Yumi, the mother of a 17-month-old girl in Tokyo, said she started feeling the burden of raising a child even before she became a mom.

During her pregnancy, she felt pressured by subtle comments people were making, such as her mother-in-law, who would casually — and probably out of good intentions — say, “Take care of yourself.”

“Maybe it was because my baby was going to be the first grandchild for both my and my husband’s parents,” Yumi, who asked that her family name be withheld, said. “I kept thinking, ‘What if something bad happens to my baby?’ “

Months passed smoothly, and she gave birth to a healthy girl. But Yumi’s mental state started to deteriorate with the hectic, sleep-deprived life of round-the-clock breast-feeding and cradling.

Her husband, a leasing company salesman, offers her little help in caring for the baby, let alone with the housework. He normally leaves for work at 7 or 8 a.m. and comes home late at night, Monday through Saturday.

On Sundays, he stays home and relaxes. His apparent disinterest in the child frustrates Yumi even more.

“I quarrel with him every day over why he has to work so much. He says he has no alternative, but it would help me so much even if he just washed some rice and put it in the cooker,” Yumi said, her voice trailing off.

This past summer, the relentless heat kept her stranded at home alone with her kid. Yumi had little interaction with others, and even shied away from calling old friends because she worried that they, like her, were also mothers whose toddlers were napping.

Isolated and exhausted, she now says she suffers from low self-esteem.

“What do I want most now? I want time for myself, away from my kid,” Yumi said. “I want me. It’s not that my daughter is giving me trouble or anything, and she is growing bigger by the day. But I can’t find it rewarding to raise a child.”

Can Yumi be blamed for her despair? One could say that her own naivete or perfectionist approach to child-rearing is causing this misery. While these two factors have been found to contribute significantly to motherhood stress, there is another important trend at work.

Nowadays, as more people live apart from their parents and neighbors remain total strangers, new moms have few mentors. They get little physical and mental support from experts and even less from their partners, compounding their overall situation.

Perfection leads to abuse

The ongoing debate over the nation’s declining birthrate has gradually brought the mental crisis of mothers out of the closet.

Even the government is trying to do something about it, although its ulterior goal is probably to keep the already endangered pension system from falling apart.

Some moms, overcome by their sense of responsibility, are being pushed over the edge.

Health ministry statistics show that there were 17,725 cases of child abuse reported to authorities in 2000, or 16 times higher than in 1990. But the numbers do not simply mean there was a 16-fold rise in abuse.

Mounting public awareness of child abuse in recent years has led to more cases being reported to government agencies, experts say.

A 1997 report shows that in 40.4 percent of 1,502 child abuse cases studied, “(the perpetrator’s) isolation from families, neighbors and friends” was found to have played a role, the second-highest factor after “economic difficulties,” which was detected in 44.6 percent of all cases.

Kazue Nomura of the nongovernmental, nonprofit Center for Child Abuse Prevention in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, has taken phone calls from mothers in crisis — including those who are physically or verbally abusive toward their children — for nearly 10 years.

Nomura said that many of today’s mothers try too hard to be perfect.

“They accuse themselves of not doing more,” she said. “Oftentimes I just listen to their suffering, and let them understand that they don’t have to try so hard.”

She also cited the “koen debut,” a popular initiation rite in which mothers take their babies to their neighborhood park and try to fit in with other moms and kids.

“Mothers often force themselves to go to the park to meet other mom-and-kid pairs, when deep down they loathe the idea,” Nomura said. “They are into this whole mind-set that if they don’t let their kids start playing in the park early in life, they will turn out to be social misfits. The same goes for taking kids to private lessons. They seem to have the idea that they must raise children in a certain manner.”

Most manage to cope with the mental strain; after all, it is only in those early years that mothers need to — or can — devote their time and attention to their children. The number of callers goes down as the kids grow older and their schooling starts, Nomura said.

What is behind this stress?

Masami Ohinata, a professor of psychology at Keisen University in western Tokyo, said many women are misled by the false belief that those who give birth are automatically blessed with the capacity for maternal love, absolutely and instantaneously.

Ohinata, who started research on what she calls “the myth of maternal love” 30 years ago and interviewed hundreds of mothers across the country, said part of the suffering is due to the lifestyles of the current generation of mothers, who grew up during the go-go days of the late ’80s, early ’90s bubble economy. Compared with their mothers, they have enjoyed a somewhat equal-opportunity academic and working environment that has exposed them to other career opportunities than motherhood, she said.

“Then they face this mysterious, uncontrollable creature for the first time in their lives,” she said, and the stress comes when they see the gap between the ideal mother expected by society and themselves.

Some experts say mothers who stay home to care for their children may suffer more stress and less self-esteem than those who put their kids into day care and return to work.

A 1997 survey taken by the Cabinet Office also shows that 70 percent of full-time housewives suffer a loss of confidence when child-rearing, compared with 46.7 percent of working mothers in double-income households.

Keiko Kimura, a mother of two in Chiba Prefecture, said she felt slighted two years ago when her older son came down with meningitis. She asked a local public nursery to temporarily care for her younger son, who was then 1 year old.

“When I went to file the application, the first response by the nursery staff was, ‘Isn’t somebody else available to take care of your kid?’ ” Kimura, 36, said.

“I was in dire straits. A remark like that really hurts. But no one understands the stress felt by housewives. No one understands that we, too, need help.”

Government effort stalls

Emi Maeda, senior consultant at the Japan Research Institute, said the government’s support for parents has focused on building more nurseries or expanding the hours of care so working parents can balance family with work.

But the government’s plan to expand temporary care for children of nonworking mothers has stalled, leaving public nurseries little room to accommodate the needs of people like Kimura.

But given that eight out of 10 mothers with children younger than 3 raise their kids at home, the government should beef up support for them as well, she added.

While the government’s efforts may be limited, other alternatives exist.

The Web site babycom, which operates a number of message boards on parenting, organized a three-night getaway to Okinawa in March with the help of JTB Corp. It was the first commercial tour specifically aimed at relieving the stress of mothers, according to Kayoko Suzuki of babycom.

Thirteen families with children aged from 6 months to 3 stayed at a luxury resort hotel and partook in special activities, including baby massages and ocean cruising.

Advent of ‘drop-in centers’

Also, moves to create child-care support centers have spread across the country in recent years, providing distressed mothers with an outlet for their stress and practical advice on child-rearing. They have also created “drop-in centers,” or spaces at which mothers are free to drop by and share their concerns with others. Experts say drop-in centers, the majority of which are public, now number about 1,300.

Keisen’s Ohinata, while commending people’s rising awareness, warns that the centers should not try to confine mothers to their traditional role.

“If government officials think they’ve done enough by building these centers, they are wrong,” Ohinata said. “They should think about helping mothers re-enter society. Otherwise, mothers with young kids will remain grouped together and confined to child-rearing.”

Bi-no bi-no, a drop-in center in Yokohama, is an example of how a nonprofit organization can not only help mothers but also rejuvenate aging, depopulated communities.

Chizuko Okuyama, a mother of three, set up the center with some 20 fellow mothers two years ago, renting an empty lot in a rather desolate shopping arcade outside the west exit of JR Kikuna Station.

The group initially looked for a house with a garden to rent in a neighborhood, trying to create a homey feel. But the idea fell through, as the group ran into opposition from local residents who worried that noisy children would draw complaints, Okuyama said.

The current location turned out to be great, she said. Local shop owners are sympathetic toward mothers with children and happy about the influx of people.

At the group’s initiative, the arcade built a joint Web site featuring an interview with the former head of the shop owners’ association and a directory of its 48 shops.

Bi-no bi-no also organizes joint events with the shops to bring more people to the area.

“At first I thought we just need this center,” Okuyama, 39, said. “But now our activities are spreading to many different fields.”

Okuyama, whose efforts have drawn the attention of bureaucrats at the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, has been asked to serve as a member of an advisory panel to the minister on the birthrate decline.

The panel is mostly composed of scholars, but she said she still feels uneasy with the term “birthrate decline.”

“The term itself makes me feel that we should be bearing more children to make the nation’s birthrate go up.”

Okuyama said her job is not to jump on the government bandwagon and think of ways to talk women into having more kids, but to create a supportive environment for those who have decided to have kids, and to empower the community along the way.

“Now I’m feeling more and more that we are involved in community development, with our specialty being child-care support.”

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