Giving birth in Japan
If you think living in Tokyo is tough, try having a baby here. I recently did, and though the experience was challenging, I learned a host of useful tips that I can pass along.
Finding a strong support network was almost as important as finding the right health care provider. I highly recommend The Tokyo Pregnancy Group, which holds meetings every two weeks, featuring guest speakers that include doctors, nurses and other experts. Even if you do not go to the meetings, you can stay connected by simply being on the email list and checking the website for notices about events, services and secondhand goods.
The process of getting information often felt like a scavenger hunt. I would research topics prior to doctor appointments and compare notes with friends to find out what I was missing. Half the battle is figuring out what you don’t know. Do not expect to be spoon-fed information — it’s up to you to be proactive and seek it out. I asked other friends what tests, booklets, info they received during hospital visits at various weeks, and made sure I was getting the same.
Do your own research and be educated on the standards of your home country, and compare that to your experience here. Take a birth education class to get a big picture perspective on what you can expect and what you need to learn more about.
I found it hard to reconcile clearly contrasting opinions on topics such as diet. For instance, it’s widely accepted in Japan that pregnant women can eat certain foods like raw fish, but in the US that is a major pregnancy taboo. The bottom line is that there are variances in cultural norms and it is up to you to decide what is best.
Another of these cultural differences is in the standards of weight gain in mothers and average birth weight in babies. If my growing belly wasn’t reminder enough that I was pregnant, the comments about my increased size from coworkers certainly were. Despite falling into the average range of weight gain according to American standards, my increased girth seemed extreme compared to standards for Japanese women. In my last week of pregnancy, I received bewildered looks from people on the elevator in my office building and would be asked by women in the bathroom what I was still doing there in my “condition.”
Also, it’s almost cliché to point out, but don’t expect salarymen to give up their courtesy seats for you even if your bump is visible and even if you are wearing one of the pregnancy badges issued by rail companies.
In my nine months of riding the subway pregnant, the only people who ever gave up their seat were older ladies — probably mothers themselves who knew what it was like and wanted to make a stretch of the journey a little easier.
When it finally came time to spend my six days at the hospital (one day for labor and five days for recovery is standard), I found myself settling for one-word explanations like “Daijobu” when trying to understand important information such as the results of a test or condition of my baby — and then later referring to baby books to get deeper explanations, or making lists of questions to ask my doctor.
I made a few mistakes, such as opting out of a newborn screening test that was required in the United States, but in the end, I felt like my needs were met. The post-delivery recovery period in the hospital was like boot camp for new moms — preparing us for life outside the hospital.
This commentary originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).