If Mari Takada has her way, women in Japan will one day be free from judgment in choosing whether or not to marry, raise children or give birth out of wedlock.
In a society where marriage and motherhood traditionally go hand in hand, Takada is one of a number of “single mothers by choice” gaining media and public attention.
“Women’s lifestyles in Japan are becoming diverse, and while support groups for single mothers exist, there aren’t any specifically for single mothers by choice,” said the 47-year-old Takada, representative of a group whose activities include operating the SMC (Single Mother by Choice) network.
In 2014, the Tokyo-based organization was formed to provide information and assistance to single mothers by choice. The group provides information on issues like prenatal care and an opportunity for like-minded peers to mingle.
Those who seek advice from the organization are not just women in their 30s worried about their biological clocks, but also those in their 20s, Takada said. She was in her mid-30s when she contemplated conceiving a child, and she gave birth at 37. Her daughter is now 10.
While facing her share of struggles as a single mother, she has never regretted her decision.
Drawing a distinction from divorced or widowed mothers who are raising children on their own, Takada’s group defines a single mother by choice as one who “chooses before pregnancy to give birth without getting married and raise the child on her own.”
Takada said the public is becoming increasingly aware of people like her, partly thanks to media exposure and mothers choosing to speak out publicly.
But there are no government statistics to track how many mothers fit the category, according to Toko Shirakawa, a well-known journalist who covers declining birthrates. Shirakawa is also a guest professor at Sagami Women’s University.
The closest relevant figures are for out-of-wedlock births. According to 2014 data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2.3 percent of children were born outside of marriage in Japan.
This compares with around 40.2 percent in the United States — where there is a group called Single Mothers by Choice with around 30,000 members — and more than 50 percent for some European countries, such as Denmark and Sweden.
In the U.S., aspiring single mothers by choice can find sperm donors. But Japan has no authorized sperm bank, and third-party sperm donation is only allowed for married couples.
So most single mothers by choice become pregnant with partners they are in a relationship with but whom they choose not to marry, Takada said.
Based on the definition set by Takada’s group, Aya Okamoto, a 34-year-old doctor and financial planner, can be categorized as a single mom by choice since the birth of her second child. She divorced her husband after he was uncooperative in fertility treatment.
Okamoto was not a single mom by choice the first time she gave birth. The father, who she was dating, did not want to marry. Devastated, she cried for days but eventually decided to keep the baby.
“It was not easy raising the child on my own but a child was what I wanted for so long,” she said about her first child, who was born in 2014.
She decided she wanted another child, and two years later she gave birth after becoming pregnant with the same partner. But the second time around, they came to a clear understanding that it was her choice to remain single.
Okamoto has been blogging about her struggles, but she only fully revealed her identity last year. She came forward to challenge the deeply entrenched view — stemming from the economic boom in the 1960s and 1970s — that women are happiest if they get married, become housewives, bear two children and stay married for the rest of their lives.
The “notion (that motherhood goes with marriage) is extremely strong” in Japan, regardless of whether marriage comes before or after a baby is born, Shirakawa said.
Shirakawa added that while Japanese people “do not particularly like unstable partnerships,” some women see very high risks in marriage as they have to give up their careers due to childbirth or their husbands’ job transfers.
Takada, too, said she knows it will “take time” for the acceptance of single mothers by choice to gain traction in Japan, but she is hopeful that somewhere down the road, society can be more accepting.
Financial difficulties and legal inequalities restricting the welfare assistance available are bumps on the road ahead.
Both Takada and Okamoto are also aware of public criticism. People view their decisions as selfish and express sympathy for the children.
But Okamoto said the criticism is based on a false assumption that children of single parents cannot be happy. She pointed to households with two parents who might be abusive or where domestic violence is involved.
“I can say I am 100 percent confident that ours is a happier family, compared to homes where the child has both parents but is abused, or where children see their fathers hit their mothers,” she said.