This next story in the series comes from a first-time American expat who became a first-time mom in Japan.
The story highlights that no amount of research and discussion can prepare you for the reality of adjusting to life in a foreign country nor what you might need as a new mom.
It’s only after you land and have to find a way to settle in that you realize what this experience will come to mean to you and for your future.
Keep reading if you want to know how this bold woman and her husband moved to Japan to get better health care and maternity leave compared to the US, but ended up having different ideas about whether this is the right place for them in the long run.
Please tell us a little bit about your story so far. Who are you and where have you lived during your expat journey?
I’m an American, born and raised in North Florida. I spent the first 28 years of my life within a 20 mile radius. I didn’t take my first flight until high school, and my first trip overseas after college with my then boyfriend, now husband.
Traveling together was our shared passion. Each year, we scraped together enough money to spend 10 or so days in Europe. It was always winter, because the tickets were cheaper.
We spent months beforehand delving into the culture. We learned some of the language, attempted some of the recipes, listened to local artists, and read resident famous authors. It was an engaging hobby.
Our first visit beyond Europe was to Tokyo in 2017. I didn’t know much about Japan before planning our vacation, but my husband grew up on PlayStation games and anime. I was intimidated by the size, but enjoyed our short trip. I found Tokyo to be colorful, clean, and convenient.
The following year, my husband and I made a drastic move. I always wanted to leave my hometown to experience life somewhere else. Everything felt like it was falling into place, even as things were falling apart.
We almost bought a house, but backed out. When my husband’s car broke down, we didn’t replace it with a new one. We just weren’t ready to settle down.
We packed everything we owned into our remaining car and drove for days on end until we reached a bigger city out west. It was a little reckless, but it paid off.
We found good jobs within days and a sweet little apartment a few weeks later. I don’t know how else to describe it, but I felt like I belonged there.
We looked to the future with hopeful eyes, emboldened by our success. My husband began a full-time bootcamp to further his career, and we agreed on a timeline to start a family.
Weeks after I found out I was pregnant, my husband got a remote job offer for a company based in Japan. The future I envisioned for our family suddenly shifted.
When did the “should I stay or go?” dilemma come up for you?
The question of “Should I stay or go?” began before we ever left the country. When we moved out west, we only had ourselves to answer for. Our worst case scenario only affected us; the people that agreed to be in this situation.
With a baby, we needed to be more cautious. We sketched out four viable options to choose from when it came to our future, and we chose to go abroad.
“The biggest factor in my decision to go abroad was the prospect of staying home with my baby. If we stayed in the US, I would have to return to work after three months of unpaid maternity leave.”
The bulk of my salary would go towards paying for daycare and any hospital bills my high deductible health insurance plan left me.
In Japan, I would be on national health insurance. I would have a week in the hospital to address any nursing or babycare issues that came up.
My husband’s salary could support the three of us comfortably in Tokyo, so I wouldn’t need to work until I was ready. It sounded dreamy.
Our families were supportive, though sad that we were moving so far away. My husband’s parents immigrated to the US as children, and understood our wish to provide a better life for our child.
We agreed to stay a few years, and reevaluate from there.
Due to visa issues, we weren’t able to move until two months before my due date. Add the destabilizing effects of the virus, and I have been really struggling.
But a year and a half has simultaneously flown and dragged by, and I’ve been awake for more of it than I thought humanly possible.
Our son has been the bright spot in these tumultuous times. It’s hard to look back on the first year of his life without the fear of the pandemic creeping in.
When I left the hospital, I was stepping into a new world in so many ways. Everything looked different, although it hadn’t looked familiar to begin with.
“Adjusting to motherhood while simultaneously adjusting to life in Tokyo stretched me to my limit.”
In those early days, I regretted our move. I felt like I was parenting in a vacuum. Family and friends were too far away to help.
The expat mothers I hoped to learn from stopped meeting in person. Advice I found online didn’t apply to my situation, and advice my son’s pediatrician gave didn’t either. I felt trapped between worlds.
My husband helped as much as he could while still working full time, but we struggled to stay positive. When I begged to go home, he had to remind me that it wasn’t practical or possible to leave during a global pandemic.
“It was hard to make plans beyond a few months, but one thing became clear in our discussions: My husband wanted to make the move permanent, and I wasn’t so sure.”
My husband believes my son will benefit most from being raised in Tokyo. I can’t argue that there are opportunities and experiences here that he wouldn’t have access to if we moved home.
But staying here means losing access to the family that loves him, and has yet to meet him. I feel guilty for all the hugs and kisses he misses. I feel guilty for every milestone they miss.
In my mind, Tokyo was a stepping stone, not the finish line. Moving here helped me stay at home with my son, and helped my husband’s career. Once he had experience, and my son became preschool age, I didn’t see why we needed to stay.
“I don’t hate it here, but I don’t connect to it the way my husband does. I see the sacrifice, and my husband sees the reward. It’s a matter of perspective, I guess.”
I change my mind on the issue almost daily. Even in writing this, I’ve gone from wanting to leave to wanting to stay. I don’t think there is a right answer, but I hope whatever we decide works out.
It sounds like you’ve been struggling to focus on settling in on two fronts – motherhood and living abroad. Is that a fair assessment?
Absolutely. Before the move, I focused the majority of my time on being a prepared parent. I took in-person and online classes and read a lot of books.
Any remaining energy went to the logistics of moving, like selling the car and researching where to live. I focused on all the technical aspects without thinking of the emotional ones.
“I wasn’t prepared for culture shock. I assumed that because I had researched and visited before, I would be able to adjust somewhat easily. The reality was far from that, as nothing came second nature.”
It’s a humbling experience when you struggle to write your own name on forms (in katakana, one of three Japanese alphabets)!
The toll that took on my self-confidence bled into my insecurities as a new mom. I worried I wouldn’t be able to advocate for my son properly if he got sick.
I worked in healthcare in the US and saw firsthand how much information could be lost in translation if you weren’t able to communicate with medical staff.
I felt irresponsible, and worried to the point of panic attacks when I took my son to his checkups. Things have gotten better with time, but I still fear for the future.
When you think back on the discussions you had with your husband prior to moving to Japan, do you now think they were not detailed enough?
I think our expectations weren’t voiced properly to each other before we moved.
“We agreed that the move was temporary, and we would leave if it wasn’t working for us. But we didn’t describe what “not working out” might look like.”
Our basic needs are met here. My husband and my son are happy here. I don’t hate it here, but the thought of living here the rest of my life depresses me. We’ve tried compromising on a set number of years, but none of those discussions go well.
Deciding to be here temporarily looks completely different than staying here permanently.
Temporary doesn’t require going to language school. Temporary means staying in our one bedroom apartment and putting our son in international preschool instead of Japanese youchien. Temporary means no pets or accumulating anything unnecessary.
“Temporary feels like the limbo we were in waiting for our visa to be approved. I admit it isn’t a great place to be.”
Permanent means that missing holidays, birthdays, and any significant events in our loved ones lives will be normal. Permanent means my son will know his family primarily through a screen.
Permanent means my career in hospital administration is effectively over. Permanent likely means no more children, as I can’t imagine going through the newborn phase without help again. This doesn’t feel right to me either.
I feel like Japan is also unique, at least for us. We stick out in our neighborhood, as there aren’t a lot of foreigners here. My husband is used to being a minority; used to being judged by his appearance.
I’m not used to being stared at, and much prefer to blend into the crowd. I could live here for years and that still wouldn’t change.
Another thing is the stigma around tattoos. My husband and I have some that are visible in casual clothing. I understand the reason why they make others uncomfortable, but it makes me sad to think that I can’t take my son to a public pool.
I like my tattoos, but I feel like I have to cover them up when I take my son out. It’s a small thing, but it adds to the feeling that I can’t truly be myself here.
These thoughts bother me so much. Do I just need an attitude adjustment? Do I need to be more patient? Have I not given living abroad enough of a chance?
“Is it just Tokyo that I don’t like, or am I projecting my personal shortcomings on the city? I’m honestly shocked by my feelings sometimes.”
I didn’t expect so much homesickness when I tried so hard to leave my hometown. I think younger versions of myself would be very disappointed.
Could it be that through the experience of being treated as the “foreigner”, of being confronted with your “otherness”, you’ve realized new things about yourself and what you value, especially as a new mother, which is also a major identity shift?
I didn’t think of it before, but there are things I value that I’m having a hard time with here.
I struggle with expressing my independence here. I didn’t realize how much having the word “dependent” on my residence card would bother me. My job used to be a bigger source of pride than I gave it credit for.
I view my family in a different light, as well. Before leaving my hometown, we saw family constantly. We spent a lot of time just being together, and I took that for granted. I didn’t know anything else.
Since we moved, it’s hard to connect on the same level. Calls are always in groups, and the time difference throws everything off. We can only talk in the morning or late at night. We’re not even on the same day!
Becoming a mom and moving out west also shifted my stance on environmentalism. Being vegetarian isn’t impossible here, but it’s harder.
I struggle to reduce my plastic consumption here as well. I could see the effects of pollution in our air quality out west, and realized that jetsetting overseas wasn’t the most responsible hobby.
I don’t feel the same need to seek out adventure in faraway places. My son helps me find the wonder in everyday things. I’m worried about the world he will remember, and wish I could find a way to help here.
The last value I struggle with here is authenticity. It’s a trait I admire in others, and something I try to live by. I’m used to direct conversation, sometimes bordering on blunt.
I understand and appreciate the level of politeness that is practiced here, but it makes connections feel superficial. I’m afraid of offending anyone by being too casual.
It’s a physical rigidity that I feel every time I step out the door. I can’t relax until I’m in my apartment.
With all of the above in mind, where do you go from here in terms of figuring out this dilemma together with your husband?
I think we both have some soul searching to do before we make any (more) major decisions. We’ve been in what we call “survival mode” for so long.
We are privileged to be in this position, regardless of how emotionally painful it is. We both agree that our son can thrive in either scenario. That takes a bit of the pressure off.
I have a weekend teaching job beginning soon. I’ve also found a local Japanese language class run by volunteers that begins in the fall.
If I can get a better grasp on the language and re-enter the workforce, I may feel more empowered here.
“I feel a sense of pressure to commit to one path or the other, but we’re clearly not prepared to do that.”
The only hard deadline we have is our lease that ends in a year and a half.
Our conversations have evolved and progress a little more each week. That’s all we feel we can do: communicate clearly and respectfully.
Our values may differ, but ultimately we want the same thing. We want our family to thrive. The next six months will be an interesting test.
I think we’ll have a clearer picture of where to go (or stay!) after that. In the meantime, we’ll try to be patient, trust each other, and enjoy every moment with our son.
Katherine is a retired world traveller and former serial expat of 15 years. Based on her professional and personal experience as well as PhD research, she now helps expats, travellers and location independents decide whether to stay or go, whether to move back home or where to settle down.