Today I read an article online that talked about when to stop kissing your kids on the mouth. In my opinion it was completely ridiculous and I found myself becoming infuriated by how humans find a way to make everything dirty.
For starters, I come from an affectionate family. We always kissed our parents on the mouth and, in fact, I still do. I have also always kissed aunts and uncles and close family friends on the mouth as well. My parents never forced me to do this, it’s just something we did.
My husband and I kiss our daughter on the mouth and I hope she never feels ashamed to do so.
Reading that article prompted me to think of how many people bath with their children in the western world. Because if kissing your kids on the mouth is taboo, then bathing together most certainly would be too.
Here in Japan, people bath together. Public baths are common and popular. In fact onsens, as they are called in Japanese, are one if my most favorite things about Japan. A traditional onsen has water from a natural hot spring and the waters are claimed to have healing benefits.
I went to my first onsen a month after moving here. It was winter and this bath was outside and surrounded by snow. It was one of the most beautiful baths I have ever seen. I’ll admit, I was extremely nervous and self conscious about disrobing in front of the other women. But by the time I walked to the bath and got to soaking in the milky white water and felt the snow falling on my head all my self consciousness melted away. I was hooked.
In the last ten years that I have lived in Japan I have learned many things, one of them is that my body is nothing to be ashamed of. In western culture we are often taught at an early age to feel shame about being nude. This is a cycle we are hoping to break with our daughter. Of course, modesty is still important to us and we don’t want her to dress in a risqué fashion but we don’t want her to feel shame about her body in any way.
In Japan, it may surprise you to hear, bath time is typically the responsibility of the father. When you take a bath here you first shower up and then soak in the tub. Often times, the same water is used by all family members and it is kept heated until the last person has their soak. This might sound strange but if you’re not washing in the tub, then it’s no different than a hot tub or swimming pool.
Back to my point, fathers are typically the ones that do the bathing with the children. Fathers and sons and fathers and daughters. Sometimes fathers, sons and daughters all together when they are small enough to fit in the tub together. A female usually bathes with her dad until she enters Jr. High School. Then she might bathe with her mother or sister. I can imagine all the thoughts that might be going through your head while reading this, but there is nothing untoward about this practice. As my friend put it, “Here in Japan we are used to bathing together because of the onsens. Public bathing is common and we undress around each other so there is no worry about undressing around your family. When we hide our bodies from each other we begin to think of our differences in a different way. It changes the way we think about our sexuality.”
In our house, we both share bathing duties. When Violet was a newborn she bathed in the small baby tub a few times and in the sink as well. But I soon figured out that just getting in the bath with her was the easiest way to do it. Japanese bathtubs are very deep, you can’t just lean over the edge and give a bath to a child. Getting in together is definitely easier.
As an infant, often times she would nurse to sleep in the bathtub and I would transition her to Daddies arms and we would carefully dress her and lay her in our family bed. It was calm and peaceful and an easy way to get to down for the night.
In the last couple of years bath time has become Daddy/daughter time. Violet loves her bath with her Daddy. The laugh and splash and giggle and play for at least half an hour. It’s a great way for them to get some time together one on one and for stay at home moms it also gives mama a short break.
Dad’s of exclusively breastfed babies are often looking for ways to bond with their children. When mothers breastfeed we get that skin to skin contact that is so important between parent and baby. It’s important for Dads to have this opportunity as well. Co-bathing is a great way for Dads to do that.
There is no reason to be afraid or ashamed of being nude around your baby or young child. We have always taught our daughter the proper terms for our body parts and she knows that Daddy’s body is a little different than hers and mommy’s but it is not something that she focuses on. She asked about her Daddy’s body each time at first and we answered very honestly and openly. Now, it’s not an issue at all.
Violet knows that no one is allowed to touch her body and that we don’t take off our clothes around people we don’t know (except at the onsen when we are all together). We teach boundaries and awareness and always try to foster openness.
Yesterday, I spent the afternoon sitting in the cancer ward waiting to hear my name called. I have been experiencing some pain in my right breast and felt some places that didn’t seem right to me. So I went to the hospital to see my OBGYN. I waited and waited and was finally seen. The midwife first examined me and I told her of my family history. Since my mother died of breast cancer at the age of 44, she felt that the Dr. should also come in. I explained that I was still breastfeeding and wasn’t sure if it was related to that or not.
The Dr. was very thorough and checked both of my breasts. But then said that he would like to send me over to the oncologist for a better examination. They asked if I had ever had a mammogram and I said that I hadn’t, so they called over to the oncology ward and gave an introduction for me.
I felt pretty confident that it wasn’t cancer but still, having your doctor tell you to go to the cancer ward is a bit disconcerting. I walked down the hall and registered with the oncology department with the help of a very kind nurse. She had no idea whether I had cancer or not but she saw me as a mother with a young child and treated me with the utmost kindness.
I felt my heart beating a little faster than usual and I worried as Violet heard the doctors talking about where I was going. She understands more Japanese than I do. And she heard them telling me that i was going to be checked by a different doctor, she wanted to know exactly where we were going. She knows about cancer because of all the family members we have lost to this disease. I didn’t want to lie to her but also didn’t want to cause her undo worry. So I just told her we were going to get my milky looked at by another doctor who would look at a picture of the inside of it. She was satisfied with that.
We sat there waiting and I couldn’t help but notice how the lights were darker in this ward than in the OBGYN ward. It was quiet and most of the patients that we saw waiting there were hunched over and seemed to be in a certain amount of pain. Some were young and some were obviously in there late 70’s or 80’s. The ones who made eye contact with me gave me sympathetic smiles and I could tell they were wondering how I was and what I was there for. Violet’s smiles and energy definitely seemed to lift their spirits too.
I figured that I was going to get a mammogram but was hoping they would let me have an ultrasound instead as I was concerned about radiating my breast milk. Just in case though. I told Violet that she might not be able to drink milkies after my exam for a bit. She looked worried and said she would like to drink some before we went in. A woman in her mid 70’s walked up and said “おいしそう“, which means, looks delicious. She went on to say how rare it was to see a girl her age drinking breastmilk and how wonderful it was. I felt encouraged and continued to smile down and my sweet girl.
Sitting there, waiting with her in the cancer wing filled me with so many memories. My mother was everything to me. She was my first friend, she was my confidant she was my hero. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, I wasn’t there. I was away at college and had to hear about it over the phone. How I wish I could’ve been sitting there holding her hand instead.
I was able to sit with her through some of her treatments and drove her to some of her appointments during spring and summer vacations. We would sit there holding hands and trying to make each other smile or laugh. I was scared and she was scared. She was brave, she was selfless and showed me how to endure the impossible. Losing her was the hardest thing I have ever experienced and I pray that Violet is spared from watching me die from a disease that ravishes the body.
We sat and waited, Violet holding me and smiling at everyone around her. Finally my name was called and I had my first exam by an oncologist. I told him I was breastfeeding and he immediately offered to do an ultrasound instead of a mammogram. I didn’t even have to ask. He checked both of my breasts and and looked as thoroughly as possible. I felt very well taken care of and was thrilled to hear him say that there was absolutely nothing to worry about. Violet understood the results at the same time as I did and immediately came over and rubbed my chest and said, “Milkies! You are ok!!!” And then she patted my hand and said, “I knew you would be ok, mama! I love you!”
Today, I am thankful for the excellent health care I have experienced here in Japan. Today, I am thankful for my healthy breasts. Today, I am thankful for today!
This PSA is so powerful and never fails to make me cry. I ask you all to remember to “touch yourself”. For your self, for your husband, for your children, for your friends. Set a date and check yourself every month. It’s easy, it’s free and it’s painless.