April 28th, 2010
06:23 AM GMT
Tokyo, Japan – As a producer for CNN International, I’ve been lucky enough to travel the world to cover important, yet adrenaline-filled events. I’ve been around exploding IEDs, mobs demanding political equity and witnessed the global meltdown of the world’s second largest economy.
Yet putting my baby into day care in Tokyo was the toughest competition I ever went through in my life. Child care facilities for small infants are called hoikuens (Nurturing Garden) in Japan. They are the MUST item for any working mother in Japan where hiring nannies is a near-impossibility.
The cost is prohibitive in this culture, where domestic assistance is considered a jaw-dropping luxury. Public or government-subsidized hoikuens are relatively affordable at about US$600-800 a month (more affordable depending on your income level) with reliable caretakers. Not being able to get a spot in a hoikuen means financial suicide, or giving up your job to stay home with your baby.
After the first few months of my maternity leave with my newborn Anjin, I picked up the phone and started making calls to find a day care center. I was scheduled to return to work and absolutely needed help. A few phone calls were enough to realize that I was facing a monumental crisis. I could not find a single day care with an opening for my son!
One popular private day care in my neighborhood told me they were booked up to TWO years ahead. Yes, some clever working women book day care as soon as conception. But I was a slow turtle. It was well before Christmas when I realized this crisis. Japan’s government estimates 46,000 children are on waiting lists to get into day care. I did not have time to be 46,001. I had to find a day care, any day care, before April when I was scheduled to return to work.
I had a new assignment, perhaps the most pressing of my career. The competition is tough for public day care and you must convince the ward office that you are desperate, or you go to the back of the line. In the Setagaya area of Tokyo where I live, the ward office handles the placement of babies to day care and they have a point system to chart your desperation.
My husband Richard and I both work full time, which gave us 50 points each, equaling 100 points. I will be just out of maternity leave – another 5 points. If you are a single mother, you get another 20 points, if you receive social security, another 10 points. My single mother friend advised me to go to the ward office and show up with a desperate face and a sob letter. I did that, toting my adorable new born in my Baby Bjorn baby carrier. I did everything I could think of. We prayed and crossed our fingers to win this day care lottery.
We waited, and waited, and waited. My return date to work loomed, as I feared the prospect of sticking my child under my desk and towing him around while coordinating live shots for my reporter. After a month, we got the news. Our point score, because we had no child care options, put us barely over the minimum required and we got a day care slot.
The day care center wasn’t close to our home. The one next to our home, a really great day care center with a big garden, was really popular - we were 23rd out of 56 applicants. But a day care center about 15 minutes away got us in - we snagged the very last spot.
To say my husband and I were relieved would be a gross understatement. Some mothers describe entry into a day care in Japan as being more difficult than getting into Japan’s top university. We were, however, angry for the hassle and stress that we went through, along with all the working parents in Japan. It’s an unnecessary competition, which the government has for years been promising to eliminate for the sake of making it easier to raise children.
The government says we need more children, i.e. a future working force. By 2050, 40 percent of Japan will be over the age of 65. But if the nation needs to have more children, it should not discourage parents to have more children.
Working women are forced to give up careers after getting pregnant, anticipating trouble if they continue working. In April 2009 when we finally took our nine-month-old Anjin to his first day of day care, tens of thousands of other children, along with their mothers, were left out. At the beginning of 2010, 46,000 children were in the waiting queue. Behind them, I can see many faces of women desperately willing to work, earning salaries, and hey, paying the national tax as a result.
My mother was the very first working woman in her company back in the 1960s. My parents went through a back-breaking effort to find anyone who could take care of me while she was at the office. The 1960’s was a time when all working mothers in Japan put together a movement to push the government to increase day care centers for working mothers.
The slogan was: “Create as many child care centers as post boxes,” so that anyone who wants to work can put their children in a safe place. Four decades later, her daughter is struggling with exactly the same issue as she did. This simply shows how little things have improved for working mothers in this country.
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