Cross-cultural observations of women’s roles

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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?

Hanging out with my younger self

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If you are lucky you might be able to live to 100. Thus, one could think about life a bit like a 100 metre race (that most of us want to get through in Usain Bolt-style but in slow motion). Worryingly, instead of slow motion, I have started approaching the halfway mark of the track in Benny Hill show-style (in fast forward). Worse still, pretty much at every birthday for the past 10 years I have been able to visualise my young self around the 30 metre mark blow me a kiss goodbye.

But, this last month has been different, even though it saw me move another metre further down that 100m track. For the first time in nearly 9 years (since my son was born), I’ve had a chance to remind myself what it was like to be spontaneous and carefree. The reason being that while I have been in Japan for work for a month, my children and husband have been back home, in England.

So, four weeks ago I walked back to that 30 metre mark, embraced my young-adult self and went wild. Well, maybe wild is not an accurate word here, given that wild in my 20s meant something quite different than it means to me today. I will not go into explaining what wild meant to me in my youth, but for the past four weeks it’s meant:

  • not cooking a single lunch or dinner
  • checking my alarm clock at 6.45 am on Saturdays and Sundays, and going back to sleep for another 3 hours
  • indulging on culture (visiting temples, shrines, cemeteries and bamboo forests)
  • my social calendar having been so full with BBQs and dinners with friends, colleagues, school mums and even with some new acquaintances, takoyaki (octopus dumplings) gatherings and birthday parties that my young self would have been proud of me. (If I wanted to show off my busy social calendar I could mention that I’ve had 18 social events in the past 30 days!)

Even though I’ve loved my freedom, seeing new places and meeting new people, in a moment I will start making my way back to the 42 metre mark on the track of life. And I will do that with unprecedented enthusiasm. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been as excited as I am today. You see, I am at Kansai Airport on my way back to England where I will be reunited with my children and my husband.

Fathers are as good caregivers as mothers

 

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This was more difficult than I thought. I’ve just left the children for the first time ever for longer than a short conference trip, and thus smudged my mascara big time when curling up next to them at 4.30am this morning and giving them the last hug for the next 4 ½ weeks.

Not only do I miss them all already but I also feel like a bad mum sitting here at Frankfurt airport waiting for my connecting flight. I feel as if I was abandoning them and making their life a misery.

But why should I feel like some kind of a non-maternal she-devil? I’m going back to Japan for work (an important part of most parents’ lives) and my children are staying at our home with their father (my husband) going about their daily routines in a similar way as if I was there. Ok, they will not see their mum for a month. But they will see their dad. So, I don’t really know why I need to feel like a bad mum. My kids love me, and I love them. And importantly, my husband loves our kids as much as I do. But for some reason, society tends to assume that that’s not the case (for instance, when it comes to maternity/paternity leave or custodial rights), and therefore seems to value mothers’ contribution and care higher than that of fathers’.

Regardless of what society might think, my husband is a great caregiver. He’s not the best cook in the world, but he is capable of boiling some pasta, making a Spanish omelette, turning the oven on for some fish fingers and using the toaster – and in emergencies, walking to the nearest curry house to feed the kids. He’s also not as tidy or obsessed with cleanliness as I am, and if we didn’t have an au pair, I’d expect the house to look like a tip when I am not there. But more importantly than him being Nigella Lawson or Kim Woodburn (or any other domestic goddess) he does an amazing job at being a parent. He spends his weekends putting up tents in the garden and sleeping in them with the kids, he takes the kids climbing at a local climbing wall, creates a dinosaur cage out of old cardboard boxes or a secret den by using dining chairs, a throw and some cushions, and even on a school night after work he helps our son with his Terracotta army homework or our daughter with her phonics, and afterwards lies underneath our dining table with the kids pretending they are in a cave and reads to them.

My point is that children don’t really care whether they have beans on toast for dinner on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday and a Spanish omelette the rest of the week, or whether or not there are toothpaste marks on the bathroom mirror or a build up of dust on the sideboard. Children just want to have a caregiver who (in addition to proving a safe environment) spends quality time with them, and my husband, like many other fathers, is perfect in providing just that.

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The beginning of the end

 

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Our time in Japan as a family has come to the end, as the children have now moved back to England.

I am currently also back in England but will go back to Japan in September for another six months to complete teaching for this academic year (which finishes in March). My lovely, modern husband will be looking after our children for the coming several months and will (happily) be in charge of arranging our kids’ Aikido, guitar and swimming classes, after school clubs, parent get-togethers and even attempting to bake something for the Parent-Teacher Association’s fundraising – maybe I am a bit ambitious with the last item on this list, or at least with the part that he would happily do it, but you’ll get the point that my husband will look after the kids’ school stuff and hobbies for the next six months while I will be the modern wife and mother who will be working 6000 miles from home.

The kids’ move has meant that the past month or so was in many ways extremely emotional, as the children had to say goodbye to their friends and teachers in Japan.

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This is a goodbye poem my son wrote to his best friend in Japan. It says: Sorry. Now I need to go to England. I am sure I will let you go to visit my house in England or Finland. And I like you. Can you always play? I wish I could stay. You are important because you are my friend. Till the end.

 

We’ve also had to say goodbye to the apartment that was our home for 2 ½ years. I was only able to get through the last week of emptying and cleaning of the apartment with frequent (and generous!) pourings of my favourite, plum wine.

 

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My last supper in the apartment

 

In addition to their friends, my son will  miss butamans (Chinese pork buns) and my daughter will miss strangers’ constant exclaims of ‘kawaii’ (‘cute’) at her. On the other hand, my husband will miss his Japan to England commmute as much as I miss the daily inspections of my children’s bodies for ticks during our recent visit to Finland (they have a huge problem in Finland currently with those horrible creatures (ticks not kids) whose single bite can result in a life threatening illness).

From now on, instead of my husband, I will be travelling between the two countries.

The past month was also extremely stressful, one of the most stressful times of my life in fact. Not only did the last day of the academic semester coincide with our flight back to Europe, but we also had to empty our apartment, move my stuff to a flat share, and most traumatic of all: negotiate with the kids which of our lorry load of toys would go into our three suitcases heading to England and which in the bin. In desperation, my son carried one huge soft toy dog in his arms to the airport in the hope that he was allowed to take that on the plane – he was even prepared to make a scene if the airport ground staff told him that he would have to leave it behind, but in accommodating Japanese style, we were allowed to take the toy on the plane! There was one happy boy on that Finnair flight holding a dog nearly as big as a St Bernard.

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A nervous toy dog and his owner before finding out if doggy is flying to Europe or not.

 

I am in two minds about the move. I love Japan, the reliability of its public transport, delicious food, people’s considerate approach to others and interesting culture. In England public transport is abysmal, food in many restaurants below par, and people in many ways are less considerate than the Japanese. However, culturally and socially England is amazing, and I am prepared to live with the disgraceful Southern Trains, cold bangers and mash and bad service setting me back £12, and people pushing in on the train before I’ve had a chance to come out because of that wonderful sociable, friendly and accepting ethos (I will not address the result of the Brexit vote here, but I feel that overall people at least in English cities like Brighton are still very friendly, tolerant and open-minded).

Come September I will miss the kids and everything about them: them not waking up next to me in the morning, them not running to the hall when I get home from work to give me a hug while shouting ‘Mummy’s home!’, us not playing Monopoly or Top Trumps after dinner or just hanging around on a weekend, but I am taking a positive view of the next six months. This is an opportunity for me to re-live my time before kids. So, instead of being melancholy about this I will take this as a great opportunity to see the Japan that I would not see with the kids – staying overnight in a monastry, seeing a multitude of beautiful temples, experiencing natural beauty, soaking in outdoor and indoor hot springs, endulging in fancy restaurants with elegant food, letting my hair down in izakayas (Japanese ‘gastropubs’) i.e. experiences that do not strike kids as amazing, but to me sound like heaven.

So, for the next six months, I will be writing little anecdotes of my solo travels, experiences and observations of Japan. Stay tuned for the next chapter.