Child-care service company offers peace of mind for working mothers

by Kenzo Moriguchi

OSAKA — Rieko Ueda started her own business a year ago and expects it to turn a profit early next year, and yet part of her wishes it will someday go bankrupt.

Failure of the growing business — sales are increasing every month and are expected to top 25 million yen this year — would mean that troubled working mothers do not need Ueda’s services.

It would mean the social environment has improved or the government has made it possible for mothers to continue working without worries.

Ueda’s Osaka-based company, Mothernet, dispatches housewives to take care of working mothers’ children at their homes. Services include picking up children from day-care or kindergarten, house cleaning and cooking dinner.

The company currently contracts about 70 such helpers.

Mothers in need of the services can book a basic monthly pack of two three-hour services for 14,560 yen. An extra hour costs 2,160 yen.

During emergencies, such as when children are sick or mothers unexpectedly have to work overtime, the child-care service is available without reservations as long as helpers are available.

A unique feature of Mothernet is that it does not hesitate to look after sick children running high fevers because its helpers have nursing qualifications.

This service, provided mainly in the Kansai region but also in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures, originated from the 40-year-old Ueda’s own trials as a working mom.

She was a typical working mother with two sons, now aged 8 and 9, until a year ago when she quit her job with a major air conditioner manufacturer.

During that period, her biggest concern was that she might receive a call from a nursery school asking her to pick up one of her sons running a fever. Nursery schools usually do not look after children if their fever reaches 37.5 degrees.

“It could happen anytime, and it did happen when I had an important appointment,” Ueda said. “I was always anxious because such a call meant I had to go.”

She organized an information exchange group for working mothers from across the country in 1994, partly because she felt there was a lack of information concerning day-care centers.

Ueda had her long-awaited first son in November 1992. But when she applied for a place at a day-care center from the coming April, she was turned away by a municipal official of Toyonaka, Osaka Prefecture, as the openings had all been filled by the previous July.

“The city official said, ‘You wanted to work and had your baby in November?’ as if the desirability of having a baby before July was common knowledge,” Ueda said. “I was shocked.”

Her second son was born in July 1994 — timing she had planned. But because she was on child-care leave, her first son had to leave nursery school. The city stipulated at that time that a child 2 years old or younger had to leave nursery school if the mother was not working — a rule Ueda was not aware of.

When her child-care leave was over, Ueda faced the same deadline problem in finding another nursery school for her first son

Again, city officials had less-than-helpful advice. “If you want to continue working, you should normally have a second child after three years,” one told her.

In addition to information from about 150 members in her data-exchange group, Ueda has obtained plenty of knowledge about working mothers’ hardships over the course of taking some 20,000 calls for telephone counseling over seven years.

While admitting her company’s services are somewhat expensive, she said the cost is necessary to maintain quality and plenty of working mothers are willing to pay it.

Mothernet also utilizes human resources that would otherwise be wasted: housewives mainly in their 50s and 60s who are willing to stand by for young working mothers and who have few other employment opportunities.

“Those in their 60s are very energetic and helpful. I am happy to be a bridge linking mothers in their 30s and 60s,” Ueda said.

Despite her business success, Ueda is still unhappy about the environment surrounding working mothers.

“The first thing most working women do when they get pregnant is to apologize for having a baby, because they are often told by their superiors that it is of no benefit to their section,” she said. Such realities are not well understood, particularly by the government, despite its countless iterations that the ever-falling birthrate must be reversed, she added.

“Working mothers who call us for help are desperate, saying they cannot take another day off because they will lose their jobs. I don’t think the government can provide wholehearted services to those in real trouble.”