This is the tour that almost never happened because TWINS! Janet’s boys have hit the terrible twos, and so her Living With Kids tour nearly turned into a Barely Surviving These Busy Busy Little Boys situation! You’ll giggle at the characters to whom she likens them, and I hope you’ll also love how she describes mommy-dating. Hilarious and true.
Oh! And did I mention she’s an expat in Tokyo? There’s a lot of interesting information in this one, and I really think you’re going to love Janet. And so, here she is!
Konnichiwa! Hajimemashite, yoroshiku onegaishimasu! I’m Janet, a mother of two beautiful twin boys. Together with my husband, we’ve been living in Tokyo for the past two years.
I am a former architect turned full-time stay-at-home mom. Last summer, I turned 40 but was too busy chasing after my kids to give it much thought or emotion. I am Korean by ethnicity, but born and raised in New York. My husband is British and grew up in London. He moved with his company to NYC, where we met, and now we are based in Tokyo.
My sons, C and M, are two-and-a-half years old and are bundles of energy. I speak American English to them while my husband speaks The Queen’s English to them; and although they spend much more time with me than my husband, they speak American English with a British accent.
My two boys are like the Three Stooges: just the two of them creating a huge mess of three. The boys are always running, never walking, and frequently full-on body slamming into each other unintentionally. Blood is usually involved, and a big bump on each head and/or bruises somewhere is a constant.
Vehicles of any shape or form are their main obsession. I never thought two year olds could learn complex vehicle names and I never thought I would ever have to learn so much about cars, tow trucks, buses, trains, excavators, bulldozers, motorcycles, boats, planes, etc. either. They also love books, and have amassed quite a large collection, mainly because I get tired of re-reading the same ones over and over again.
Amazingly, they have memorized a lot of them verbatim, so one would think they know how to read. And their most favorite toy in the world is the one the other brother is playing with.
We live in central Tokyo in a neighborhood called Nakameguro. Prior to our move, my husband’s boss was Japanese and recommended this area to us because he thought it would suit my husband. He was spot-on. This is not a typical expat requested location, but it is on the tourist map for various reasons including the restaurants, bars, unique boutique shops, and most of all the Cherry Blossoms!
A narrow river runs through Nakameguro and it is lined with Sakura trees. Each spring, from late March to early April, the ephemeral pink blooms from the cherry trees bring out large crowds throughout Japan. Droves of locals and tourists come out to Nakameguro and take a stroll along the river to enjoy this amazing and beautiful spectacle. Pink sparkling wine and beer are the beverages of choice and sausages, kebabs, roasted sweet potatoes, and yakisoba are just a few of the many different foods sold during this time in temporary stalls.
We like that this area is more of a mix of Japanese locals and international residents. It is very family-friendly in the day, and at night, shuttered restaurants and bars open for dinner and late night drinks for workers coming home from their jobs. It is not uncommon to see young children out and about with one or both parents enjoying dinner out until about 9:00 or 10:00 pm.
Tokyo, in general, seems fit for night owls versus early risers, as businesses typically do not open until 10:00 am, and restaurants and cafes do not open until 11:30 am or later. If the grocery store, pool, or gym opened before 10:00 am, my mornings would be far more productive.
That being said, I am not a morning person by choice, but my kids wake me up by 6:00 am, if not earlier.
The apartments and houses we were shown when we moved to Tokyo were always void of any previous life. Because we rent, we cannot alter our apartment in any way. Wallpaper is the typical wall finish in most apartments, so one cannot just paint a wall a different color for the duration of the lease and repaint upon leaving. We are not allowed to drill holes into the walls either.
Our current apartment building rents to expats and was the only one with available units in the desired neighborhood at the time. The southern exposure into our main living area, space for our dining table, and the neighborhood vibe sealed the deal for us.
We have five local parks within five to ten minutes walking distance to us with playgrounds and sand pits as well as a football (soccer) field. There are more parks within a ten-minute bike ride. There are many cafes, restaurants, shops, and other amenities just steps away from our door.
We love our neighborhood. It really started to feel like home about a year after we arrived.
We do not have a car in Tokyo. Fortunately, Tokyo’s subway system trumps both London and NYC’s for being super clean and very reliable. Most train stations have elevators and they are always fully functioning, unlike NYC subways where an elevator may be out of commission indefinitely. So navigating the streets of Tokyo with my boys in the double stroller is quite easy.
The other popular mode of transportation for a lot of parents in Tokyo is the Mamachari electric bicycle. Tokyo is quite hilly and you need the electrical assistance to transport yourself and one, two, or maybe even three children on a bicycle. I use mine for school pick-up and drop-offs, trips to the park, or to run errands. It has changed my life!
Being first-time parents to twins has been quite an adjustment. While in NYC and pregnant, we assumed I would return to work after the minimum maternity leave and send our child to daycare. When we found out we were expecting two, sending two kids to daycare was not an affordable option. My boss at the time assured me that being a full-time working mom with twins was completely doable. She would know as she had twin teenage sons and a successful architecture practice as proof.
On a side note, my main client through this firm also had twin teenage sons. All these families with twins were successfully working and balancing their personal lives. My future as a working parent of twins seemed quite promising.
A lot of my friends in NYC had done quite well in their careers and would buy property and subsequently would need an architect to help make their property their own. Luckily, during my pregnancy, a friend had purchased a new apartment that needed to be renovated. He also happened to have one-year old twins. So I partnered up with another architect friend and we started to design this twin family’s apartment on the side. Other projects started to pop-up, too.
The timing was great to start a side gig from my full-time job. My plan was to quit the full-time job after giving birth and grow the side projects into a full-time gig. I would finally be able to start my own architecture practice. Plus, this would have given me a more flexible lifestyle, since I would be my own boss. Everything was falling into place.
However, my pregnancy was not going as hoped. At 22 weeks, I was unexpectedly hospitalized, then put on bed rest for the remainder of my pregnancy. I had to stop both my full-time work and side projects abruptly. I was hospitalized an additional three times and pumped with all sorts of medication to prevent preterm labor and accelerate fetal development. It was the most stressful and most boring 12 weeks of my life.
Having had a previous miscarriage, expecting twins, and being over 35 years old put me in the high-risk category of geriatric pregnancies. I was so paralyzed from the stress that I could not do anything productive, yet I craved distraction to help pass the time more quickly.
I was prescribed anti-contraction medication for five weeks and less than 24 hours after my last dose, my water broke. A few hours later, my babies were born and immediately whisked away to the NICU. They spent a week there causing additional stress for us. And finally we brought them home and found a new level of stress we didn’t think possible. Not only were we first time parents with twins, our twins were delicate preemies. How could the doctors and nurses trust us newbie parents with caring for one, let alone two? The 12 weeks of worry about possibly losing my boys had to be quickly forgotten as caring for these tiny beings became our main focus.
Fast forward through four months of juggling two newborns, during which time my husband’s company asked if he would consider relocating to Tokyo. When we got married, we presumed NYC would be home for some time to come, so the opportunity was rather unexpected. And less than three months later, we landed in Tokyo.
Being a new parent is already overwhelming, so we thought we would throw in an international move and add cultural and language barriers to make our day-to-day living a little more difficult! But in addition to new parent difficulties and the relocation, all the things that previously defined me have now been tossed aside as caring for my two boys and husband have usurped everything else. We are very fortunate to have this unique chance to live abroad. This is an amazing opportunity for my husband’s professional growth and a great experience for our family. I wholeheartedly chose and agreed to this new path for my family, but I still often wonder and romanticize how my career might have developed these three years later.
Also, becoming financially dependent on my husband has been an added adjustment; I often feel like I am not pulling in my weight in this partnership. Additionally, I think my husband feels the pressure of becoming the sole provider for three dependents.
In an ideal world, I would love to find something design-related on a part-time or freelance and flexible basis. If there was a sure thing that I could do here in Japan, I know I could make it work. However, I have no desire to pursue just any random job for the sake of having a job. My boys require so much attention as they are in the midst of the terrible twos. When they are on, they are ON.
Friends and family back home had suggested I start a blog on our expat adventures, but I could barely manage posting one Instagram photo a week!
The expat community is rather transient. My initial experience into this world began with a lot of mommy-dating. I met up with different moms and their children by chance meetings in the park or through organized events and activities. We try to see if we have any connections besides the fact that we have kids. Luckily, out of necessity and perseverance, I have made some great friends. Unfortunately, I have already had to say goodbye to several families as they moved onto other new expat adventures of their own. So I often feel like I have to continue mommy-dating and it can get quite exhausting.
There are a lot of accomplished, well-educated, and interesting women out there taking extended maternity leave during their expat days and some who seem to feel this strain or limbo period of not doing enough. As if taking care of our kids is not enough of something to do, when I think it is actually the hardest job I have ever had. Knowing I was not alone in my feelings has helped me deal with this struggle. I have also been able to befriend working moms who are either Japanese or non-Japanese with a Japanese spouse, and it is interesting to see that despite different parenting styles and culture and maybe even a full-on work schedule, they all have similar feelings and struggles on the matter of raising kids.
Overcoming these parental struggles include doing non-kid-related things such as date nights with my husband, group dates, and separate boys’ and girls’ nights out. We hire a sitter as needed, but amongst a few other neighborhood moms, we take turns babysitting for each family so that one couple can go out and not also have to spend a lot of money on a sitter. Obviously, the mom who is babysitting has her husband at home to watch their own children.
In an attempt to create our own village, several moms and I take turns hosting kid dinners. The host family provides dinner for kids so that the moms do not need to worry about cooking dinner for their own kids that evening. Kids get to play with each other and get to know all the moms of the group, too. The hostess is left with the post-dinner and play mess and we rotate homes each time. We have simplified the menu options so that it is a healthy, but easy mass dinner to prepare.
Prior to having our own children, my husband and I naively judged our parent friends with their parenting style, time management, and home décor. We vowed we would never be like some parents. Hah. Seriously, all parents are doing the best they can.
With the upcoming move to Tokyo, we Konmari-ed our things before we ever learned about the tidying guru. We did not want to store anything in New York and only wanted to take things that we knew we would need and use. This included getting rid of over 500 art, architecture, fiction, and non-fiction books. In its place, we acquired a lot of infant and toddler toys and equipment as gifts or hand-me-downs.
I wanted the boys to have free reign in our new home. When the boys started walking at 10.5 months, they started to climb everything. We had to childproof our living room by removing every non-toy except for the larger pieces of furniture. Every week we would rearrange our spaces to make it harder for them to climb and access things they should not touch. All of our art kept being rearranged and moved higher and higher up.
I never really minded clutter before kids, but probably because my husband and I didn’t leave so many little cars or blocks scattered throughout our home! Our home ended up looking like an indoor playland — exactly what my husband and I vowed we would never allow.
Recently, we brought my husband’s and my toys back out. Our computer is on an elevated window ledge in the living room instead of on a desk. Our stereo has been placed on a higher cabinet to avoid little hands from destroying it. Although our boys now know they should not touch these things, they love to test us all the time to ensure we are constantly vigilant.
C and M have been attending an English language preschool on a part-time basis since they were 18 months old, as I needed some breaks from caring for them all the time. The few nannies we tried out had a difficult time handling both boys on their own without me there to help. But mainly, we wanted the boys to be in a somewhat structured environment and to socialize with other peers and adults. We have also been adding the number of days they attend as I find it harder and harder to entertain them on days that they do not have school. There are only so many playdates, trips to the aquarium or large play spaces I can take them to multiple times a week without burning myself out.
After school, we head to one of the local parks with or without friends to run around and burn off about two hours of energy left in them. Then we head home and have a long bath splash or quick shower depending on how dirty they got and how much more energy needs to be burned. This is usually the bewitching hour of h-anger (hungry-anger) tantrums and me trying to prevent a burnt dinner.
After the food fight — I mean dinner — the boys ride their indoor bikes and climb their jungle gym to allow time for digestion. Finally we wrestle PJs on and read books in bed and do a lot of chasing back into the bedroom. If my husband gets home in time, he helps with this part of the bedtime routine. After books, it is lights out and I sing for 15 minutes or until I fall asleep, whichever happens first. Then, eventually I sneak out or my husband wakes me. By the time I leave their room, I am utterly spent. I do not have the energy to form coherent sentences or even read.
I am eternally grateful we can afford to send my boys to school to give me a few hours without them a few times a week. During the time they are in school, I am cleaning up our home, running errands, buying groceries, and prepping dinner, so that I can spend more focused time with the boys when I am with them. More recently, I am trying to do more self-care and outsourcing. I spend at least one day per week on something design-related whether it is attending an exhibition or touring a building or reading up on design-related topics. I have lunch with various friends without our kids at least once a week. I recently quit the gym that I barely stepped foot into and started personal training sessions.
On weekends, my husband might take the boys out for a few hours, but we often all hang out together as a family so that I can see my husband, too. We explored a lot of Tokyo during our first year, but not sure if it is due to getting too comfortable or the difficulty of managing twins in public that we prefer to stick to local parks more recently.
Lately, my boys have started to interact more with each other whereas before was a lot of parallel play and vying for Mommy’s undivided attention. I love seeing them scheme together, play jokes on each other, and sing together. Their imaginative play has become quite creative and complicated. Now I see how the twin bond is forming. I miss their immobile infant stage and when I see or hold a friend’s infant, I contemplate a third child. However, the possibility of having another set of twins, or having a crazy day with my current boys usually squashes that desire.
Life in Tokyo is good. It is very baby and kid-friendly. I know my boys love our home right now and I hope they remember it as a place of love, safety, and comfort. I hope they remember me as someone who gave them love, safety, and comfort.
However, I hope my boys forget all the screaming I do! I hope they do not remember me as the one homeless-looking mom at school drop-off! I am still hiding bedhead under my bicycle helmet and the clothes I slept in under my jacket. Japanese moms always look immaculate in their full make-up and cute outfits at school drop-offs and playgrounds where their kids are getting dirty. I need to become proficient in Japanese to learn their secrets.
I wish someone had told me how having twins would completely change my life and that I will not find joy and happiness in every minute I raise my kids and would sometimes feel resentment, too. I feel like since I gave birth, my mind is constantly filled with very mundane details and tasks that are essential to surviving the day (Did I pack at least six diapers and enough wipes? Where is that school form? Where is my wallet? Where is my bike key?). There is no space available for creativity or inspiration to take shape in there. In retrospect, I find that the first year of raising twins was a breeze as they were less mobile and had only the most basic needs that needed to be met. I’m sure in a few years I can look back on this time and think it was a breeze, too.
Janet, you totally made me laugh out loud with your desperate hope that your boys won’t remember you as the bedheaded mom at school drop-off! Thank you so much for your honesty and humor today. It was fun to peek in on your life in Tokyo.
Friends, would you — or have you — done it? Moved to another country with two little, little ones, without friends or family…or a job? I’d love to hear your stories, so please do tell!
P.S. – Are you living with your own kids in a unique way? Are you interested in sharing your home and experiences with us? Let me know! We love to be inspired! And it’s a lot of fun…I promise! I should also mention, I have a goal to bring more diverse points of view to Design Mom this year. So if you don’t see yourself or your community reflected here, let’s make it happen — send in your details, or recommend a friend! Take a peek at all the homes in my Living With Kids series here.