Recently, after a wonderful afternoon at the park and a picnic at the Imperial Palace Grounds in Kyoto, I took my children to a local café for cake. The eight-year-old has always been able to sit through meal times, but our three-year-old had only just broken his previous record of two minutes sitting at the table with a breath-taking leap to a solid five minutes. After a day of running around at the park, an outing to a real "restaurant" where that new sitting-at-the-table skill was applicable with everyone enjoying a piece of celebratory cake seemed the perfect end to a lovely day.
In any case, we were enjoying our cake (with intermittent trips to the potty to break things up) when conversation from the next table drifted over.
"What is this 'parental leave' time? How is that different from the year of early childcare leave?"
"And is that paid leave or not?"
The two young women and young man at the table looked to be upper classmen in college or perhaps graduate students at the nearby university. I clearly remembered my befuddlement at the array of obligations and benefits that confronted me at the beginning of motherhood, and I couldn't help speaking up.
We talked about lengths of time off, nominal benefits during that time that help to maintain insurance coverage and alleviate some expenses associated with a new child. I told them how some of my friends in the States receive one month of childcare leave instead of one year, and how a friend who married a German and lives in Dusseldorf gets three years off to raise each new child. We discussed a new policy at my workplace that rewarded parents who returned to work after childcare leave. Such employees receive a small bonus if they are still working six months after their return from early childcare leave.
Had so many people been quitting? I suddenly wondered. The students said they belonged to the Faculty of Policy Studies at the university, and I understood that they were researching how to increase Japan's birthrate (and thereby the population) while also retaining parents (mostly mothers) as part of the workforce.
By this time my three-year-old had abandoned his piece of cake to climb the spindle chairs, heralding the need for our imminent departure, but I realized I might be talking to people who would make childcare policy for their generation and my daughter's.
So as my son - bored with the chairs - began to climb me, we discussed some of what was important and helpful to me as I navigated my return to work and negotiated my treacherous daily life caring for two children while fulfilling all the responsibilities of my day job.
As I started to talk about my son's nursery school, he smashed his face into mine and demanded I tell them how much he liked it and how many friends he had there. Which is, of course, one of the most important points. Because in our discussions of time off and monetary benefits and all the other work-related factors, it is so easy to forget that, in the end, the quality of childcare is paramount.
Our discussion was consequently cut short by further face smashing, but looking back now, there are several points I wish I had made.
Perhaps the most important factor is quality childcare that both the primary domestic caregiver (usually the mother) and the child are happy and comfortable with. For this to be possible, there need to be a variety of programs in a variety of locations that have spaces available for children (that is, they are not already filled to capacity).
When we returned to Japan with our first child, then thirteen months old, the town welfare center placed her in a new school across town. It was mid-year, and we felt lucky to get the spot. They had fabulous toys from Germany, and every day there was a developmentally appropriate educational activity, like dropping small wads of paper through the narrow tops of empty bottles or threading big beads onto string, the sort of fine motor skills that are supposed to encourage brain development. A list of these activities was prominently displayed in the pick-up area so parents would know the activity of the day.
For some families this would be an ideal environment, but I wanted for our daughter to be outside, to run around and play all day. I am no expert in early childhood education, and I know that the educationally-oriented school she was originally at was very popular, but my values and those of the teachers there were too disparate.
In April I switched her to another nursery school that was more in line with my way of thinking. Much of every day was spent in outdoor play, and there were frequent trips taken around the neighborhood. Her clothing was often soiled when she came home at the end of the day. It was perfect.
There are many philosophies regarding what children need or should have for early education. The important point is that parents who rely on nursery schools have a choice that includes a range of educational philosophies so that each family can choose a program that fits their values.
I would have benefitted by hearing about the experience of other primary caregivers who returned to work, or having someone who had been through the child-work tug-of-war to ask for advice. The perspective that comes with experience would have made the journey through those early years so much easier for me. On the mornings when I had to physically restrain a child to buckle her into her car seat, then thrust her, kicking and screaming, into the arms of her teacher - for the third time that week - I needed someone to say, "This, too, shall pass," and know that they spoke from personal experience.
Education for All Employers
Heads of companies and institutions as well as direct bosses of workers should attend workshops and lectures about families with two working parents. Employers need to be educated about the situation of their employees with young families, especially when the employee is the primary caregiver.
Many employees are discouraged from or simply not allowed to take all their lawful benefits. Many are discriminated against for taking the ones they do. Employees without small children - especially direct bosses of workers who are responsible for the care of young children - need to be educated at least once a year on the importance of welcoming workers with small children back into the workforce. They also need to understand the critical nature of providing chances for these workers to take advantage of all their allowances for childcare with appropriate goodwill.
If this issue is crucial for the socio-economic health of the entire nation, then government policy on a national level must reflect that. Employers should benefit from employing such workers. Tax breaks or other advantages would make more immediately clear the benefits of continuing to employ a worker who is the primary caregiver of a young family. Of course, the long-term benefits of having someone with first-hand experience in child-rearing are numerous, including everything from specialized insight into product or service design and development, to more a complete and accurate understanding of certain client or customer bases. However, these long-term benefits may not immediately come to mind when a worker has to miss another important meeting to pick up a sick child at daycare.
Coworkers would also benefit from regular workshops or lectures (perhaps biennial) from an appropriate authority outlining the obligations and stresses of childcare and - perhaps jointly - of caring for aging parents, perhaps a more common issue in the aging society of Japan. Such workshops would alleviate frustrations and perhaps induce some understanding and sympathy for the realities some workers are facing. I often fantasized about videotaping the morning routine at our house to show my coworkers during a faculty meeting. Then they could see for themselves why I arrive at work exhausted every morning.
Of course, the underlying importance of childrearing and re-entry into the workforce must be made clear. For Americans, the point was brought home in President Obama's inauguration speech: "It is the firefighter's courage to storm a stairway filled with smoke, but also a parent's willingness to nurture a child, that finally decides our fate." National leaders cannot afford to be ambiguous: this is a priority for the whole country.
Sliding Scale Costs
Keep sliding scale costs for childcare where that system is in place. Establish it where it is not. We always end up off the chart so it may seem strange, but this is one of my favorite things about the nursery school system here in Japan. I suppose it is the egalitarian American in me who loves it.
People in all sectors of society need to be welcomed back into the workforce. Whether a mother is representing a client in family court or flipping burgers at a fast food restaurant, she has a right to work if she wants or needs to, and quality childcare costs should not be out of reach.
Accessible Hours for Social Services
The application submission time window for turning in the dossier for my child to attend nursery school exactly corresponds to my working hours. A father in line with me was in the same situation.
When swimming lessons at the municipal pool were finally started on weekends when I could take the kids, the lottery tickets were only given out on weekdays, nine to five, the pool office hours.
Routine developmental and health checks as well as vaccinations are free in my town, but available only on one of two weekdays in the middle of the afternoon. Parents who cannot make themselves available forfeit these benefits for their children.
While the government is establishing various programs and benefits to encourage people to have children and then return to work, situations like these illustrate that the underlying assumption has not changed: one parent will be available during working hours. More flexibility is essential.
This list of suggestions should not imply that I am anything less than sincerely grateful for all the accommodations and benefits I receive from my employer, my city, and my coworkers. However, if society hopes to increase the number of births and simultaneously retain women (scratch that: primary care givers) in the work force, then we need to find ways to help people feel good about doing both, instead of perpetually feeling that they will never do as well at either workplace or domestic obligations as they could if they were only responsible for one of these jobs.