of thought went into the decisions about his or her care. It’s also reasonable to assume that the decision isn’t up for review right now and that the parents don’t need to add a little dose of pointless negativity to their days… so try not to offer it.

Babies and work

working_mom_with_baby_h

Not what things really look like for us, but hey…

I don’t think I was ever going to be a stay-at-home mother for that long after Mr. K was born. I know some women do, and that’s fine. Some do it for a long time, or even indefinitely, and that’s also completely fine.

It wasn’t for me, though. There was a brief period in my mid-20s where I wondered if this was something I should aspire to and even daydreamed a bit about it, but I recognise now that this had everything to do with how much I hated my job at the time and little to do with how well suited I might or might not be to it.

Much as I love Mr. K, I wanted to return to work. My job is reasonably enjoyable, as jobs go, and I liked the balance that it brought to my life. Having a variety of things to do in a variety of places for a variety of purposes works well for me so far.

While I’m at work, Mr. K is at childcare. I do not think this is a bad thing. It gives him a chance to interact with other people outside of the family, to socialise and play in a different environment. It’s also a good chance to build up his Japanese skills, since English is what he hears most of the time when he’s here. As I outlined here, I work part-time, and this keeps a good balance between time at home and time out and about, and my husband typically has at least one day off per week as well so they can spend time together then.

Despite all of the above, though, the main reason that I returned to work is financial. We need money. I sometimes find myself wondering if I should be working full-time, imagining how much better off we would be, but I do think we’re doing the best we can for Mr. K just now and that’s what’s important.

If I had some trust fund coming in from elsewhere, I might not be working, it’s true. Still, I imagine I would probably have some other side project happening. Maybe alternative-universe-rich-me might be working on a masters degree for the hell of it, or pretending to write a novel (N.B. I do this anyhow) or an important work, or mastering Japanese to some level that is currently relegated to pipe-dream status. Maybe Mr. K would be getting the social experiences I’ve described through a private nanny, niche playgroups, and extracurricular activities instead. I don’t know.

As nice as that reality sounds, this world is the one I live in, and this is the one R and I have to work within the limitations we have, balancing the needs we have to meet with what we want and what we can manage. It’s not easy. Alternatives sometimes look better. For now, though, I work, and it’s actually not that bad.

(Image source)

The Work Situation

I started picking up dribs and drabs of work again as early as January, but I didn’t really get fully back into it until April. As it is, I am not working full-time, but part-time, with a corresponding wage and number of hours.

I consider myself something of a freelance English teacher currently in that I do work for several companies. While I would ideally like to be getting more money out of it than I am and there are downsides to the whole situation, there are a few upsides too and hence this is what I came back to when I decided I was done with maternity leave.

Here, briefly, is what I’m up to:

  1. Teaching conversational English to adults
    I had this job prior to having Mr. K, and I’ve been at it for five years now. It’s with an NPO and y boss is pretty great, more like a friend or even a business partner. While my students are not the most highly motivated learners, they are lovely people.
    When: three Wednesdays out of every month, 10am – 3pm (though my boss also has hopes of opening a 2 hour Saturday class as well)
  2. Teaching English at kindergartens
    I’ve done similar jobs to this in the past, but this time it’s through a large company with a very fixed curriculum. The pay is good and the kindergartens to which I’m getting sent are very conveniently located.
    When: varies some, but about half of my Monday mornings (albeit in a sporadic fashion) and some Thursdays, with the possibility of a few extra shifts occasionally coming up.
  3. Teaching English at childcare centres
    Despite targetting similarly-aged children, this job is somewhat different to job #2, with an emphasis on fun and teaching over strict language learning. This is with a moderately-sized company and a semi-fixed curriculum, and the childcare centres are also very conveniently located.
    When: every Tuesday and Thursday morning, except when I’m doing job #2, simply because they got me locked in first), in which case I go on Friday mornings instead, and except for August.
  4. Private 1-to-1 conversational lessons
    I used to do far more of these, but I’ve currently only got about three happening each week now. The lessons happen in a variety of places and at various levels.
    When: Varies – people book times on Monday afternoon, Tuesday afternoon, and Sunday afternoon.

It all results in a weird, varied sort of schedule. The way things are shaping up, I could end up doing at least some work every day. On the other hand, in the upcoming summer in particular, I may end up doing very little in any given week! Routine isn’t a bad thing at all, but I admit to liking the diversity.

I’m planning on sticking to something of a theme this week and posting more about returning to work post-baby this week. My focus will be less on the details of my specific job/s (stories unto themselves, believe me) but just the whole experience generally, complete with other people’s judgement, my own mixed feelings, and the difficulty and fun of just getting back into things.

Defining and renegotiating success?

I read this article, “Why feminism needs a new barometer for success” late last week, concerning how female freedom and success are still defined in conservative terms that concern financial success and a balancing of traditional roles. As the article’s author notes, “empowerment is presented as earning a high income, and “having it all” means an enviable job, a family, and owning your own home. But that’s not every woman’s idea of empowerment.” It goes on from there to examine other ways success might be defined, offering up some more altruistic and self-fulfiling alternatives where money, for instance, is not the end goal.

If the weather is an analogy for my life, I can only hope there are going to be more pleasant months on offer than there in the average year in the Kanto area.

It struck a chord with me because this is something I have been grappling with for several years now. I have spent that time working part-time rather than full-time and dealing with the consequences of doing so. I wouldn’t say I’ve spent all the time I’ve saved productively, and I definitely won’t claim that it has been easy financially, but it has been on my own terms and that’s been very rewarding in its own right.

One thing that I have found difficult is the extent to which, despite my best intentions, my wants are still shaped by the traditional economic values and related social norms alluded to above. I don’t much of an interest in designer clothes or other designer wares, big, expensive nights out are not really something I do, and I’m a bit ambivalent about owning our own house.

BUT! I’m sucked in just as easily as ever by new clothes and the prospect of overseas holidays.. I also spend far too much money eating out and, as already evinced here on this blog, hanging out in cafes and while I might not feel strongly about home ownership in itself, per se, I’d like the freedom to actually own the cats without anyone objecting or renovate or whatever Those are just the things I want. If you factor in long-term necessities, things one might describe as “boring yet important”, such as insurance, saving for retirement, paying off debt, back-up plans should things go disastrously wrong,etc., then the whole thing becomes much more difficult.

Renegotiating the balance between the life I want, the one that is expected of me, and paying for both of the above is something I am struggling with anew now. It is one thing to make these decisions when R and I are two adults who pool our finances for shared resources and otherwise manage ourselves. It’s another when there’s a small, dependent person entering the mix whose needs, for the next while, are going to be very much front and centre. The opportunities we want to give him in life are not free of charge, but some of the best things we can offer – our affection, time, energy – cannot be compensated for financially. The balancing act is becoming ever more difficult.