Front page | Essays index


Three's Company


One afternoon last week, I had some visitors in my workshop, a couple who had dropped by to see my prints, and while we were chatting, my two daughters came home from school. Coming in the door with a loud 'Tadaima!', they dropped their school satchels on the floor, raided the fridge for a quick snack, called up a friend on the phone, and then disappeared again ... "Ittekimaaaasu!", chattering and bantering with each other at the top of their voices continuously during the few minutes they were here. After the door had slammed behind them, one of my guests said to me, with a bit of wonder in her voice, "Well, those two are certainly cheerful, aren't they? Are they always like that?"

I had to admit that they usually were, and apologized for the fact that they were not a bit more polite to guests ... My visitors brushed this off, and we returned to our conversation, but they had indeed been visibly surprised by the 'genkiness' of the girls. I think I know why. Although divorce is gradually becoming more common in Japan, it is still rare enough that most people have not had much direct contact with a family like mine - a single parent with two young children. As a consequence, the general impression in this country of such an arrangement is that life for children in this type of family is something of a dark and difficult struggle. People quite frequently commiserate with me about our situation, and I hear a lot of "Taihen desu ne ..." sort of comments. But as these two guests saw, it doesn't have to be like that!

Of course, I'm not trying to pretend that this kind of a family arrangement, with only one parent, is to be recommended. It would indeed be better for the girls to be growing up with a 'normal' set of parents, but since that is not the case, we make the best out of what we have. And over the three years since their mother left to live in Canada (temporarily at first, and then permanently as of a year ago), they have shown an amazing ability to adapt to their new situation.

In the most common 'traditional' family set-up, the mother is the person dictated to be the 'homemaker', with the remaining members of the family responsible for other areas: father for income-producing work, children for school work and just generally 'growing up'. With a family like mine though, as none of us can take on the homemaker role full time due to those commitments, that job must be shared among all of us. We keep a list of housework chores stuck up on the wall, covering a full week of cooking, cleaning, and other jobs; and every Sunday evening we sit down together and choose what work we will each do during the coming week. The girls don't particularly like doing all these things (neither do I!), but we all realize that there is no other way. Nobody is going to take care of us - we have to do it ourselves.

So the housework 'problem' is basically settled. But of course, in a typical family the mother does have other functions above and beyond the mundane chores, and it is about some of these things that friends have shown concern. The most frequent one mentioned to me is the question of a 'feminine model' for my daughters. If they were boys, then perhaps growing up with only a father would not be so bad, but if two girls grow up without a mother present, will they be disadvantaged in some way?

I have to admit that at the time our family broke up, this was a major concern for me too, but more recently I have come to think that it is not such a problem. Although there is no woman living in this house with us, the girls do have contact with any number of women in the community at large, and are proving adept at 'picking up' many things from these women that they could never get from me. I realized this for the first time the other day, when I went to use our toilet, and found that the room had been transformed. A bunch of flowers sat on top of the water tank, a cover was on the seat, and the torn end of the paper roll had been folded into a neat, trim triangle, ready for easy use by the next person. When I asked around, I found that Himi, my eleven year old daughter, had seen these ideas in a friend's house. She had thought that we should do the same, so our scruffy little room is now quite cheerful! A short while later, a little 'pump' bottle of fragrant hand soap appeared magically by the side of our sink, to replace the cake of soap that I always leave covered with sumi streaks ... Our genkan is now generally swept out, and she has made a nice little framed picture for it. And once again, just like it was years ago, our balcony is cluttered with little pots of flowers, some blooming healthily, some less so ... I had asked her to do none of these things. She saw or heard about them somewhere, and decided that our home needed these 'feminine' touches.

In a way, I think it is perhaps better that she is learning these things from 'outside'. If Himi was growing up in a house where a mother was doing all this, then she would never give any thought to them, but because she notices the contrast between our home and those she visits, she has come to understand that if nobody does them, then they just don't get done. And now, every time we return from visiting somebody, I wait eagerly to see what else will change in our own home ...

What about other, more private, aspects of a mother/daughter relationship? Aren't there some rather personal things that a young developing girl just can't learn from her father, or the neighbours? Well actually, no, I don't think so. I have a pretty good system for things like this, which seems to be working very well so far. Simply make sure that you talk to kids about 'difficult' topics while they are still too young to really understand what you're talking about, and thus unable to become embarrassed about it. Although a lot of what you say and explain to them goes over their heads, they get the general gist of what you're talking about, and usually find it uproariously funny rather than embarrassing. Enough repetitions of such conversations, combined with access to well-chosen illustrated books that cover human development and teenage 'problems', has put my two daughters in the position of being far better educated in these matters than I ever was. The idea of a parent waiting until the child is a developed teenager (of either sex), and then sitting down together ... "Umm, I think it's about time we had a little talk about some things ..." strikes me as being somewhat ludicrous, almost certain to result in very little productive communication taking place. No, I must say that I don't think they are being handicapped in this department either.

The girls are now nine and eleven years old, and I am quite sure that at bath time one evening very soon, they will kick me out, from that day on taking their bath together, leaving me no option but to have mine alone. "Otoko wa iyada!" they will say. "No men in the bath with us!" They'll still have lots of fun, splashing and playing, and it will be me who is left with nobody to scrub my back. But that's a different story, isn't it ...