Alright guys, buckle up. I am going to tell you my single parenthood experience in Japan. I prefer the term “single parent” to “single mother”; semantics, I know, but married or not, a mother is a mother. The parenting bit is the one that is single.
Where is your husband?
Whenever I am with Jeremy and I meet people (mostly old ladies) in my neighbourhood in Japan – the pool, the supermarket etc, the first question out of their mouths after remarking just how cute Jeremy is, is:
Which roughly translates to:
Your husband must be (studying or working) in JAIST.
So JAIST, my uni, is the main ‘source’ of foreigners around; about half the student population is made of international students and maybe 30% of the faculty and researchers. It’s a valid assumption. However, the assumption that it must be my husband studying or working and not me, that I have grown tired of.
“No, I am the one studying there.” I always reply.
This is then inevitably followed by a shocked face because how can you be studying and you are a mother?? This is Japan after all. Everything, even the path that people are supposed to follow in life, has a certain order. As a woman, you work hard, go to good schools so you can meet a husband with potential, and once you get your first kid you must drop out of work to look after your child. (Everyone works to ensure this order is maintained. “Many institutions incentivize this arrangement: Japanese corporations often give husbands whose wives stay home a bonus, and the Japanese tax system punishes couples with two incomes. “ – and recently on the news, it emerged that at a Tokyo medical university lowered scores of female applicants because it didn’t want too many women in the workplace.)You are supposed to finish school, even PhD if you must, before you start a family.
Anyway, back to my conversations. Once the old ladies process the shock of me being the one in school, the next question almost always is:
“Your husband is Japanese?” as they try to catch a second or third glimpse of Jeremy to see if he’s “half”.
“Your husband is in Japan?”
“Where is your husband?”
“I don’t have a husband.”
This usually ends up leaving them so shocked and confused that most of the time, they stop talking to me altogether. Maybe they think I misunderstand the question. Mostly, they will repeat the question in another form.
“You mean your husband is in your country?”
“No, I mean I am not married.”
Their voices drop to a whisper, as if to ask some embarrassing secret.
“Are you divorced?”
“No, I never got married in the first place.”
Most single parents in Japan are as a result of divorce. Rarely are any kids born to unwed parents.
To go to a foreign country, live there, study there while bringing up a child, as a single parent… that’s so out of order with the Japanese set way of life that this ends the conversation, because they just can’t comprehend it.
Why Didn’t I Get Married?
Of course, I think that it’s better for a kid to be brought up by both his/her parents. Better yet, by a community, as it used to happen a long time ago – older siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents. But this is the 21st century and it’s nuclear families all the way.
In my case, I couldn’t marry Jeremy’s dad for many reasons including the fact that I wasn’t ready to get married then to him or anyone else, and he was also married at the time anyway. So I knew from the very beginning that I was going to be a single parent. He doesn’t support us in any way and I have no expectations. However, I do want Jeremy to have some kind of relationship with him, because he (Jeremy) is already asking me where his father is. Lines of communication are open and maybe they will meet soon.
On Single Parenthood (in Japan)
So the other day at this part time job I do, a colleague asked me:
“Your husband is in Japan?”
“No.” So tired of the question by now, lol.
“Your husband is in Kenya?”
“No. I’m a single parent.”
“Heeee… taihen! taihen! taihen!” she exclaimed. That’s like saying “oh, terrible, terrible! terrible!”
I know a lot of married women with kids. Are they living in heavenly bliss?
Do they put their feet up, sipping tea and enjoying massages while their husbands do everything?
(Most of) the married women I know have to do even more housework than I do, in addition to school/work. They have to do an extra set of laundry, dishes, have to plan meals for one extra person. They have to provide emotional, psychological, etc support for more people (including husband’s side of the family maybe).
They do not have it easy just because they are married. I have nothing against marriage and in fact, I look forward to someday enjoying some nuptial bliss myself, but I enjoy my life as it is right now, with the freedom and responsibilities alike that it embodies.
I guess there is one important difference between being a single parent in Japan and in Kenya: income disparity. The economic gap between married mothers and single mothers is huge here. (Please see this article on why Japan is the worst place to be a single mother, aside from Islamic countries I guess). I read somewhere (can’t find the link now) that the average savings for a married household is 10,000,000 yen, while for single mothers(most single parents are women so I am back to using “singe mothers”) is 500,000 yen. Imagine that, 10million vs 500k!
This is because Japan is very discriminatory towards women in the workplace. People work reaaaaallly late hours here. For example, my neighbour in JAIST stays in the lab until 3am every single fucking day; because of pressure to get results from his supervisor. People stay in the workplace until 8 or 9pm, then leave for drinking parties with business partners where they bond etc until past midnight. As a mother, you have to leave work at 5pm or earlier, so how can you keep up with the overtime or networking?. Taking maternity leave could also hurt your career as it’s hard to rejoin the workplace. Single mothers are left with no choice but minimum wage/part time jobs, and these jobs not only pay very low wages but they have no benefits like health insurance, pension, housing allowance, etc.
Unlike in Kenya where we can hire nannies for cheap (because the unemployment and poverty rates are really high), here ordinary people cannot afford nannies full time to take of their kids while they work. In Kenya, being a single mother will not harm your career as you can have a full-time nanny so you can even travel for work. In Japan, even finding a babysitter is impossible. I have never found a babysitter I could pay in rural Japan – I mostly rely on my network of friends.
This obviously puts the single mother in Japan at a disadvantage. If a woman is married, the husband can work all the long hours, and his salary will go to his wife’s account (yes, this is true in most cases) who will then budget it and give the husband a daily allowance for the train etc. The wife stays at home and looks after the kids. Everyone is happy, right? The husband is basically a walking ATM who never sees his family. I think the Japanese housewife enjoys this life more, no?
I wouldn’t enjoy being a housewife though. But I can understand why someone would make the choice.
The Japanese government tries to support single parents by for example, providing full cover for health insurance. We of course pay a monthly contribution depending on our income , where in the usual case the national health insurance covers 70% of the cost. For single parents, it will cover 100% of the cost. There is also a discount on the cost of nursery school. And a monthly welfare cheque. However, these are peanuts compared to the cost of living in the real world in Japan, especially if you are forced to do min.wage hourly or part time jobs.
However, I think that my case is different.
I am a PhD student living in a remote campus. Rent here is quite low. I don’t spend anything on the commute as I live within the campus itself. I have a scholarship that is just enough to keep a single person on the poverty line, but with the little welfare from city hall, Jeremy and I can stay afloat and even afford traveling sometimes.
Yes,I have spent long hours working on my PhD, but unlike my colleagues in physics and chemistry, I don’t have to be physically in the lab to do my work. I can work on my laptop even when at home. I usually go to the lab from 9am to 4pm, pick J up and spend time with him till his bedtime at 9pm; then I can go on working till late in the night. I am very lucky that I have a very understanding supervisor who even changes meeting times to accommodate my schedule, and also gives me jobs like RA or TA so I can earn some extra income.
Some time next year, I may join a major company for a professional career, where I hope to make (more than) enough money. However, I don’t know how life as a single mother in the industry in Tokyo will be like, even as Jeremy will be joining elementary school. I can only say that am cautiously optimistic.
Social Life? What’s That?
Because of my busy schedule – PhDing and single parenting, I don’t have any semblance of a social life. There are no babysitters here, so Jeremy and I spend all evenings and weekends in each other’s company. My social life wouldn’t be better anyway even if I were married (a social life in rural Japan while doing a PhD, haha), but at least I wouldn’t be swiping Tinder at 3am on nights when I can’t sleep. Should I blog about
the horror stories from the Tinder dates I have had with Japanese guys? (Update: I did the post).
Anyway, my busy schedule is soon coming to an end as the PhD is almost over (I defended my thesis yesterday). I will soon move to Tokyo and I hear social life there is vibrant.
Looking for a Husband
But wait a minute, could my colleague who said it is “taihen” to be single be right? Is marital bliss so good? Perhaps it is time I found a husband so I can finally continue the conversations with the Japanese ladies whom I left frozen in time, “unable to process”. A husband’s companionship and support – financial, physical, emotional, etc. – would be welcome. I don’t want to get cats just yet.
When I googled for an image to accompany this post, I found out I am not the only woman looking for a husband on the internet. I am seriously considering it though :P. Any interested candidates (men) should send me an email through the contact page.
I suppose I should list some requirements.
Age– as I am not an ageist, 21+ ~ ∞ lol, Dracula is welcome to apply. Must be smart. At least taller than me. Spiritual maybe ok, but not religious. Must be willing to share household duties. Should love traveling, it is the one thing we can do together. Enjoy the occasional drink. And some dancing, doesn’t have to be good at it because I’m not either.
Must be willing to relocate to Tokyo for now, because otherwise being in a long distance marriage is like being a single mother all over again.
On a serious note though, it is very easy to enjoy single parenting when you have financial security (or the promise of it based on your career). I am happy single, I don’t think I would be any happier married, but it would be nice to have companionship.
To my fellow single parents(mothers), remember you are the one who turned up and took responsibility. Single mothers are not the problem, absent fathers are.
P.S. If you are going to leave a comment on this post, please leave your religious dogma at the door first.
P.P.S Questions are welcome 🙂