New handbooks tackle dwindling birthrate by adding dads to equation

by Fumiko Yamaoka and Yumiko Iida

Kyodo

Alarmed by the nation’s dwindling birthrate, a government task force recently came up with a plan to distribute so-called women’s handbooks as a means of encouraging young women to have children.

The plan, however, faced harsh criticism for treating pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing as matters that concern women only. Eventually, the task force was forced to shelve the plan for the time being.

But the government need not look far in its quest to create a more well-rounded booklet.

A number of municipalities and private companies have already introduced handbooks with more comprehensive approaches to pregnancy and raising children that involve not just mothers but also the other half of the equation — the fathers.

The city of Urayasu in Chiba Prefecture, for example, began distributing the Father and Child Health Handbook to expectant fathers in the city for free this April.

It is in addition to the existing Mother and Child Health Handbook, which is distributed by regional governments nationwide to all expectant parents upon notification of pregnancy. With the handbook, pregnant women can receive administrative support such as coupons for medical checks and a number of other benefits.

To motivate more fathers to get more involved as well as to instill better understanding about pregnancy and childbirth, Urayasu goes a step further by including in the handbook issues such as contraception, antenatal and postnatal sex health, and other useful knowledge for expectant fathers.

The handbook begins with a checklist asking whether fathers know at least three types of birth control. It also notes that hazardous airborne substances from tobacco cannot be eliminated even if one smokes under a ventilator.

Various new handbook concepts and approaches for the inclusion of fathers are also sprouting up in the private sector.

Daichi Watanabe, who runs a business in Tokorozawa, Saitama Prefecture, for stay-at-home mothers, began selling the Husband-and-Wife Postnatal Handbook through his website for ¥1,000 in May.

Watanabe’s handbook comes in the form of a diary in which the couple take turns writing entries.

“Husbands have little understanding for their wives and their exhaustion, both in mind and body, right after giving birth,” the 32-year-old business owner said.

“Fathers find it difficult to actually pick up and read the mother-and-child health handbook (provided by municipalities), as everything in it focuses only on the baby,” he added.

Watanabe said he hopes his company’s book can serve as a tool to facilitate conversation and communication for couples.

Tokyo-based advertising agency Hakuhodo Inc. created the Parent and Child Health Handbook in 2011. It covers a variety of topics, including more hands-on cooperation from fathers by recording various milestones and memorable family events.

Currently, over 150 municipalities buy the Hakuhodo handbook at a low cost and provide it for free to expecting parents.

“The environment for raising children has changed radically over the past few years,” said Yusuke Kakei, a 38-year-old Hakuhodo employee. “Perhaps it’s due to the poor economic situation, but men in their 30s now focus more on family than work.”

Mother-child handbooks in the country date back to 1942, when the health ministry began issuing the Maternity Health Record Book in the midst of World War II. The booklets enabled expectant and new mothers to receive rations of rice, sugar and bleached cotton cloth used as obstetrical binders.

After the end of the war, the record books played an important role in protecting the health of mothers and young children at a time when the nation’s medical system was in disarray.

The Japan International Cooperation Agency promotes the use of such handbooks, which record everything from pregnancy and birth to the child’s growth and vaccinations, especially in developing countries.

Still, despite the significant role the handbook has played, some say the current format is outdated amid societal shifts.

Critics say it fails to address modern-day issues such as the growth of nuclear families, dual-income households and postpartum depression.

They also say society needs to find more ways to encourage men to more openly discuss pregnancy and childbirth issues instead of just leaving such matters to women.

The failure to shoulder and share the hardship through the process only deepens potential rifts between parents, they say.

Above all, Japan is struggling to combat both an aging population and a declining birthrate that has fallen steadily since the mid-1970s for a number of reasons, including a tendency among people to marry later and changing values.

According to the government, the nation’s total fertility rate in 2012 stood at 1.41. In order to sustain the population, a minimum rate of 2.07 is needed.

Some groups are taking more novel approaches to trying to remedy the issue.

The Social Welfare Council of Ichikawa, Chiba Prefecture, for example, released a ¥500 notebook titled For You in the Future in which couples can record things ranging from their own backgrounds and how they met to the birth of their child. The notebook is to be given to the child as a gift in the future.

Atsuko Ogura, 38, who is seven months pregnant, recently began using the notebook.

“Apparently my husband is a bit shy about filling in what he likes about me,” Ogura, a resident of Chiba Prefecture, said. “As for me, I wrote down that ‘I like my husband because he does housework.’ I believe when my child turns 10 or 20 and he reads the notebook, he’ll understand that ‘parents also grow.’ “