“Just as there is no warning for childbirth, there is no preparation for the sight of a first child… There should be a song for women to sing at this moment, or a prayer to recite. But perhaps there is none because there are no words strong enough to name the moment.”
― Anita Diamant,
I’m feeling some movement and some pain. Should I call Sumio or wait? He’s about two hours away at work. I don’t want to wait too long. The baby begins to push some more. Sumio gave me the number to call when I’m ready to go to the hospital. Japanese women call an ambulance. My husband is going to take me and be with me the whole time. I call the number he gave me. The phone rings. I practice what I am going to say when they answer. The person who answers doesn’t speak English.
“Sumio Kubota onegaishimasu.”
I said, “Please contact Sumio Kubota.”
She asked again in Japanese, “Dare?”
I repeated, “Sumio Kubota.”
The second time she understands. I think Sumio might have warned them. He’s the only one in the company married to someone who can’t speak Japanese.
He gets on the phone, and I tell him, “I think I have some pain. Maybe the baby is ready.”
He said. “I’ll be home in two hours”
He has to take a company bus, get on a train, and ride his motorcycle home. A trip of about two hours: I wait patiently, no not patiently. I am in panic mode. I rush around the house, put my pajamas and clean underwear, and my toothbrush in an overnight bag. I keep myself busy. I make some green tea and drink it slowly. I lay on the bed in the bedroom and try to close my eyes. I hear the door open.
Sumio rushes in the bedroom, picks up my bag, helps me put on my shoes, and we get in the car. I put my hand on his arm and say, “Please drive safely.”
He looks into my eyes, gives me a quick kiss and says, “I will”
It’s our first baby. We don’t know what to expect. We arrive at the hospital. It’s 2:30 p.m. I carefully walk into the hospital. The nurses are ready. Sumio had called the hospital on his way home. Two nurses and the midwife greet us with a gurney and tell me to lie down. The contractions are getting closer and more painful.
I lie in a Japanese hospital in the delivery room on a gurney with my back semi-supported with a few pillows. My legs are spread out in a frog position. I can’t see my feet because my stomach is the size of a hot air balloon. The midwife in her crisp white uniform and hat is standing on the right side of my belly gently massaging it with some lotion. Her right-hand rolls over my stomach and her left hand follows. My husband stands near my shoulders and follows the directions of the midwife.
“Gently Massage the shoulders.” I think she says in Japanese
He massages my shoulders. We practiced this at home for the past month. He’s not supposed to be in the birthing room. My mother should be there. She’s in the United States, and I would not think of having my mother in the delivery room. The second choice was my mother-in-law. No, sorry, that isn’t going to happen. She doesn’t speak English, and the last thing I want to do is give birth in front of her.
Men don’t enter the delivery room in Japan. Only women are allowed. Sumio is allowed to be there because his wife doesn’t have any sisters in Japan who can be with her and she doesn’t speak Japanese.
“Breathe! Push! Breathe! Push! Commands the midwife.
The pain is unbearable; I cry. I sweat! I yell!
I dig my fingernails into the arms of my husband who has not left my side. His arms become bruised, and he begins to bleed. He doesn’t complain.
“Breathe! Push! Breathe! Push! Commands the midwife again.
The doctor is somewhere down there waiting for the baby to emerge. After four hours of labor with no epidural, there is a scream. This time it’s not me. It’s our baby.
The doctor waves his hand signaling Sumio to approach the screaming baby. He passes the scissors to my husband and instructs him to cut the umbilical cord. It’s not in the plan. He smiles from ear to ear, and his eyes lit up like never before. He cuts the cord looks up at me and says, “It’s a girl!” We didn’t know the sex before the birth. I look over at Sumio who is cradling a naked red baby (acachan). He has tears in his eyes, tears of joy. Sumio places her on my chest and tears flow like raindrops slowly down my cheeks. She feels warm. Her five purple fingers curled like fists into her hands. We check her five tiny toes and her long legs. I look into her eyes. I want to find something that looks like me. She has blue eyes.
“All babies are born with blue eyes,” says the doctor.
I want my baby to have blue eyes because I have blue eyes.
She’s the first female to be born into both my family and Sumio’s family in twenty-seven years. I hold her for five minutes, and then they whisk her away to clean her and wrap her in a warm blanket. I already miss her.
I can hear fireworks bang! pop! going off in the park near the hospital. It’s summer, and Japan celebrates six weeks of firework festivals on the weekends.
Our daughter, Lisa, is a curious sight in the incubator lined up with the other babies in the nursery. She’s the only American/Japanese baby. Everyone passes by and stares at her. Her hair is thin and light. It’s not a black puff sticking straight up on top of her head like the Japanese babies. The color of her skin isn’t olive but not creamy white either. She doesn’t have a Mongolian spot on her back like Japanese babies.
Having a baby in Japan requires some research. My Dr. Spock book, the only one available to me in 1982, doesn’t explain the Japanese birthing process. I need an obstetrician who speaks English. Where is the nearest hospital? Where can we sign up for Lamaze classes?
When we first find out that I am pregnant, we start shopping for hospitals. We visit the public hospital that is six hundred feet from our house. If we use the public hospital, the delivery is free. Japan has a socialized medical system. We enter the hospitals and have a nurse take us on a quick tour. The smell is clean. The room is drab, white paint on all four walls, no pictures, no windows, and blue cotton curtains separating one patient from the other. I want to get out. I feel I am in prison. This is not a place where I want to have a baby.
My Japanese language skills are those of a three-year-old; I can answer “yes” or “no.” Most of the time I don’t understand the question, but I don’t want to show my stupidity, so I pretend. I ask the questions and Sumio translates. We walk around two-
three hospitals, and there are no rooms. Women give birth behind blue curtains. There is no privacy.
“Are there any private rooms for delivery?” I ask the nurse who is giving the tour.
“No, we have three or four women delivering at the same time.” She answers
I wrinkle my face and look at Sumio. He asks me not to show my emotions directly in front of the nurse. It’s a form of rudeness in Japan.
I begin to ask questions of anyone who speaks English. “Where did you go to have your baby?” No one can tell me an answer because none of my foreign friends have children yet. One of my American friends is teaching English to an obstetrician. She suggests we check him out. The doctor owns the hospital which is common in Japan. The hospital accommodates twenty patients, women and babies only.
I tell my husband about the information relayed to me about the obstetrician. The next day he takes off from work, and we go to visit the hospital. The hospital is the obstetrician’s house.
We ring his doorbell. He opens the door.
“Irashai mase,” he says.
“Ojama shimasu” replies Sumio.
I smile and somehow say “Ojama shimasu.”
“My name is Sumio Kubota, and this is my wife, Carol.” “We’re friends of your English teacher Joann,” says Sumio.
“Yes, Yes, I know. Good teacher. Joann good teacher. My English not good” says the doctor.
He invites us into his living room. We remove our shoes. He places two pairs of slippers on the gekan, and we slide them on our feet. Sumio and I both bow from the waist down to him and he bows a little above the waist to us. He’s of a higher rank than we are. I learn this by watching Japanese soap operas. The doctor shows us to a table, and we sit with our feet under us on his tatami floor. His wife appears from the kitchen with a tray carrying ocha and cookies. She is short, round and wears a flowered skirt and pink blouse. She wears a white apron over her clothing. She smiles, bows from the waist and sets the tray on the table in front of us, she pours hot tea into the teacups and places them on the right side of each of our settings. We drink tea, and the doctor asks Sumio about my condition. Wait, I’m pregnant not Sumio. Sumio relays the questions to me and then translates my answers to the doctor. Sumio is not very comfortable in his position of being pregnant for me. He and the doctor continue talking, and I begin to think that this isn’t going to be an easy project.
They finish talking, and the doctor gets up, and so do we. He leads us to the door. We put on our shoes. We head out the door and across the lawn to the hospital. He shows us around the hospital. The rooms are private, and everything is clean. We enter the doctor’s
office. I have a list of questions I want to ask him. He examines me, takes my blood pressure, listens to my heart, weighs me, takes my measurements both around my belly and my height. He begins to talk to my husband in Japanese.
Hello, I’m the one who is pregnant let me in on the information.
My husband tries to translate, and I try to understand. I thought the doctor might be able to speak a little more English after all he is taking English classes from my friend.
All my vital signs check out. We decide to have the baby at this hospital.
In the fourth month, I ask the doctor if there are any birthing classes for Sumio and I. All I had was a Dr. Spock book. That was in the time where Dr. Spock knew everything.
There are no birthing classes. I am supposed to watch a movie shown at the local civic center. This movie will provide me the necessary information I need to give birth. I walk in. It’s a theater with stadium type seats. I sit down. I’m the only white American woman in the place. I smile at some of the women while they whisper to each other and wonder why there’s an American woman in the room with them. The movie comes on after about ten minutes of waiting. I feel very anxious; all I want to do is get up and walk out.
It’s black and white. This movie is twenty-five years ago. It is now 1982. They introduce a woman who’s pregnant. She’s lying down on the hospital bed ready to give birth.
I look at the moving pictures. The woman begins to breathe deeper and deeper. Five minutes later a baby pops out. The movie ends. What? That’s all! I am starting to get very nervous — no classes to show me how to breathe.
No classes showing Sumio how to calm me down if something happens. No massaging of my swollen protruding stomach. What do I do?
On the second day of my stay after giving birth to our daughter Lisa, no one comes into the room. The nurses don’t come in often. They’re afraid of the gaijin who is in a private room. They bring in breakfast at 7:30 every morning, no one has shown up with my breakfast. My husband comes by at 7:30. I ask him about my breakfast. He goes to find out. He comes back with this answer. “They don’t think you like the breakfast.”
The breakfast consists of toast with butter, salad, misoshiru, a boiled egg, and green tea. On the first day, I eat everything except misoshiru. I am not too fond of misoshiru. It’s too salty.
Sumio clears up the misunderstanding. They deliver a boiled egg, salad, toast, and tea. He brings his breakfast from McDonald’s, a sausage biscuit with hash browns. I want his breakfast.
Babies in Japan don’t sleep with their mothers in the hospital. They sleep in the nursery in their incubators. The nurses bring the babies into the mother’s rooms only for nursing.
“Can you ask them to bring Lisa into the room?” I ask Sumio.
He comes back five minutes later and says “It is too early. They’re not ready yet.”
They bring her around 8:00. They set her on my chest and tell Sumio that I need to breastfeed her. They lay a warm towel on my breasts and massage them for a few minutes.
They lay Lisa down on my stomach and direct my left nipple into her mouth. She begins to suck. She starts to cry.
“You don’t have enough milk flowing yet.” says the nurse to Sumio
Not being able to produce milk begins the process of giving massages three times a day to keep my milk flowing. I have a size DDD breast, and no milk was finding its way down the pipe. The nurses take Lisa away to the nursery when the milk stops coming. I’m not good at nursing. I don’t want Lisa to leave; I want her to stay with me. I pretend she’s still nursing. I keep her as close as I can. There is no way I’m letting her out of my hands. She’s the only one who can understand me.
Japanese women stay in the hospital for one week after giving birth. I only last five days. I plead with Sumio to get me out sooner. I want to go home.
The day I leave from the hospital my mother-in-law shows up with Sumio. I tug on his pants and give him “the look”.
“What’s your mother doing here?” I ask
He looks down at me as I sit in the wheelchair ready for him to take me to the car.
“It’s a Japanese custom for the mother to show up and take the baby home and help you take care of her.” He tries to explain as I stare him straight in the eyes, my sign of showing anger. I hold my tongue for now. I don’t want to create a scene and embarrass Sumio in public.
We get into the car. He opens the back passenger door and loads my bag and helps me get into my seat. He closes the door. He opens the front passenger seat, takes the baby from his mother as she gets in her seat. He passes our baby to his mom in the front seat.
Wait a minute. It’s unsafe for a baby to sit in the front seat. There are no seat belt rules in 1982.
Sumio starts the car. Tears stream down my face. Lisa is my baby, and I want to hold her in my arms. Sumio catches my face in the rearview mirror. He stops the car at the Seven Eleven and gets out. He opens the passenger side of the front seat, retrieves Lisa from the arms of his mother, opens the back- passenger door, hands me Lisa and kisses me on the forehead.
He says, “I am sorry.”
Culture differences haunt our relationship as we try to figure each other out.
We arrive at home, and I carry Lisa into the house. I’m not letting this child out of my site.
It’s a hot, humid summer day. We don’t have an air conditioner, and the windows are open. I put a cotton t-shirt and a diaper on Lisa. I watch her fall asleep in her new crib. My mother in law covers her with three blankets. I take them off. She thinks Lisa is going to catch a cold. I watch Sumio’s mother pick up her suitcase and walk to the car. I hadn’t noticed the suitcase before. It’s big enough to hold two weeks of clothing.
“Why does she have a suitcase?” I ask my husband.
“She was going to stay here for three weeks to take care of you and Lisa.”
“Now, she’s going home.”
He looks at me, kisses me on the forehead, and says “I love you!” again. “My mother will be fine. I know you can take care of the baby and the house on your own. You are strong. Our family is you, me, and Lisa.”