Yesterday, my wife and I took our daughter to a city-sponsored health check slash child care consultation (suku-suku so-dan, meaning literally “quick consultation,” from the idiom suku-suku sodatsu, grow quickly or thriving). The event was free of charge for all 10-month babies in the municipal district. I was the only man present, and the event was entirely in Japanese. I guess I had better get used to this for the upcoming year.
The first part consisted of weight and height checking. Still on the low-weight side of things (7.1 kg, or a little more than 15 1/2 lbs), but slightly above average height (72 cm, 28 inches). At any rate, fairly straight-forward health check up to that point. We were directed to a larger waiting room (which was larger than our apartment, actually), where somewhere between fifteen to twenty mother-baby pairs were playing with various fluffy blocks, wooden cars, handmade rattles, and other toys.
After a wait of about half an hour, we were called along with six or seven other mother-baby pairs into an adjoining room. There, we were taught how to play games with our babies.
No, seriously, that’s what the point of the exercise was. How to play games.
First, we were treated to a five-minute lecture on the importance of playing games. Seriously. Trying to occupy a ten-month-old’s attention span during five minutes of nonstop lecture is bad enough without the distraction of seven other ten-month-olds to add to the sense of impending panic. At least twice the girl baby to the left of us crawled at breakneck speed directly at us, sending our daughter into a paroxysm of screams (which, thankfully, quickly abated. Easy come, easy go).
The person in charge of the lecture repeated the phrase “mother and child” no less than half a dozen times during the mini-lecture. “This is the most important time period of the baby’s life in which the mother bonds with her baby,” or similar words. The crucial nature of how playing with the baby would strength the relationship between mother and child was emphasized; no mention whatsoever was made of the father. It was as if the father’s role in raising the baby was simply not considered. No special notice was even made of my physical presence.
The lecture also stressed the importance of language development through the use of “motherese” (not that this term was used, but that’s basically what was discussed). We were given a piece of double-sided paper with lyrics to several baby songs and games, which we then tried out together in unison. One game was chanted to the tune of “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and essentially translated as “So-and-so’s head…so-and-so’s head…is HIGH!” (at which point you hold the baby high in the air before bringing her down and snuggling). We also practiced playing “peekaboo” (which is called inai-inai-ba, or “not here, not here, BOO!”) by placing a handtowel over the baby’s head and saying “ba!” when the baby pulled the towel off her head.
The game-playing part ended with a short explanation of how to make baby rattles using household materials, such as empty plastic bottles and cut-up straws for noise and/or colors. We already had made several such toys, by partially filling bottles with water or inserting a single paperclip and sealing the bottle cap. We tried small cardboard boxes (an empty popcorn box for example), but our daughter started gnawing on the box corner. We got some good ideas for baby toys from this part of the event.
While we waited for “baby food consultation,” another child care worker tested our daughter’s reflexes and hand coordination by offering her several colored wooden blocks in succession, using a padded barrier to temporarily hide unused blocks from view. I’m not quite sure what the worker expected to see, but she seemed surprised when our daughter not only banged the blocks together enthusiastically, but also happily slapped her hands on the padded barrier, and then proceeded to lunge over the barrier and grab the bowl in which the blocks were resting. She then emptied the bowl’s contents, flung it around for a few seconds while shouting “ah! ah!” and started putting blocks back into it. I take it that meant that she passed the test (whatever it was).
The final part of the event was “baby food consultation.” We found this the most helpful, receiving tips on the kinds of food our baby would get the most nutritional value out of as she reached 12 to 15 months of age. Our daughter still only has six teeth (two on bottom, four on top), but the nutrition consultant didn’t seem worried. She gave us a handout with food preparation steps and advice.
Overall, an interesting experience. Japan has been experiencing a severe “baby shortage” in recent years, and with the breakdown of the extended family structure of traditional Japanese households and increased need for both parents to work full time, it makes a certain degree of sense of municipalities to hold “baby consultation” events. The dedication of the child care workers was impressive, to be sure.
On the other hand, I was disturbed by the absence of fathers, as well as the attitude that fathers were basically not expected to participate in the child-raising process. Placing all the stress on mothers, many of whom worked full time and some of whom had to take time off from their jobs to attend the Tuesday morning event, seems hardly fair. Well-intentioned as such events may be, they appear to address the symptoms but ignore at least one cause of the declining birth rate: men in Japan are not helping.
(We additionally have our own concerns about raising our daughter bilingually, and felt reluctant to play games only in Japanese. But that’s a topic for another post later!)