I’ll never forget the day I went to work for my once-a-week job at Hitachi Corporation in Japan, knowing the time had come to tell my wizened, chain-smoking, sixty-something boss, Kimura-san, that I was pregnant. I sat across from his ashtray-ridden desk and watched him drag on a cigarette as I explained why he’d need to find a substitute teacher in a few months. After proffering his congratulations and (in the course of speaking), his smoke, he declared, “Aka-chan tanoshimii da ne! Shufu ni narun desu ne?” (You must be SO looking forward to having another baby! And to becoming a full-time housewife!)
Why, of course. Now that I was working on my second child, I would surely do the proper thing and venture off into the maternal abyss, ostensibly never to show up in the Japanese workforce again.
But this wasn’t an entirely unusual assumption: while parental roles are changing in Japan, it’s not uncommon for wives to exclusively raise their children while husbands spend long hours outside the home providing for them. Perhaps because my husband was Japanese, Kimura-san assumed I would follow the same path. After all, stay-at-home-mothers in Japan are venerated for their roles as family bookkeeper and guardian of their children’s education.
I knew, of course, that women in Canada had more broadly-defined roles after motherhood. Still, when I returned seven years ago—as a stay-at-home-mother with no apparent job prospect in sight— it felt like cultural whiplash. As we settled into our new lives I braced myself for the words I came to dread most. “So,” would come the eventual question on the soccer field, at the parent-teacher meeting, or at the dentist’s office, “What do you do?”
It felt incredibly odd not to be able to attach a profession to my name; so much so I felt like a ghost without one, or at the very least a woman without an identity.
But perhaps it spoke more to personal insecurities than cultural expectations. After all, every mother is more than what she gives to and does for her children, whether she stays home to raise them, or works full-time as they grow. We would do well to remember this, whether we get paid for the jobs we do—or not.
Cindy Graham is a Professional Writing student who lived in Japan for 12 years. Now living in Ottawa, Canada with her husband and two children, she explores issues facing adults who return to their home countries after having lived for an extended time abroad.