Sunday, June 10, 2012

Two Foreigners Having a Foreigner Baby in Japan

March 15th 2012

These next few entries will focus on what it’s like being pregnant and giving birth in Japan. My husband and I met, fell in love, and got married in America, but moved immediately after the wedding to be English teachers in Japan. It’s a good place to have a baby, with one of the highest records of mother and infant health in the world.  The health insurance system is set up to provide affordable (almost free) prenatal, labor, and infant care.  There are numerous hospitals and since it is a national health care system, you can choose from any number of hospitals for your care and delivery, although some are cheaper than others.  The government pays for maternity leave at 60% of your normal wage for three months, one month before the birth and two months after the birth.

So, it sounds like a cakewalk, right?  I imagine it probably is for a Japanese person.  However, let me set the stage for who my husband and I are.    We’re Americans in our late 20s who want to give birth in the Western Style, as much as possible.  This causes problems.

 First--The Language
 Though my husband is very good at conversational Japanese, he hasn’t had a lot of time to study up on the specific vocabulary that we’ll need at the hospital.  (C-Sections and fetal heart rates don’t come up so often in casual conversation) I have only been studying for over a year, and so my abilities stop at making the appointment and writing my address in kanji on the registration form.  So, we’d like to find an English speaking doctor.  If we can’t, the city can provide interpreters that will help us at the appointments, but I don’t really want a stranger in the room with Jon and I as we find out the baby’s birth or as I take my clothes off for a physical, or as I’m in labor.  Although, I guess, the doctor and the nurses will all be just as much of strangers, so maybe that won’t be a big deal.  I can’t imagine many interpreters would want to volunteer to be a part of that though….

 Jon and I are a team, through and through.  That means we want to be together at all times.  Some Japanese hospitals don’t allow men (i.e. husbands) in the labor rooms because there may be a bunch of women all naked from the waist down in the same room.  Some aren’t supportive of men coming along to appointments.  This is changing, but (from asking Japanese people) I hear that only 50 percent of fathers are present at the birth.  Don’t even get me started on the reaction I got when I asked my pregnant friend’s husband if he’d ever changed a diaper before.  Well, I started, I’ll finish.  He looked at me like I had asked him if he had ever eaten dirt.  Then he responded.  “No, and I never will.  It’s her duty.”  And this was a nice guy!  He seemed to always fuss over his wife and was always rubbing her belly, but he had no plans to ever, not in two years, change a diaper.

 Third-Pain Medication
 I want an epidural.  They are safe and easy. I see no reason to put myself through hours of intense and exhausting pain when there is no need to.  The Japanese idea is that the pain of childbirth is a woman’s burden to bear and she isn’t a real mother without that pain. I think that’s stupid, and I want an epidural. About ten percent of women get epidurals in Japan (hearsay from friends), so we need to make sure the hospital has that.

 Fourth- Work Situation
 We work for a dispatch company that requires us to re-sign contracts every year.  This means that after a year, they can fire us by not renewing our contracts for no reason at all and we have no recourse. This is a problem because I will be about 16 weeks along when we sign the contracts, although I will have been working for the company consistently for over a year.  After the contract is signed, they can’t fire me for being pregnant, but I’m 100% sure they wouldn’t renew my contract if they found out.  That would leave Jon and I in dire financial straights, me unable to find a different job in the middle of the school year, and super unhappy and bored for the months where I wouldn’t have a job. (I’m writing this in the present tense, but will wait to publish it until later, so there is nothing on the internet that my company can find.)  I went to the city office and spent quite a while talking to all the different insurance and pregnancy registration offices with an interpreter finding out that there is no law saying when I have to tell my employer I’m pregnant, that they can’t fire me after I’ve signed the contract.  When I register the birth, that is kept secret and won’t be leaked to my company, etc.   Whew. Now, just to keep it off of Facebook.

 If I can take a little tangent here…  I imagine some people are thinking, “Don’t you think it’s wrong to force the company to re-hire you just so you can take three months off work to have a baby?
 Shouldn’t you support yourself for that? It’s your choice to have a baby.”  My answer is this, first of all, ***** you.  Secondly, I will have worked for this company consistently for over 18 months by the time I want to take the 3 months maternity leave.  It’s not like I just barely got the job.  Also, the government pays my maternity leave, not the company. Next, if you want smart, motivated, professional women to have babies (thus making MORE smart, motivated, professional people—something I think is good for the world), then we all need to chip in to help them.  Questions like the one above are one of the reasons Japan has such a low birthrate. Women have to choose between babies or their job and they are starting to choose their job. 

 OK, back on track.  So, the above four things are not impossible to find, but finding them all in one hospital might be tricky.  The first hospital we went to had an English speaking doctor and was very nice.
 We had our first ultrasound with him.  However, it was a very small clinic, with only the one doctor.  These small, one doctor women’s clinics are pretty common in Japan, and many normal sized hospitals don’t have a maternity ward. Because he was the only doctor, he couldn’t offer epidurals. In the case of a complication, I’d have to be transferred to a larger hospital. Also, his average price was about US$1,000 over what the government subsidized for birth.  Most hospitals are right around the same price or a little lower. So, we decided to find a different hospital.  Our doctor cautioned us that we wouldn’t be able to find a hospital that would give me any pain killers for the labor because it just wasn’t done….
…A mere week later, with some help from a wonderful friend, we have found our hospital.  We chose it because it's very close to our house, the price is very close to what the government provides for labor, and it offers epidurals, although we have to pay the extra US$300.  Anyhow, it's got almost everything we want.....but what doesn't it have?  Yep, an English speaking doctor.  We'll head in to our first appointment there on March 28th.  


Catherine said...

Sounds pretty similar to Korea, but extra kudos to you for doing this on your first birth. I would suggest doing more research on epidurals before you decide to go that route. For me, it wasn't about being a "real woman," although I can totally see that being the Japanese mentality, but added birth complications. Anything you put into your body does affect your baby.

Are you showing yet? I guess you must not be if your employers can't tell. Hopefully Japanese people are more subtle than Koreans. I remember a lot of blatant and sometimes downright rude stares.

Best of luck!

Sara Hendricks said...

I guess I must be showing a little bit. Just today a group of junior high school students asked a fellow teacher how they could ask me in English if I were pregnant. She responded, "That's not a very nice question to ask someone." I understood the Japanese, and felt like it was a good time to tell her.....although I'm going to let the students keep guessing!

Do you know why people stared at you? I mean, was it just the whole foreigner aspect of the thing?

Catherine said...

I had students asking if I was pregnant before I ever was, because I'm not a stick and I'd been married for a while. When I actually was pregnant, I gave one middle school boy a really hard time. "Are you saying that I look fat?" I know...I'm evil ; )

I assume that the staring was because I was a foreigner. I don't think they stare at pregnant Korean women like that.

Matt Atkins said...

Me and my Fiancé have had to learn the hard way about delivering in Japan (she's Filipino and I'm American). When we first went to the hospital it took at least an hour just to get the receptionist to understand what we were there for, and the. Another 30-45 minutes just to schedule an appointment for the following week. When we went for her appointment the following week, we had to use a translator on our iPhone just to talk to the hospital staff, but after a while, it all became just routine. We had to go register the pregnancy at the Yokosuka City Hall and received a baby book with her pregnancy key chain for priority seats and things like that. She is 37 weeks right now, and we are expecting her to go in labor at any time now. I am thinking the delivery will be somewhat difficult because I'm usually the one that talks to the doctors and staff because I know the basics of what they are saying at this point, but they do not allow the father in the room during delivery at Kyosai Hospital apparently....I've been trying to coach her on what to do though, so hopefully all will go well...