International Baby Gang

Michelle Paul Imagawa

© Copyright 2020 by Michelle Paul Imagawa

Photo of babies.

I’m a Texas girl—brought up around cows, cactus, bluebonnets, and rattlesnakes. As a child, I expected to grow old in Texas. But it turned out there was a sweet, funny, and handsome Japanese young man at the university I attended in San Antonio. Thirty-plus years on, here I am in Japan. We have 3 children, born and raised here on the island of Kyushu. This is the story of my first baby.

After marrying my college sweetheart and moving to Japan, I began working as an assistant English teacher in a few area high schools. After almost 3 years of that, my days had fallen into a familiar rhythm. My husband’s sisters both lived far away, one in another part of Japan, and the other in Ghana with her African husband. In short succession, we received news that both of my husband’s older sisters were expecting babies, with due dates only a month apart. It was very exciting news for the family, and my husband and I looked forward to two new nieces or nephews.

A short time after that, I noticed some unmistakable signs myself. My husband and I went to the nearest Ob/Gyn clinic. It was within walking distance of our apartment, and it was run by a father/daughter team. The daughter spoke a little English, so she examined me that first time. My husband and I were both amazed when we saw a tiny baby on the ultrasound. We all know how babies are made, but when it happens to us it feels like a miracle. I walked back to the car after that appointment as if I were in a dream. It was hard to take in the news that my husband and I were parents!

So now my husband and both his sisters were expecting babies, at one month intervals. The custom in Japan is for daughters to come home to their parents’ house to have their babies. The wife’s parents, especially her mother, play the role of nurturers, helping their daughters through the last few months of pregnancy. They then continue to care for their daughters and new grandchildren for the first month or two after delivery—shopping and cooking, doing laundry, bathing the baby, and just making sure the new mothers gets lots of support, rest, and healthy food..

My husband’s sisters followed this custom, both coming home at around the same time, sporting new big bellies. I wanted to be close to my husband during my pregnancy and when our baby came, so I stayed in Japan. My mother-in-law added me to the daughters she was already helping, and all three of us went through our pregnancies together, under my in-laws’ watchful care. My apartment was nearby, so I didn’t actually live with them before the baby came, but we spent lots of time there, and had delicious home-cooked dinners together often.

My husband’s middle sister had her baby first, by C-section. A sweet little boy, he was her second child. Her husband was Japanese, so her children looked 100% Japanese. He was a quiet, calm baby, although he wasn’t shy about letting his mom know when he was wet or hungry. At this point, I was 7 months pregnant. My stomach was growing quite large, and I was ready to meet my baby too.

My husband’s oldest sister’s baby was born next. Her husband is a lovely man from the country of Chad, in Africa. They lived in Ghana because of his job, and he remained there when she came back to her parents’ house to have their baby. We were so excited when her contractions started and she headed to the hospital. All three of us were having our babies at the same nearby clinic, a small, private clinic with a homey feel. We rushed there when we heard that our new niece had been born. At this point, I was 8 months pregnant. When I held my niece for the first time, I had to lay her on my own pregnant belly. I looked down at her in awe, and just then I could feel my own baby get the hiccoughs. They were so strong that I was sure my newborn niece could feel them through my stomach. I thought maybe my baby was saying hello to her cousin. It was the beginning of a long friendship between my niece and my daughter.

That sister-in-law told me, “Don’t worry about labor and delivery. It was easy! It was nothing!” A month later when it was finally my turn to have my baby, I realized she had lied out of kindness. It was not easy! My Japanese language skills were still shaky, and most of the hospital staff spoke only Japanese. I was so scared, not knowing what to expect with my first labor and delivery. When it was time to get on the delivery table, I was shaking uncontrollably with fear. Times were different then in Japan. Epidurals were not available, and a woman in labor wasn’t encouraged to move around. They wanted me immobile on the delivery table, and I didn’t know any better. There was a large poster on the wall in my direct line of vision with 3D illustrations of a cervix at different stages of dilation. The 10 cm illustration was traumatizing, to say the least. It showed a baby’s head crowning. I didn’t see how that was going to be possible! I tried very hard for the next 8 hours not to look at that poster.

An ancient and tiny nurse took pity on me and stayed next to me, holding eye contact and calmly breathing with me through each contraction. She was tiny, and her face was deeply creased with wrinkles, but to me, she looked like an angel. I wonder if she had any idea how much her calm and gentle manner helped me, even though she didn’t speak a word of English. When her shift ended, a young nurse took her place next to me. This nurse and I were about the same age. She didn’t speak English either, but she was upbeat and cheerful, smiling and guiding me through each contraction. They were getting stronger and much more intense. I still remember the fresh, sweet smell of the mint gum she chewed as she breathed with me through each one. She and I remain friends to this day.

Partway through my labor, another mother was brought into the delivery room, of which there was only one at this hospital. She was put on a delivery table next to mine, and a short curtain was drawn between us. That was the only privacy we had. Her labor progressed much more quickly than mine, and her baby was born while I was still at 6cm dilation. I listened to her going through transition, pushing, and delivering her baby. During each push, all the nurses hummed in monotone throughout the contraction. It was kind of eerie and unnerving. I suppose it was to help the woman stay focused on pushing throughout the whole contraction. I looked over, and although I couldn’t see the woman herself, under the bottom edge of the curtain I could see the legs and feet of the doctor and nurses around her delivery table. And I could hear everything. I saw blood dripping onto the floor, and at that point I stopped looking.

After she gave a last mighty groaning push, the doctor and the nurses cheered, and I heard a baby cry. I can’t explain how emotional that made me, hearing that baby be born a few feet from me. It makes me cry just to type it now. This particular hospital had a custom of playing a song, called “Hello, Baby!” over the loudspeaker every time a new baby is born. It could be heard throughout the hospital. I lay on my delivery table, listening to all the commotion that immediately follows the birth of a baby. The baby squalled indignantly for a while, and then went quiet after being handed to its mother. I heard the song playing loudly and cheerfully, “Hello, Baby! It’s nice to meet you! I’m your mama!” And I cried my eyes out. It was so moving, and I was so envious of this woman for being finished. I had just listened through a flimsy curtain to her going through delivery, and it hadn’t sounded fun.

After several more hours, it was finally my turn to meet my baby daughter. My husband had been asked to leave the delivery room while the other woman delivered her baby, but he came back in and joined me for the rest of my labor. This was unusual at the time in Japan, but my doctor insisted. She told my husband, “In America, all the husbands do this to support their wives. Michelle needs you in here with her!”

Another custom at this particular clinic was to record the baby’s first cry on a cassette tape with a tape recorder. I only listened to my cassette once. It’s me screaming, “Itai!” (“Ouch” in Japanese). Then you can hear the doctors and nurses exclaiming, “Ookii!” (“Big!”) because my baby was bigger than average for Japan. And soon after, you can hear my daughter’s first cry.

At 3:30 p.m., I was handed my sweet baby girl, and I was overwhelmed with the love I felt for her. After holding her for only a few minutes, a nurse took her to be weighed and cleaned and wrapped in a blanket. After being moved to my own room, I was crushed when a nurse told me that I needed to rest for the evening, and that they’d take care of my baby for me in the nursery that night, and I could see her the next morning. I tried to get out of bed, distraught at this news. After feeling my baby growing inside me for the last 9 months, and being together that way for 24 hours a day, it was agony to be separated from her, even for one night. But I was young and inexperienced, not confident enough to stand up to the nurses, and not having the language ability anyway. Plus, my husband and his mother were in agreement with the nurses—I should take this opportunity to rest, and meet my baby fresh in the morning. That night felt so long. I don’t remember sleeping at all. Early the next morning, I rushed to the nursery, got my baby, and with a nurse’s patient guidance, I nursed my daughter for the first time. I sat there looking at my perfect, beautiful girl, tears streaming down my face. There was a song playing over the speaker in the nursery, Bobby Hatfield’s “Unchained Melody”. Oh, my love, my darling… Even now, 28 years later, tears come to my eyes every time I hear that song, remembering holding my daughter after that first night apart from her.

Meals could be taken in your room, but new moms were encouraged to eat in the communal dining room. The food was amazing—fresh, healthy and plentiful. The women, some sitting gingerly on donut pillows, shyly made small talk with each other. One woman introduced herself to me as the woman who’d given birth beside me the day before. I told her that I’d been so envious of her when her baby was born. She told me that she’d been as quiet and controlled as possible during her delivery, so as not to disturb or scare me.

That night a nurse came to my room in a slight panic. “Michelle, come to the nurses’ station!” What could it be? Something from her manner told me it wasn’t a bad thing. I reached the nurses’ station, and one of them held the phone out to me. (This was when there were only landlines.) It was my mother in Texas on the other end! I learned later that when my husband called my family to tell them that our baby was here, he had given them the phone number of the hospital.

My mother told me, “They answered the phone, and I just kept repeating, ‘Michelle! Michelle!’ until they went and got you.” I stood at the nurses’ station and hogged their phone for way too long, so soothed by my mother’s comforting voice and this link to home.

After 6 days in the hospital, the usual stay for a natural birth, I went to stay at my in-laws’ for the customary one month recovery period. My sisters-in-law were still there with their children, so it was a full house—ten people, three of them newborns! My mother-in-law--who had never been out of the country, who grew up during WWII, and who had hardly ever even seen foreign people until my African brother-in-law and Texan me came along and joined the family—now had a truly international gang of grandbabies under her care!

Pregnant ladies.
               Gang Members--Michiko's Gang
Photo of Obaa-Chan babies.

Michelle, a Texas native, has lived in Japan for over 3 decades. She has three children. Her mother-in-law, now 88, lives next door. The International Baby Gang members are all grown now, but keep in touch with Obaa-chan (Grandma) every day on a group messaging app. The name of their group is "Michiko's Gang".  (Michiko is my mother-in-law's first name.)

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