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My Father-in-Law Made Me the Mother I Am

1ca7972b22873c9f527432d43bbf0e97By Tracy Slater

By the time I married my husband, I’d already fallen in love with my father-in-law too. Not in any weird way, but alongside all the passion and love for my husband was a deep affection for the man he lived with, the man he called Otosan.

My husband, Toru, is Japanese, and in Japan, it’s not uncommon for people to live with their parents until they marry. Toru was chonan, the oldest son, the one who should care for his parents as they age. When Toru’s mother died in a car accident, he left his company-backed MBA program at the university in Boston where I taught writing, and he moved back to Osaka. Soon after, I went too.

We moved into an apartment a few blocks from Otosan‘s. Most nights, I’d cook dinner either at our place or Otosan‘s, and we’d all eat together. My father-in-law spoke little English, and like many older Japanese men, he wasn’t what you’d call a loquacious fellow. But in between his silent welcoming of me as family in a country where marriage to foreigners can spell shame; his kind laugh at my dismal attempts to learn his language; and his grateful head-dips towards the tea I poured him after every meal, I grew to love him.

I may have loved my father-in-law, but I was terrified of having his grandchildren—or any child, for that matter. Not because of who or how Otosan was, but simply because having children is terrifying if you go into it with eyes-wide-open. At age 40, the year Toru and I wed, my eyes were pretty wide open.

I knew it was a myth that every mother bonds easily with her baby. I knew people who’d never bonded with their child, and one who said that, if she had to do it all again, she might choose not to procreate at all. I could imagine becoming one of these mothers.

Chief among my fears was how overwhelming parenthood can be (and every mother I’ve ever known—even the happiest—say parenting is overwhelming). I’d married the calmest man I’d ever met, in part because I wanted to keep some of his calmness inside me forever. What if the stress of a child were just too much? What if I were miserable, stuck inside an endless cycle of diapers, sleepless nights, shirts strewn with biological excretia?  What if I were simply a terrible mother?

But one night in Osaka, after I’d served Toru and Otosan their tea, I opened an old photo album. I flipped through snapshots of Toru and his sister as preschoolers, little legs pumping across a dusty playground. I saw my husband as a 7-year-old at a beach near Kyoto, a huge grin above an inner-tube. Then I found photos from further back: Toru as a newborn in his mother’s arms, wrapped in a tightly folded blanket, his mouth a tiny, perfect bow.

I felt a hunger all at once, a piercing in my stomach I’d never felt before. What started at my midrift shot to my fists and teeth, as if I wanted to grab those little baby limbs, even bite that baby flesh.

I won’t elaborate on the four-plus years of IVF in Japan that I underwent to try to have a child after 40. Or belabor on how confusing it became to realize that, while my longing for Toru’s child increased with each failure, my fear of motherhood never once diminished– the two seemed always to be dancing a kind of frenzied duet. Every time Otosan would look at me across the dinner table, carefully avoid glancing at my abdomen, and ask with widened eyes, “how is your baby today?” I’d always feel a pang of sadness to tell him, “I’m sorry, Otosan, but the baby died inside at nine weeks,” or “No, this time it didn’t work at all.” And then immediately I’d feel a pang of relief like quicksilver, like maybe with each pregnancy loss or failed IVF I’d escaped a fate I wouldn’t have been able to handle after all, no matter how much I longed for it too.

Still, by the time I turned 45 we were still childless, I’d maxed out on hormone injections, and Toru and I entered a new kind of bizarre and heartbreaking medical odyssey: the one where Otosan began to die.

Four months past my 45th birthday, we learned Otosan had advanced-stage cancer.  He’d had Parkinson’s-like symptoms for years and recurrent pneumonia for months. He’d quietly but firmly resisted going to a nursing home until the 4:00 am calls became too much for me and Toru, the biking through the night to his apartment where he’d fallen, or forgotten where he was, or worse. Toru would pick him up, bathe him, and put him back in bed, and I’d scrub the rug and pray Otosan wouldn’t notice.

Some nights, if Toru was away on business, I’d try to lift Otosan myself, helping him into the shower with my eyes locked to the floor. I’d kneel on the linoleum, raise a towel to his waist, and lower my head with repeated Sumimasen! (“Please excuse me!”).  I’d feel grateful for Japanese protocol, its firm hierarchies cementing Otosan‘s immutable dignity as elder and my eternal humility as daughter-in-law, shelter from the awful truths crowding the bathroom around us.

Then one night, Otosan fell in his kitchen. When the care-worker, or helper-san, arrived hours later, she couldn’t lift him, so she called us. Toru was on his way to work, and when I answered the phone, Otosan said quietly, “To-ray-shee, es-oh-esu”:  Tracy, S.O.S.

After I arrived, more helper-san showed up until we were four women fussing frantically in the early morning light: lifting, cleaning, tending, changing. When one wheeled him from the bath twenty minutes later, he looked at the quartet of women in his living room. Yare, yare, he said, “Oh boy.” A few weeks later, he moved into the nursing home.

But he only made it a few months there, and then the bouts of pneumonia started, and by his third extended hospital stay, a full workup. The doctors told us a normal person could live for maybe six months with his stage cancer, but with Otosan‘s diminished state, he’d surely die much sooner.

When the stomach bug I’d developed (from spending so much time visiting the hospital, we assumed) proved to be the heartbeat of a seven-week-old embryo, we decided to tell Otosan right away. “It might give him some hope,” I urged, and Toru agreed.

Otosan,” I said that afternoon, “I have a secret.” He looked up at me and blinked. He was too weak to raise his head.

Ninshin desu! Akachan-wa naka-ni!” “I’m pregnant! A baby is inside!”

Otosan‘s eyes went wider. He tried to clear his throat.

Itsu?” he asked. “When will the baby come?”

January, I told him, and he grabbed my hand and kissed it, and then he burst into tears.

I was in my 16th week of pregnancy when Otosan died. I’d just reached my second trimester, the threshold beyond which the baby would most likely survive, at least until birth. It was a hot Saturday afternoon in late July, and Toru dressed his father, now gone still in his hospital bed, two nurses at his side who helped cover him in the pants and button-down shirt he’d wear to be cremated.

A few days later, we gathered at the crematorium to bid Otosan‘s body a final good-bye. I felt my hand on the soft curve of my stomach as a uniformed man pulled a metal tray from the passage to the furnace, and Otosan‘s bones emerged, pieces of his skeleton still intact, lying in layers of white ash. I thought about our baby, the high chance of complications, birth defects, or disorders such as Down Syndrome, which the doctors had already given us a 1-in-5 chance of facing due to early tests combined with my age.

I kept hoping my terror of motherhood would diminish. But it hadn’t. I still wasn’t convinced I wouldn’t be miserable for much of the next 18 years. But I knew without a doubt I wanted this baby, and I would love it fiercely. I knew something else, as well. I knew, staring at the last remnants of Otosan‘s body we’d ever see, that somehow I’d find a way to be a good mother. That no matter how miserable or overwhelmed parenting made me, I’d still prize it anyway.

This was the gift Otosan had given me: a faith in my ability not just to handle but to prize the all-consuming demands of love. I thought about taking care of him as he declined, the stress and sadness, smells and exhaustion, the little moments of joy folded up in all of it. Everything made not just manageable but somehow also precious. I’d already done diapers and sleepless nights. And when it was over, I’d wished it could have lasted forever. Caring for Otosan convinced me I could care for a child, that I’d grown big enough in the shadow of his decline to be a mother.

Maybe that’s what makes love worth it, I realized. The searing desire to soften and soothe, to be together for as long as possible. None of this could diminish the overwhelming stress of care-taking, or of motherhood. But it gave us a shot at being bigger than all the ways love makes us lose ourselves—and then delivers us right back.

Our baby is now sixteen months, a curious child with a mouth like a tiny, perfect bow. She has no extra chromosomes, so far seems in perfect health. Bijin, the neighbors say, Otonashi: “She is beautiful, so good, so calm.”

Every day, Toru and I are both tired and happy that she finally came to us, and every day I’m also sad that Otosan will never meet her. I think about how she waited quietly through years of medical treatments and miscarriages, confusion and fertility-specialist fracas, as if waiting for all the fuss, the frantic rushing, to subside before making her own move.

And I think about how, in this assertion of that quiet, wondrous presence, she is so much like her grandfather.

Author’s Note: As of this publication, our daughter is now about to turn two and, as a bilingual speaker, has begun to talk in both English and Japanese. The other night, she talked in her sleep for the first time, calling out the Japanese word for “dog” or “puppy” (wan wan). As the American parent, at first I felt a tinge of dismay that her unconscious might swerve towards her father’s language, not mine. But then I thought, perhaps this is right, and this is good. Because I’m sure Otosan would be especially proud.

Tracy Slater is an American writer now living in the Tokyo area. Her first book, the memoir The Good Shufu: Finding Love, Self and Home on the Far Side of the World, was published this summer by Putnam and named a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Pick and a National Geographic Great New Read. You can find her online at and on twitter @fourstories.

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