Some of you who used to read my blog might assume that my several month-long radio silences mean that now we are back in the UK I no longer write blogs. But, I do actually still have some blog posts on the backburner that will appear in the blog eventually, only with several month-long lead times.
You see, my intentions to write blog posts for the past year or so have been as successful as Finland’s intentions to qualify for the World Cup, the European championships or any international-level football competition (i.e. practically never!). Not that I care about football – in fact, I opt for a nap when my husband and son are watching the World Cup (even when England’s playing).
The reason for my slow blog posting is that I’ve been so incredibly busy since I moved back to England that I just don’t seem to find the time to put my thoughts on paper. In fact, I’ve been so busy with juggling family life and a full time job that I think I’ve actually started to lose my hair! And this is not a figure of speech! After every shower when I brush my wet hair, I’ve got something that looks like Donald Trump’s toupee attached to my hairbrush! I hope it is the stress (and is something that can be reversed with a slightly less hectic lifestyle) and not for instance that I’m subconsciously synchronising my hairstyle to that of my husband’s. After all, they say that married couples start to resemble each other! (By the way, if you haven’t met my husband, he has slightly less hair than Vin Diesel.)
In any case, it wasn’t my hair’s protests that made me realise that my life’s pretty hectic, but my student’s comments.
You see, we recently had one of my former students from Japan stay with us (as an au pair) for 2 1/2 months. Before she went back to Japan, me and her were having a chat about life and I light-heartedly mentioned that she might have noticed that our life’s pretty busy. She didn’t respond to my comment with a similar light-hearted approach as me. Instead, she looked at me concerned and asked if our life was always like it had been during her stay with us. I sat there for a couple of seconds stumped, trying to decode her utterance and the tone of her voice and then I realised that she thought that our lives were as enjoyable as me greeting Donald Trump’s toupee every morning.
I rushed to explain that yes, we were busy but that my husband and I were very lucky in many ways – both of us love our jobs, we have two wonderful children, who have several lovely hobbies, we have lively social lives, travel a fair amount and feel that we have been able to combine full-time work and family life successfully. And most importantly, we were busy because we chose to be busy! Working was a decision I had made and not something that was forced into.
She was not convinced. She stated that our life was certainly something that she wouldn’t want for herself. She said that she hopes that when she gets married and has children, she can become a shufu (housewife). I really hope this decision was not brought about by her 2 ½ month experience of our parents-working-fulltime-lifestyle but that she is just a typical Japanese woman whom chooses home over career.
You see, in Japan even in the twenty-first century it is difficult to be a woman and have both children and a full-time career, partly because Japanese society assumes that outside kindergarten or school hours, children need to be cared for by their parents or other family members (and not for instance by a child minder, a concept that practically doesn’t exist in Japan). So, unless grandparents are willing to help with childcare, the mum returning to full-time work would be very difficult.
This was supported by my off the cuff research while in Japan. Namely, when I asked every cohort of students that I had in Japan about their future career plans, some of the female students said that they want to be career-women, which in most cases means that they plan not to get married or to have children. But similarly to our au pair, most of my female students said that they were hoping to work until they had children, but then essentially retire in their 20s or 30s. Most of them said that that would mean marrying a relatively well-paid husband which would take the pressure off them working. That is, it seems to be that for most women, work was something that they had to do if they failed to find an ideal husband, not something that they would choose if not working was an option (I am not going to go into this here, but I’m assuming one reason for Japanese women’s indifference to work might be their experience/knowledge of the unequal treatment of women and men in many workplaces).
Unlike many British and Finnish mums who might take several years out of work when their children are little but then return to work when they feel their children no longer need their full attention, many Japanese mums stay as housewives even when their children have gone to school or even left home!
If you are a British or a Finnish parent, you might be wondering what Japanese mums do when their children are older? Well, it seems that they still devote their lives to their children in many ways. For instance, many of my university students who still lived at home told me that their mum would get up around 6am to fry salmon and cook rice for them for breakfast and make their bento boxes for lunch – and these students were 20-year-olds! It also seems that the mums do the majority of the domestic chores, or at least many of my students said that they did very little cleaning. However, even though Japanese housewives look after the home they seem to find a fair amount of time to spend in coffee shops, restaurants and onsens (hot springs) with their mum-friends (which is a huge contrast to their husbands, who typically work extremely long hours).
What about the Finnish mums? Well, they tend to go back to work after having had children. Labour Source Survey (2013) reports that about 70% of Finnish mums of children under the age of 3 either work (35-40%) or are on family leave from work (this consists of different types of maternity leave which you can take until your child turns 3 years) (25-30%). Furthermore, approx. 90% of Finnish mums with school-age children work. This is to say, the housewife role is relatively uncommon in Finland.
Furthermore, what I can’t see many Finnish mums doing is to mollycoddle their older children let alone adult children in the same way that Japanese mums do. My understanding is that most Finnish 9-10-year-olds can (and frequently do) make their own breakfast and snacks such as sandwiches, fill/empty the dishwasher, contribute to keeping their own room clean and tidy and survive home alone for several hours after school before their parents come home from work (but please correct me if I am wrong – I haven’t lived in Finland for 18 years, things might have changed!). Surprisingly, it seems that many English kids are only trusted to stay at home alone from their 12th-13th birthday which is much later than for many Japanese or Finnish children.
Unlike English kids, most of whom are taken to school by a parent until they go to secondary school (12 years of age) many Finnish children, at least outside of Helsinki, start walking/cycling to and from school independently around the age of 7-8 years. Believe it or not, but in this respect, Japanese kids are even more independent than the Finnish kids! I have seen children as young as 7 make their school journey alone on super-busy commuter trains through Osaka!
Finnish parents who want to go back to work are often able to successfully manage full-time jobs and parenting. This is partly because of the above reasons to do with children acquiring independence relatively early in life (i.e. walking/cycling to school on their own and staying at home alone until the parents come home from work) but also due to the fact that Finnish schools assume that most mums work and thus schools do not expect that mums have time to create elaborate fancy dress costumes, bake cakes for cake sales and organise other fundraising events, come into classes to help with maths/literacy or attend school trips. These extremely common tasks for British mums (largely due to the persistent underfunding of schools!) are practically absent from the Finnish parent-school relationship. English mums who want to go back to work full-time are likely to find it difficult to meet the expectations not only of their bosses and social workers (re independent school runs and leaving primary school-aged children home alone), but also of their children’s teachers (and even other mums!). It is no wonder many English families with working mums rely on help from grandparents or child minders/au pairs or work from home on a regular basis. Given that my husband or I don’t have family living nearby, we belong in the latter group and have an au pair who helps with childcare and housework. Not having an au pair would make it practically impossible for me or my husband to work full-time.
Our lives are busy (even with an au pair!) and we don’t have much time to watch TV, write blog posts, or take naps (which I would love to do if I had more time, and not just during World Cup matches!) but we seem to be able to just about fit everything in. We work full time, but spend our evenings and weekends playing Monopoly or Uno with the kids, bake cakes, flip pancakes, pan pop pop-corn, throw a baseball around in the garden and socialise with our friends, and that makes me feel like I’m just an ordinary Finnish mum who manages to do this without a detrimental effect on their children or their own wellbeing.
But could it be that my hairbrush is telling me that one should be choosing one or the other?