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The Dilemma of Support: Parenting and Mother-Networks in Japan

Raising young children appears to pose significant challenges to mothers in Japan. According to a recent study, approximately 75 percent of mothers with a young child report child-rearing anxiety or distress (Fukatani, 2008). Some observers attribute these problems to the fact that many women do not receive sufficient support from their husbands. A survey demonstrates that Japanese men with a child under the age of six spend 25 minutes per day, on average, caring for their child compared to American fathers who spend 1 hour and 13 minutes (Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, 2007).

According to Belsky and Vondra (1989), when people do not receive support from their spouse, they tend to depend on other social networks, and friends' support becomes particularly influential. It has been found that Japanese mothers tend to seek information and support from within their circle of female friends, and that friends are the most frequently identified consultant (Benesse, 2007; Shibano, 1989). Mothers tend to seek practical information from other mothers on how to discipline their children as well as places to take their children for play and entertainment (Terami & Manda, 2001).

While friends could lower women's parenting stress, studies suggest that they do not necessarily improve mothers' sense of parenting efficacy or reduce their child-rearing anxiety (Suzuki, 2005; Suzuki, Holloway, Yamamoto, & Mindnich, in press; Aramaki & Muto, 2008). These studies suggest that merely examining the amount of instrumental support friends provide does not fully illustrate the complicated dynamics between supporters and support receivers. A study by Pagel and colleagues (1987) demonstrates some upsetting aspects of support networks even when women perceive the network as helpful. Thus, it is critical to investigate positive and negative aspects of friends' support.

We conducted qualitative analyses using interview data to explore the nature and the quality of Japanese mothers' relationships with their friends. By examining experiences and emotions reported by mothers with young children, we elucidate the nature of mothers' relationships with other mothers, examining both the benefits and the "cost" of the mother-network.

Research Methods

Our project started in the summer of 2000, when we interviewed and gave surveys to 116 Japanese women (average age = 36), all of whom had at least one child in the last year of preschool (youchien). Half the mothers were living in Osaka, and half in Sapporo. The number of children in the household ranged from 1 to 4 (average = 2.2). About 60 percent of the mothers had pursued education after high school, such as a professional school (senmon gakkou), a junior college, or a university.

From these 116 women, we also selected 16 mothers in Osaka to participate in a series of in-depth interviews. Half of these women had attended a four- or two-year college and half had completed high school or junior high school. In each educational group, we chose some women who demonstrated high parenting efficacy on the survey (i.e., how confident they felt in teaching, disciplining and interacting with their child), and some who demonstrated low-efficacy beliefs. The interviewers -- Yoko Yamamoto and Sawako Suzuki -- conducted a total of four interviews with each of the 16 mothers between 2000 and 2003. The interviews were conducted in a relaxed manner at the participant's home. Questions were open-ended and the conversations ranged from 90 minutes to 3 hours. All interviews were tape-recorded, and were transcribed in Japanese.

Overall Satisfaction with Support

In the survey, mothers indicated on a six-point scale how satisfied they were with the quantity and quality of support from their friends, husbands, and their own mothers. As seen in Figures 1 and 2, mothers indicated relatively high satisfaction with the amount and the quality of support received from friends, their husbands, and their own mothers.

Figure 1.

Figure 2.

Friends were perceived to be most satisfactory source of support by these mothers. Statistical analysis demonstrated that mothers' satisfaction with the quality of support from their friends was significantly higher than that received from their husbands. This description matches previous surveys finding that friends are an important source of support for Japanese mothers.

In our study, the average number of work hours of their husbands, including commuting time, was 12. This demanding work schedule made it difficult for husbands to participate actively in the lives of their children, or to provide extensive support to their wives. Therefore, friends who have similar aged children are important sources of information and consultants who are easily accessible. A survey with 116 mothers shows that 84 percent of the mothers reported that they regularly see other mothers from the preschools outside of school settings. Forty five percent of the mothers collected information about preschools through their friends before choosing one for their child.

To find out more about the ways that friends provide support to each other, we now turn to our in-depth interviews.

Benefits in Mother-Friend Relationships

Our interview analyses demonstrate that mothers tended to seek information and comfort from other women sharing the same experiences, that is, friends who are also mothers. Many of the mothers in our interviews brought and picked up their children from preschool, which allowed them to meet other mothers. Some mothers joined activities held at the preschool or joined the PTA. Such occasions gave them opportunities to interact and talk with other mothers on a regular basis, and to develop friendships with them.

Many mothers talked about their experiences of sharing concerns and everyday stories about their children with their mother-friends. For example, Sakura, a mother with 3 children, talked about her daily routine of talking casually with other mothers:

Everyday [I talk with other mothers about my child]. I talk about whatever happened that day with them. I would say, "Something like this happened to my child today." And my friend would say, "Oh, something like that happened to my child too." And we chat and share our experiences. And I learn a strategy from her.

Some mothers were worried that their children might be "abnormal," "strange," or "different" from other children. Others had concerns about their children's health, behaviors or sibling relationships. Like Sakura, many mothers reported that their concerns about their child's development and behaviors were reduced by learning that "other people have the same concerns." Eleven out of the 16 subsample mothers reported that they felt better when they found that their friend had similar experience with their child. Talking with other mother-friends and hearing similar stories from them brought a sense of relief, and often reduced their concerns about their child.

Mother-friends also became a role model for some mothers. For example, three mothers specifically described their friends as ideal mothers. They reported that they "learned" how to discipline, listen to children, and teach their children from these friends.

Mother-friends were also perceived as an important source for getting school-related information. Many women asked other mothers with young children about preschools, after-school lessons, and reputation of teachers.

Negative Aspects: Competition and Criticisms


While mothers received important instrumental and emotional support in the realm of child-rearing from mother-friends, negative aspects in relationships with their friends also appeared as a motif in the interviews. Yuri, a 36-year-old mother with one daughter, was one of the mothers who reported close and intimate relationships with her friends. Due to her marital problems, Yuri relied on her friends for emotional support. She had four friends who lived in the same apartment complex. Before deciding on a preschool for their children, they visited several preschools together, and decided to send their children to the same preschool. These mothers took turns taking their children to the preschool. Every morning they chatted briefly about their children. They also went out for lunch occasionally. Yuri said that she could talk about 90 percent of her concerns to these friends. She thought that their advice was "realistic" and helpful. She stated, "If I have a serious concern about my child, I would consult with my friends because they are mothers who are raising children in the same generation and who share similar experiences [unlike her mother]." Friends became her dominant support and "a tranquilizer (seishin anteizai)" for a novice mother like her.

But Yuri also talked about the duality of her relationship with her mother-friends. Friends sometimes became a source of pressure (aseri), competition, and jealousy. For example, when Yuri found that her friend's child could understand some English words, she felt upset and tried to teach her daughter the same words at home. She also reported comparing her daughter's swimming skill to that of her friend's child:

When one mother told me that she would send her son to a swimming class, I also wanted to send my daughter to the class. She is my good friend, and not like my competitor.....Her child is a boy and was not afraid of getting into the water, and my daughter was scared. And I was upset about it...I felt anger toward my friend and toward my daughter. Toward my daughter I felt, "Why are you scared?" To the mother, I thought, "Don't show such a happy face to me." Even now, I sometimes experience something like that.

A year later, Yuri expressed regret about "ignoring" her daughter's own developmental pace by competing with her friend. Yuri stated: "We were increasing our stress [by comparing our children] each other." Other mothers also noted that they were aware that all children differed, but could not stop comparing their child with their friends.

In Japan, where mothers are primarily responsible for socializing and educating their children, one symbol of a respected and successful mother is the developmental outcome of her children (White, 1996). Mothers themselves are prone to evaluating their mothering work through development or behaviors of their children in comparison with other children. Thus, mothers tend to compare their children to others, thereby validating their child's development, and ultimately, their parenting.


Because negative aspects about mother-network emerged in the first interviews, we asked the 16 mothers to elaborate on this issue in the second interview. Ten out of 16 mothers described situations in which friends' criticism of their parenting or comments about their child's behaviors upset them or caused anxiety. Some mothers also described relational aggression within groups of friends. Four mothers specifically said that friends' comments made them feel depressed or even caused "neurosis (noirōze)." Reiko, a mother with two children, described her experience of being a target of hostility by women in her mother-network:

...I don't know whether this is particularly a woman's trait (onna no hito tokuyuu), or just a Japanese trait (nihonjin tokuyuu), but when they get together as a group, there is always one person who becomes a target [of hostility]...Sometimes we criticized another mother behind her back. They observed other mothers, and pointed out that the person was like this or that. It annoyed me. Then I had some troubles with other mothers, and I became a target of hostility. I had many painful experiences.

Some women expressed a strongly evaluative stance concerning other mothers' parenting. When they saw a child's misbehavior, they criticized the mother's parenting. Mari, who believed strongly in parental responsibility for disciplining and educating children, expressed negative reactions when she perceived that another mother was not sufficiently involved in her child's life. The fundamental view expressed by Mari and other mothers was that children's development is a reflection and the product of mothers' parenting. Thus when they saw children who were happy, social, well-behaved or smart, they admired the mother. When they saw children who had behavioral or peer problems, they blamed the mother.

The pressures that Japanese mothers feel to define their own identity and status solely in terms of their child-rearing responsibilities can be partly attributed to various institutions in the social context including the preschool. Several studies have found that teachers strongly evaluate mothers' parenting abilities, and criticize them if they perceived that the mothers were not committed to child-rearing (Allison, 1996; Holloway, 2000). The mother-network further reinforces the salience of the maternal role. As Reiko stated, "It's scary to see friends comparing your child and theirs." There were occasions in which groups of mothers created an environment of heightened anxiety by mutual monitoring, evaluation, and criticism. Such pressure created a vicious cycle since mothers compared their children with others, and lowered each others' confidence in raising their children.


Constructing Internal Standards

A few mothers reported that they had never perceived serious criticism from other mothers. These women tended to feel confident about their way of raising their children, and did not rely solely on mother-friends as a major information resource. In other words, they had an extended frame of reference and alternative sources of information provided by coworkers, professional experiences with raising or working with children, supportive husbands, extended family members, or professional colleagues. These mothers constructed internal standards about child development acquired from their own experiences and extended networks, and therefore were less vulnerable to friends' comments.

For example, Miyuki, who had worked as a preschool teacher, reported that she had never felt being criticized by other mothers and communicated a strong sense of parenting efficacy in raising her three children. She perceived herself as someone who was able to give child-rearing advice to other mothers because of her professional experience. Miyuki stated:

Well, no one has criticized me. Many people like my comments because I worked at a preschool. That experience turned out to be very useful. I compare my children to children who I used to work with. And other mothers ask my advice because I was a teacher....They are impressed by my advice, and have never criticized or opposed my ideas.

Some women also relied on educational professionals for support and advice. For example, a few mothers consulted with juku teachers about their children's development and school issues. Mari noted that she consulted directly with a person who did research in education instead of talking about her concerns with her friends. A few educated mothers also talked about reading books and going to talks provided by educators to learn about parenting.

Positive Effects of Employment

Work was another element that buffered the negative influence of the mother-network. Risa, who had three children, reported relational problems with other preschool mothers. She talked about the anxiety she had experienced as a result of being criticized by other mothers:

When other mothers told me, "you overprotect your child," or "you scold your child too much", I realized my weakness. But at the same time, I wondered why I had to be criticized by them that much. I am not a high school student, but I am an adult ...even if I did the same thing as they did, I was criticized. It made me feel down and I often cried...But I was afraid that they would not talk to me. I didn't want to be kicked out of their group...

A few years later, she started a part-time job as a dental hygienist in order to contribute to her family's financial situation. She talked about having friendly and supportive coworkers, and experienced great enjoyment at work. She became more relaxed (yoyuu) and less irritated when she interacted with her three children. Importantly, her work status also mediated her relationships with other mothers. She said that work helped her to keep "good distance" with other preschool mothers, and made her feel less anxious about relational issues. She stated:

My relationships with other preschool mothers are really good now. I don't care if I don't know small matters [about my friends]...I used to be jealous when one mother got together with someone else. I wondered why they didn't invite me. But now I don't think that way. When I spend with other mothers all the time, negative parts come to my eyes more and more...Friendships become complicated.

Risa also expressed a sense of pride by establishing a broader identity in addition to being a mother: "I used to be my children's mother. Now I work, and I am one human (hitori no ningen) and I am needed [by people at work]." A sense of achievement (tasseikan) and pride through work appeared in many working mothers' narratives. Studies show that multiple roles which enhance social support by extending networks benefit women's psychological and health outcomes (Barnett & Hyde, 2001). Our survey demonstrated that women who were employed expressed greater parenting self-efficacy than those who were full-time housewives (Holloway, Suzuki, Yamamoto, & Dalesandro, 2006). Mothers who join a network outside the traditional mother-network may find that they are not always evaluated based on maternal work, and thus may reconstruct their maternal role expectations. This broadened ideality also potentially buffer the negative impact from other mothers' criticisms or comments as discussed above.


By analyzing relationships between preschool mothers and their friends, we revealed some benefits and costs in mother-friend relationships. Gender roles have traditionally been highly differentiated in Japan, and the structure of schooling continues to enhance the philosophy that emotional and physical caretaking of children is still feminine work. The construction of an informal mother-network can relieve the burden of childrearing by allowing women to share concerns, receive advice and information related to children's development and schooling.

However, our examination also demonstrated complexities in the process of receiving friends' support. Mothers may compete with each other and increase parenting pressure when their relationships with their friends are too close and dependent. Our analyses suggest that if women's world is restricted only to the mother-network, and when they depend exclusively on the mother-network for informational and emotional support, they have fewer opportunities of obtaining various perspectives on themselves and their children. Therefore, they are more likely to be affected by criticism and comparisons than those who participate outside activities, particularly paid employment.

These findings suggest some future directions for social support research and political action in supporting mothers in Japan. It is necessary to give more credence to the negative aspects of the mother-network that emerged in this analysis. Support from friends may be invalidated or even reversed if there is competition or intense criticism within the network. Our examination also reveals that mothers who occupied multiple roles, especially those gained through employment, were less subject to the negative impact of the mother-network. These findings provide important insights in providing effective social support to Japanese mothers in the future.


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